Social media hoaxes: What's real and what's not?
As more and more people are working from home, employees might find themselves scrolling through social media out of habit. Social media is a great way to stay in touch with friends and family during times when we are forced to be apart. Unfortunately, social media is not always a trusted source for accurate news. During the outbreak of COVID-19, the amount of rumors, misinformation, and scamming links have exposed how much sharing content can be abused on social media.
Fake quotes, news articles, general information
There are many reasons why someone would want to spread misinformation. Malicious actors creating deceitful posts may have political motivations, want to monetize the attention, or even use these popular posts to distribute malware or link to credential harvesting websites. Many others have no ulterior motive and genuinely believe the fake posts they share, or enjoy deceiving unknowing individuals. Whatever the reason, this content usually shows up on social media feeds as quick blurbs from news articles, images with text superimposed over it, short videos, or anything else that can be easily consumed by scrolling through a news feed.
Content shared from a family member is more likely to be believed, meaning misinformation is spread much more quickly than it would from an unknown source. Scammers are quick to take advantage of this, and will create fake profiles or try to compromise accounts in order to increase the success rate of their exploits. Most of the time, however, users will willingly share these posts between each other without giving any thought to the authenticity of the content.
With content shared between individuals who trust each other already less likely to be questioned, fake evidence is less likely to be examined at first glance. In reality, the content should be analyzed much more closely since it has become more believable than ever before. The ability to manipulate photo and video content has become so advanced that distinguishing altered content is near impossible. “Deep fake” technology creates synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced with someone else's likeness. This means that a video of someone performing an action or saying a quote can all be manufactured while looking extremely realistic. This technology can trick people easily, not only making people believe false news stories, but also by scamming people out of their money in social engineering schemes. The rate at which deep fake technology is improving and becoming more accessible means that these types of attacks are likely to explode in popularity in the near future.
To combat the spread of hoaxes, sites like Facebook and Twitter have tried different strategies to help their user base stay informed – to mixed results. After the 2016 presidential election, where social media was used to perpetuate rumors and lies towards both candidates, Facebook tried to label individual fake posts as ‘debunked’, but the label actually increased the amount of times an article was shared. In order to combat misinformation surrounding COVID-19, Facebook is sending users who share misinformation notifications from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) myth busting site. This approach is trying to curtail the behavior seen after the 2016 presidential election, but it does not label the post itself as false,. Users just get a standard notification and link to the WHO’s website. This means that unless the user does their own research, they won’t be able to tell which story they shared turned out to be fake. Additionally, the success rate in containing these posts is much lower than one would hope. According to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, only about 10% of all fake content surrounding COVID-19 on Facebook was addressed, and only 3% of fake content on Twitter faced any sort of moderation. Even with the increased focus on hoaxes, there is much more work to be done to reduce these types of posts.
While the companies who own and moderate social media sites are trying to get this problem under control, it is ultimately the user’s responsibility to identify hoaxes news on their feed.
- Question the sources. Many articles will reference fake newspapers, studies, or won’t have any sort of citation whatsoever.
- Look for confirmation. Looking for the same content on different news sites can reveal if someone is just making something up on the spot.
- Check the facts with third-party sites like Snopes and Politifact. Unfortunately, fact checking has its limits. By the time a claim is researched and proven false, it may have already reached millions of accounts.
- Privately call out fake news you see in your network. Studies have shown that public call outs of false claims can end up making people more entrenched and defensive.
Having access to reliable and accurate information is a must when engaging with the challenges we face today. Being able to weed out unreliable or malicious content is the first step in getting on the right path.