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Disinformation Around the Election: A Virginia Voter's Guide

voting booths
Although voting will look very different this year, experts say disinformation efforts haven't changed - and that the main danger remains "ordinary" people sharing content online without critically examining it. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

In another heated presidential election year, disinformation efforts continue to worry voters and experts alike. Although social media companies have stepped up efforts to stop Russian-linked disinformation, the problem is bigger than intentional deception.

Peter Adams, the vice president of the News Literacy Project, says regardless of its origin, most false information is spread by “ordinary people” acting “too quickly,” something endemic to the nature of social media.

“Platforms make it very easy, or frictionless, to share content. That’s how they get traffic,” he says.

It can be tricky for platforms to police this content. Oftentimes, Adams says misinformation is spread through real quotes or photos, but they’re presented out of context. “For example, during the recent wildfires there have been lots of pictures taken from years ago, and surfaced and pushed on social media as being from 2020,” he says.

Doctored photos and videos are also popular. Simple editing tools, like “just slowing down the speed” to make House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appear to struggle while speaking, have become “very common” Adams says.

Anything a social media platform does to slow down the natural impulse to share can help, Adams says. Interstitial pop-ups that ask users to make sure they’re sharing accurate information, or the fact checker warnings Facebook added to misleading posts, can reduce some disinformation.

But even that’s not enough. “They need to step up there and do more enforcement,” Adams says. “I also think they need to give users more tools to check content themselves and more reminders to check content themselves,” such as a reverse image search button on photos to help users research the images they’re seeing.

Adams also runs Checkology, a classroom project that teaches students how to recognize fact from fiction, for the News Literacy Project. He says there are quick ways to check for false information, even if the social media platforms can’t stop it spreading.

A first step is to search the name of any unfamiliar outlet or organization. He says, “see what you can learn in just 90 seconds or so about that source, if you don't recognize it.”

And look at the tone of a news post. “Is it designed to inform you, is it being fair, does it cite people who are in a position to know the information they're providing, or is it one sided, is it full of loaded language?” Adams says.

In general, Adams says trust your instincts, and recognize that trustworthy outlets don’t ask for trust; they earn it by showing their work.

“It tells you where that information is coming from, and it's transparent about that process,” he says. “So if people remember to look for that, I think they will be well served as they scroll through information online.”

*VPM intern Jakob Cordes interviewed Peter Adams for a radio version of this story, which was adapted for web.