misinformation illustration

What’s the Truth? Social Media Can Amplify False Narratives

By Lisa Ryckman | Sept. 21, 2022 | State Legislatures News | Print

In 2016, actor Bill Murray shocked the world by announcing a run for the presidency.

The story appeared to be from NBC, a trusted source. The image was professional. The article had an author, and it was tagged as news. The headline included an alleged quote from Murray: “I am running for president in 2016.”

It looked real.

It wasn’t.

“It’s a piece of disinformation that is convincing and persuasive,” says Sarah Mojarad, a lecturer in the engineering school at the University of Southern California who studies the world of social media misinformation.

Disinformation can be tough to spot, she told attendees at the NCSL Legislative Summit session “Rumor Control: How to Combat Election Mis- Dis- and Malinformation.”

But there are clues: The report appears credible, but it can’t be verified. The author is unknown or listed as “staff.” And it’s designed to elicit strong emotion, often anger or fear, or both.

Mojarad says despite denials from both Murray and his publicist, the story didn’t go away.

“The issue with disinformation is that once it’s debunked, it doesn’t disappear. The rumor continued to circulate for months,” she says.

Five months later, a Facebook post said, “If this is real, he’s got my vote!!”

Its veracity was easily checked, Mojarad says, adding, “If in doubt, don’t share.”

Intentions Matter

Misinformation, disinformation and malinformation all can be harmful, but they aren’t the same thing, she says. The difference: Intention.

“Disinformation is created to deliberately mislead or harm others,” Mojarad says. “Misinformation is shared by people who believe it to be credible.” And malinformation is based on fact but is used out of context to mislead, harm or manipulate.

Disinformation has become more sophisticated since the Bill Murray example, she says. Disinformers are very good at mixing fact and fiction. “That’s what makes it difficult to detect and combat.”

Disinformation can have costly real-world consequences, Mojarad says, pointing to a 2013 article, purportedly from the Associated Press, with the headline, “Breaking: Two explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured.”

Researchers who studied what happened two seconds after an AP employee denied the story, which was a fake, found that the rumor spread faster than the correction—and the S&P 500 dropped $136.5 billion in value.

The market recovered, but it could have been enough time for someone to take advantage, Mojarad says.

Research from the Pew Charitable Trusts found that 55% of U.S. adults are sometimes or often getting their news from social media, where the sources, credibility and quality of information can vary significantly, she says. And 82% of them had concerns over the impact of made-up news about the 2020 election.

It’s a sentiment shared by both Democrats and Republicans.

“The results showed that the percentage of concern was almost identical between both political parties,” Mojarad says.

Why does misinformation spread? Three key reasons, she says: echo chambers, confirmation bias and fake narratives. Fake narratives gain credibility in online echo chambers, where people of similar beliefs interact. Confirmation bias makes it likely the false information will take hold because it aligns with what the reader already believes.

When you’re trying to decide the veracity of a social media post, Mojarad says, just remember the acronym “SHEEP” before you share:

  • Source: Is it reliable?
  • History: Is there an agenda?
  • Evidence: Is there proof to support the claim?
  • Emotion: Does it rely on emotion to make a point?
  • Pictures: Are they used to garner more attention?

If you found you’ve shared something false, go back and delete it, she says.

Remember that on average, a false story reaches 1,500 people six times more quickly than a factual story. “This is true of false stories about any topic,” Mojarad says. “But stories about politics are most likely to go viral.”

Lisa Ryckman is an associate communications director at NCSL. Wendy Underhill directs NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.

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