Don't be fooled: How to avoid misinformation on Election Day 2020

Nathan Bomey, USA TODAY
·4 min read

Don’t get fooled.

Lies are expected to flow swiftly on Election Day and in the aftermath as the misinformation age threatens to disrupt civil discourse, cause Americans to question the results and even possibly set off real-world violence.

The bad news: There’s a lot out there you can’t trust.

The good: There’s a lot you can. Don’t fall for the premise that you simply can’t trust anything anymore. Experts say that’s precisely the goal of many disinformation disseminators.

To avoid getting fooled and sharing misinformation, experts advise people to take a step back during breaking news.

"Be careful with making snap judgments based on information that is clearly a developing situation," said Katy Byron, program manager of journalism nonprofit The Poynter Institute’s MediaWise, a fact-checking training organization. "The most misinformation that gets shared is during breaking news stories, developing stories – and the election and the results are that on steroids."

Keep these tips in mind and you'll be less likely to fall for falsehoods:

Design your media diet strategically.

Just like you shouldn’t fill your diet with junk food, don’t satisfy your information cravings with junk journalism.

Follow professional sources that rely heavily on original reporting and place the truth squarely at the center of their mission, regardless of politics. Approach social media and partisan media sources with significant skepticism.

Visit primary sources whenever possible.

This is especially key on social media. Seek out the original source of the information to ensure that people aren't misconstruing it online, Byron said.

In other words, don't rely on a news report or social media post that refers to another news report. Instead, find the original report. Check to confirm it says what it's reported to have said.

If you seem to be going down a rabbit hole of links and can't find an authoritative source that has validated the information, consider the possibility that the claims are false.

Cross-reference information from different sources.

Suspect something's up? Don't settle for one source, which is particularly tempting on a smartphone, where it takes a little more effort to check another outlet.

Stanford History Education Group founder Sam Wineburg, whose research has shown that even digitally savvy college students struggle to spot misinformation, recommends "lateral" reading.

That means navigating to unrelated sites to authenticate or disprove information from the original source.

"You really need to quadruple check everything you’re consuming before you take it as fact" during the election season, Byron said. "This is very emotionally charged event."

Don't reflexively trust people in authority.

Be skeptical. Just because there's a lot of truth to something you encounter doesn't mean it's not misleading.

For example, don't trust a political candidate who claims victory before independent sources have verified the win.

"Just because someone has a big blue checkmark next to their name on social media doesn’t mean they’re an expert on that topic," Byron said, referring to the logo that verifies a user's identity. "We always really push people to go to that key question of who’s behind the information."

Be wary of photos, memes, video and audio.

The rising likelihood of fabricated or misleadingly edited video, memes, photos and audio is a source of serious trouble.

Last weekend, a video appearing to show Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden forget what state he was in went viral on social media. But the video had been edited to make it look as if he made a mistake when he hadn't.

“Don't forward content from unknown sources,” wrote several experts for the RAND Corporation in an article about Russian disinformation. “Don't post content that you have not fact-checked. Be aware that even a humorous meme may have an underlying dark goal – to make you think less of another group.”

MediaWise bases its advice for everyone from students to seniors on three questions developed by the Stanford History Education Group, taken directly from journalists who fact-check information for a living. Ask yourself:

1) Who’s behind the information?

2) What is the evidence?

3) What do other sources say?

Using those tips, you’ll be less likely to get fooled during this election – or any other time for that matter.

Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How to avoid misinformation on Election Day 2020: Follow these 5 tips