A reader’s guide to fighting misinformation and disinformation this election season

Syra Ortiz-Blanes
·10 min read

As the 2020 election season lurches to its climax, disinformation and absurdities abound — magnified and amplified by social media.

“Political claims can go viral on social media at a speed that outstrips efforts to fact-check them,” said Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College who studies disinformation.

There are polls that are meant more to persuade and hoodwink than to inform. The internet is overrun with campaign ads sent out by unidentified organizations featuring doctored photos and recorded statements deceptively edited to say the opposite of what the speaker was intending to convey.

How does one navigate this jungle and survive the next few days?

The Herald spoke with experts and put together a list of resources and advice to help reader spot false or misleading claims. Although this article is geared towards political coverage, the resources and advice can be used to identify media manipulation, misinformation, and disinformation campaigns beyond these subjects.

Verify the source of information

Some websites are notorious for churning out misinformation. FactCheck.Org has a “misinformation directory” organized alphabetically of websites that have published false or misleading information. The Daily Dot put together a list of fake websites that have circulated on Facebook.

And Merrimack College assistant professor Melissa Zimdars put together a very comprehensive list of “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” sources.” While Zimdars is no longer updating it, the list includes a helpful guide for analyzing web pages’ credibility. Find the list and tips here.

Verify the author

Check if the story has an author. Most newspapers and magazines utilize bylines to identify who reported and wrote the story, except in editorials.

Search for information on the author of the story. Journalists will often have portfolios of work available online. Many publications, including the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, also have author pages with articles from the reporter.

Check the bottom of the story for a short biography, which many media outlets include. These author bios can provide more places to search for about the person, such as what other publications they have written, what honors and awards they have received, educational background, and additional biographical information. Do the biographical facts they provide check out according to other sources?

Verify the claim

Use a Fact-Checking Service

There are journalists, organizations and researchers dedicated full-time to fact-checking, and who might have already fact-checked the stories you are examining. Here are some that verify political news and figures:

Politifact, operated by the Poynter Institute, is a fact-checking website that verifies politicians and elected officials’ statements.

You can find information and facts by state. Here is the Politifact page dedicated to fact-checking what Florida officials say. Website users can also search for a specific public figure here.

Here is Politifact’s handy tool for fact-checking news and statements related to the 2020 election.

Punditfact, a Politifact branch, is exclusively dedicated to fact-checking statements from “pundits, columnists, bloggers, political analysts, the hosts and guests of hosts, and other media members.”

Snopes was initially known for debunking urban legends, popular culture myths, and internet rumors and chain emails. However, it has since become an independent, investigative fact-checking website that also verifies political news.

FactCheck.Org, a fact-checking project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, aims to be a “consumer advocate” for voters...to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” They also collaborate with Facebook to debunk false stories circulating on the social media platform, investigate groups behind political ads, and examine political messaging in swing states such as Florida.

The Washington Post runs Fact Checker, which has a fact-checking team that produces original analysis and measures the veracity of claims made by politicians on a scale of one to four Pinocchios. Truthful statements will get a Mister Gepetto, Pinocchio’s father. You can find the main page of their fact-checking reports here.

Google Fact-Check Explorer can tell you if a fact or claim has been verified or investigated by a fact-checking organization. And all of these organizations welcome reader queries and engagements about statements to check and explore. Go to their websites for further details on how to submit claims.

Go straight to the source

Herald education reporter Colleen Wright recommends that readers go straight to primary sources when reading reporting about public policy and government proposals.

She cited a recent incident when the Miami-Dade County School Board was a target of a viral misinformation campaign that tried to stoke racist and homophobic fears of a board member’s proposal to explore an anti-racism curriculum in the public schools.

School board members and their aides received hundreds of misinformed emails and phone calls, many profane. However, Wright said that the information circulated was quickly debunked by looking at meeting agendas, minutes, and meeting videos, which are all free and accessible online.

Many public agencies have statistics, proposals, and projects publicly available. Government websites can be clunky sometimes, but they hold valuable troves of data and information. Here are a few local and state government websites relevant to the 2020 elections.

The Florida Election Watch from the Department of State provides a real-time update on state-wide elections. The Florida State Department also has maintained an online archive of all election results in the state since 1978.

The Florida Department of State also has a candidate tracking system that lists photos, contact information, candidate status, and more candidates vying for seats across the state.

The Miami-Dade County Elections Department has important how-to information on many aspects related to voting, including how to request a mail-in ballot and how to become a temporary election worker. The page also includes sample ballots and useful statistics on voter registration.

Here is a primer courtesy of NPR on the ins and outs and controversies of voting by mail.

