Civic Notes Throwback: Civic Misinformation

"Civic Notes Throwback" is a series where we highlight civic articles from past newsletters (published in Fall 2020). This article was originally published on December 1, 2020.

By Abby Krishnan

This column was written in partnership with the Texas Civic Tech Project, an organization dedicated to the intersection of technology, civics, and society. Check them out on Facebook!

We’ve all been there - agape at a ridiculous news story, before we realize that it is from The Onion, and that it is a piece of news satire. While it's easy to separate fact and fiction, it can often be a lot harder to spot a piece of misinformation. 

Misinformation is simply, available false information. It can vary from rumors to deliberate propaganda to unintentional errors. Disinformation is about the intention of the distributor. While misinformation may not be intended to deceive, disinformation is distributed intentionally and often strategically. The source of the false information can often come with different intentions -- whether it be members of an opposing political party or foreign actors. 

This topic gained a lot of traction in the 2016 election, when fake stories circulated en masse and it became evident that some people weren’t able to tell fact from fiction. However, misinformation has only grown as an issue since 2016. The 2020 election was ripe with false information flying across social platforms, despite technology companies creating mitigation measures to stop the spread. This was especially true of information related to voting. 

"2020 has been a year like no other because not only have we seen a higher volume of online mis- and disinformation, we have also changed a lot of processes about our society, including the way we administer elections," according to the nonprofit group, Stopping Cyber Suppression. The group has already detected over 5,000 incidents of mass misinformation this year.

In Texas, there was a commonly distributed false fact that the barcode on a mail-in ballot could give up sensitive, personal information, such as whether someone voted Republican or Democrat. Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia, took to Twitter to educate people on factual information on the barcode. 

So what can you do? First, if you’re unsure about a news story, look to firsthand sources -- a legal filing, interviews, direct quotes, or a press release. Even when you don’t trust a particular news outlet, it shouldn’t be hard to check their work. You can often use their reporting to find their sources and primary information. Second, check out any links in the reporting itself. Third, find the context. Did this story omit important details, exaggerate on a true detail, or use a legitimate headline to lure readers in? And last, weigh the evidence. Understanding what the narrative of a story is, or what facts are left out, can help you decide whether to believe or share a story. It is important that we try to only share stories that contain reliable, verifiable facts. 

There is a cost to virality -- it can bring us hilarious cat videos, but it can also harm our democracy by spreading a false story like wildfire. Media literacy, and a healthy dose of Googling can often lead us to the right answers. 

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