By Monica Nieporte, OMNA President and Executive Director
Note: This column is available for ONMA members to run in their papers or online. To download a photo of Monica Nieporte for use with the column, click here.
By now we have all heard the term “disinformation” – but are you sure you would recognize it if you saw or read something that fell into that category?
I have had close friends and relatives forward me things they saw on Facebook or received as part of a mass email and I think we can all use a crash course in spotting disinformation. Or at least having a healthy skepticism at what we see on our “news feeds” on Facebook or get in our in boxes.
The first thing I want you to do the next time you are forwarded an email or see a social media post that promises to reveal scandalous or shocking “truths” is look closely at who sent it to you. Likely it was from someone you trust. This is part of the scam – get people to regurgitate this garbage to all of their friends and acquaintances. Because it “came from Bob," well, it must be true, right?
If it is a forwarded email, look down in the thread and see who sent it to “Bob." What is the original source for the information? Is it an actual article from a trusted news source or is it just a rambling “statement of facts” – usually without referencing where the information came from, in multiple different fonts and colors?
Understand, “Bob” may not realize he is passing along unvetted, unproven conspiracy theories. And if this is a social media post, Bob may not even know the person whose post he's sharing or be able to vouch for their credibility.
We can all slow down the spread of disinformation if we are a little slower with the “share” button or forward feature on our email and on social media. If you’re sure you trust the source and can identify it, go ahead and share it. But if you really have no idea where the information came from, you are in effect repeating gossip.
And sometimes gossip can have devastating consequences. What if it stops someone from getting a COVID vaccine that could save their life or the life of a family member? What if it prompts them to invest in something that is a scam?
We all have a responsibility to thoughtfully evaluate the information we receive before acting upon it instead of just automatically passing it on to our friends and relatives. What if someone suffered harmful consequences as a result of what you forwarded or shared just on a whim? Are you comfortable being identified as the “source” of that piece of information? If the answer is no, then the right action is to hit the delete button and not continue to give fuel to the high-tech version of the old-fashioned chain letter.
So, how do you know which sources you can trust? Put them to the test. Listen, read and see how many of their claims are discredited by other information sources a short time later. Reputable information sources are not afraid to let people know when they’ve made an error. Doing so enhances their credibility.
Does your information source present different perspectives and points of view? Do they own up if they make an error? Is what you’re watching or reading free of the host or reporter’s personal opinion? No? Then what you’re watching is commentary entertainment geared towards a group of people who want to hear their opinions reinforced. If what you’re reading has an opinion in it in the newspaper, that’s fine as long as it is on the opinion or editorial page. If it is on page one or the home page of a website and not clearly identified as commentary – be wary.
We are all consumers of information, but not all information should be blindly consumed.