The Federal Elections Commission has a database on the campaign finances of candidates running in federal elections. The Florida Division of Elections maintains a campaign finance database. It can be accessed here.

Have a question on where a candidate stands? Politicians usually have extensive platforms and proposals on their websites. The public can also call their local office with questions.

Do your reporting.

Run a search to see if other publications are reporting the news you want to verify. Have reputable local or national news outlets written about it? Is it only this one webpage?

Think like a journalist: Scrutinize the quality and facts in the story. Consider the following questions:

How many sources does the story quote? Standard practice is to use more than one source for a story.

Are the names of sources included? (If so, run them through a search engine. Are they experts or have experience related to the story’s topic?)

Has this been previously fact-checked?

What kind of studies and statistics does the story use? Here is a guide to help people figure out whether an investigation is credible or not.

Check out the hyperlinks that the story uses.

Check for photo manipulation. Run a reverse google search to find similar images and the source of the photographs.

According to Mike Caulfield, a digital literacy scholar from Washington State University, false framing by “linking to a real article but summarizing it in a way that is deceptive,” is one of the most common ways inaccurate information spreads. Ask yourself: Is the text, photo, or video provided with the proper context? Does the content of the headline match the content of the story?

Subscribe to fact-checking newsletters and podcasts

If you want to stay on top of the most recent rumors and false theories that are swirling around or understand the impact of disinformation campaigns, consider signing up to a fact-checking newsletter or listening to podcasts and audio stories.

Newsletters

The News Literacy Project (NLP,) a nonpartisan nonprofit, recently launched Get Smart About News, a weekly newsletter geared towards the general public that “shares the latest examples of misinformation.” Subscribe here.

The Poynter Institute runs Factually, an accountability journalism and fact-checking newsletter. Sign up here, and skim through past archived Factually newsletters here.

Many fact-checking organizations and websites also have independent newsletters. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has a weekly newsletter review of political officials’ latest claims. You can subscribe here.

Receive email alerts from FactCheck.Org by signing up here. Politifact also writes daily and weekly newsletters.

Podcasts & Audio Stories

NLP recently launched “Is That a Fact?,” which addresses the impact of “toxic information” and disinformation on American democracy. The 10-episode podcast is here.

NPR has an archive of its fact-checking audio stories here.

Learn how to analyze polls

With the election season in nearing its climax, it seems like new polls are coming out every day. However, it can be hard to interpret what the data means — especially in a swing state like Florida, where numbers show that the presidential election could be a tight race.

FiveThirtyEight published a guide on how to read polls for the 2020 election season that can be found here. It also has a guide to spot fake polls and a directory of ratings for various pollsters.

The Poynter Institute offers a self-directed course — that is currently free — to teach journalists and interested citizens how to read and compare polls, identify reliable polls and evaluate polling methods, and examine and analyze survey data.

FiveThirtyEight offers a repertoire of aggregated polls, including for the U.S. House of Representatives, Presidential, and Senate races. You can find polling information from Florida here. RealClearPolitics also aggregates and categorizes polling data from different organizations.

Learn more about misinformation and disinformation

There are many free tools and resources available dedicated to combating disinformation and helping people become more discerning consumers of news. Here are just a few of them.

Mike Caulfield runs Infodemic, a blog dedicated to combating false claims related to the coronavirus pandemic. He has a basic fact-checking skills tutorial geared towards COVID-19 news, but that can be widely applied. The tutorial can be found here.

First Draft, an initiative against mis- and disinformation, offers a text-messaged based, two-week course called “Protection from Deception.” According to the organization, the class will provide “the knowledge and understanding you need to protect yourself and your community from online disinformation” in a bite-sized format. Sign up here. It is available in both Spanish and English.

The News Literacy Project recently made Checkology, its news literacy program, available for the general public. It offers five interactive courses as well as opportunities “to learn and practice digital verification skills.”

Report fake news on social media

Not only can you become sharper at spotting fake news, but you can also join the fight against falsehoods on your feeds.

On Twitter, users can report a tweet for being “misleading about a political election or other civic event.” Instructions here. Facebook has said it is taking steps to reduce voter interference and protect. You can read more about its initiatives here.

And beyond reporting to the social media platforms, letting colleagues know about inaccurate information circulating online can also make a difference, according to experts.

A 2017 study from found that “individuals who follow and are followed by the people who correct them are significantly more likely to accept the correction than individuals confronted by strangers.”

“Everyone’s an influencer in their own social network,” said Nyhan. “Everyone can help by trying only to share credible information and encouraging their friends and family not to promote misinformation.”

The Dartmouth professor encourages people to be polite when going about the fact-checking and to engage people respectfully.

“We all get fooled online sometimes,” he said.