Misinformation and Fake News
Misinformation is a type of fake news, which is false information reported by media outlets or shared by regular people. The term “fake news” describes a range of false information that can be separated into three distinct types: misinformation, disinformation and mal-information. Misinformation can be spread without ill intent, while disinformation and mal-information are used to deliberately mislead people.
Misinformation tends to travel quickly during breaking-news events. For example, after a man drove a van along a Toronto sidewalk in 2018, killing 10 people and hurting 16, misinformation spread. In one case, a reporter tweeted that the driver was “Middle Eastern,” leading others to conclude he was a Muslim terrorist. But the reporter based her tweet on another station’s interview with a witness, an account that turned out to be wrong.
The Misinformation Effect
Psychological research has shown that people’s memories can be made wrong by information they learn after the event they’re recalling. This is called the misinformation effect. For example, participants in one study were shown video of a car accident. One group was asked how fast the cars were going when they “hit” each other, while the other was asked how fast they were going when they “smashed into” each other. Those who heard the word “smashed” were more likely to later wrongly remember seeing broken glass in the video.
Misinformation can also arise when people share accurate news stories out of context. In 2018, the CBC in Prince Edward Island ran a local story about stricter punishments for drivers who illegally pass school buses. The story was correct for the province’s 155,000 residents, but wrong for the more than 5.8 million people who viewed it on Facebook over the following six months. The story found a huge audience in the United States. Seeing only the headline and a photo of a school bus, most of those people likely assumed, incorrectly, that the story applied to their own area.
Different Types of Misinformation
There are different types of misinformation. Manipulated content may come with a misleading photo that’s not reflective of the story. For example, a Vancouver newspaper ran an online advertorial with the headline, “Jagmeet Singh shows off his new mansion.” Those who clicked would have had to go to the 145th page of the slideshow to see an image of the federal NDP leader next to photos of a mansion. The photo of Singh and those of the mansion were real, but he did not own the home; it is a rental property in the United States.
Misleading content may package an opinion piece to make it sound like fact. False context can come in the form of a headline that is not backed up by the article. This is also called clickbait.
When stories shared online don’t clearly show the source, satire can be mistaken for real news. In 2014, the CBC Radio comedy series This is That posted a story to its website saying that police in Nova Scotia were banning drivers from eating breakfast sandwiches. The story included quotes from a made-up Halifax police officer, who warned that “you may as well be chewing on a gun.” That prompted the real Halifax police to call the CBC newsroom to complain about the story. CBC then ran a real news story debunking its own satirical story.
Avoiding the Spread of Misinformation
Many people share misinformation without realizing it. To avoid that, one should first click through to the story being shared. Check the date it was published and the website URL, and read the body of the story to be sure it’s what it claims to be. Search online for other versions of the story. If it’s true, other media outlets will likely be covering it. If it’s false, or very old, or taken out of context, there won’t be other sources reporting the same thing. If friends or family share information via text or in person, ask them where they got the information. Go to that source to ensure they’re remembering correctly.
Fact-Checking and Defending Against Misinformation
Fact-checking is the best way to tell if a news story or other claim is true. Websites ending in .edu are for registered universities or colleges, while official Government of Canada websites include the following suffixes: .gc.ca; .gc/en; .gc/fr; .ourcommons.ca; .canada.ca; .parl.ca. Official websites for universities, museums or scientific institutes are typically trustworthy, as are websites for federal, provincial or municipal governments. Reputable online sources such as The Canadian Encyclopedia, Oxford dictionaries or Encyclopedia Britannica can also generally be trusted.
If the site is full of odd claims or clickbait stories about celebrities, it should probably not be trusted. Political, business or cultural sites that clearly support one position are also suspect. Open websites such as Wikipedia, which anyone can edit, should contain sources or links that can be checked. Similarly, videos on a site like YouTube should include sources in the video or the comments section.
Reputable fact-checking websites can also be helpful in seeking clarification. FactsCan, launched in 2015, offers independent, non-partisan fact-checking of Canadian politicians and political news stories. Other fact-checking sites include FactCheck.org, International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), PolitiFact and Snopes.