The inspiration for this episode all started with a story I recently heard at work. A coworker that I hadn’t seen in a while came in at the end of my shift and as we were chatting and catching up, he relayed a concerning event that reportedly happened near where he lives, which is not too far from where I live. The story went something like this (maybe you’ve heard something similar before):
A little girl was almost kidnapped in our local Costco. The mom saw someone take a picture on their phone near her and then realized that it was a Costco security guard and they were taking a picture of a man that had been following the woman and her child around the store. Allegedly it was a couple that nearly executed the kidnapping. Someone had heard the man saying “That’s a pretty one” in Spanish while motioning in the direction of the little girl with her mom and then the woman, the other half of the kidnapping couple, had gone outside to the getaway car. Before they could escape with the young victim, security took their picture and the couple fled.
I interrupted my coworker at that point (no shade to him because this is a familiar story). I asked him if he thought that was really true because I have heard that same story many times. Sometimes it’s Costco, other times it’s IKEA. The next day as I was scrolling through Instagram, I saw someone had reposted the same retelling in their stories. I tapped on the post and it was a “REPOST FROM A FRIEND ON FACEBOOK” on an account for a local Hawaiian restaurant. The story had the same basic details and also included a picture of a slender, short, older appearing brown-skinned man, possibly Hispanic, with a big medical mask on his face. Pretty generic. Allegedly this was the man in question that was implicitly attempting to kidnap the little girl named Everleigh in the post. This post had tens of thousands of likes. It had spread like wildfire. I can’t imagine what it was like on Facebook since I don’t use it. Maybe more, maybe less. I shudder at the memories but I did skim through the comments. I analyzed the ones at the top with the most likes and replies. Nearly all of the comments were from profiles with pictures of white men slinging violent rhetoric in response with many stating that if it had been their child in Costco on the day in question, the older man in the picture would not have left the premises alive. Underlining the need for a “concealed carry” seemed to be a popular response.
I sent the post to my husband to see what he thought. He took one look at the little old man in the picture and laughed. He didn’t think that person would be capable of kidnapping a child at all, much less in broad daylight in a crowded area with lots of witnesses. We both agreed that it smelled like a hoax. The next day I went to look back at the post that I had DM’d my husband less than 24 hours prior and, not shockingly, the post had been removed. So how did this story get started? And if Costco security took the picture of the alleged kidnapper, how did it end up being “re-posted” on Instagram?
I searched local news websites. Empty. I googled it. Nothing.
But what I did find on Google a little farther down was related. And very interesting.
So the legend of kidnappings at Costco… It’s a thing. An urban legend. Or in what a New York Times article from 2001 highlights a “suburban legend.” In the article, “Angus Kress Gillespie, a folklorist at Rutgers, explain[s] that legends are called ”urban” to distinguish them from classic folk tales, which are almost always rural. The inclusion of the local Costco is what folklorists call localization, which makes the legend believable and sets it up for the surprising twist.”
I’m not saying that kidnappings never happen. Or that they couldn’t possibly happen at my local Costco. Or yours. I do have some questions.
Who started this particular recent retelling?
Was there any basis for this version?
Who has this kind of time on their hands?
The story was generally vague with several instances of using “they.” Who are they?
Who heard the man say something about “That’s a pretty one” in Spanish while motioning to the little girl. Was that a guess? Did the observer, whomever that was, actually speak Spanish? Even if that was what he said, how does that imply direct intent to kidnap?
Did the restaurant I saw that allegedly “re-posted” the incident attempt to drive traffic to their account? Their post certainly had a lot of interaction in its short claim to fame online.
I want you to think back about posts on social media like this or other topics that have later been deemed to be false, misleading, or inaccurate. How have you reacted to them? Are you quick to share? Do they give you an emotional response? And what kind of emotion? Outrage? Shock? Terror? A call to action? When you see that there are tens of thousands of likes or comments, does that lead you to believe that if so many people agree with the sentiment, that it must be true? If someone you know or trust reshared it, does that factor into your analysis of the topic?
I really don’t think that anyone enjoys being tricked or misled. But it can definitely happen. News reporting, even, isn’t infallible, much less social media. Have you watched the Netflix documentary, part of the Untold series, about Manti Te’o? Every major news source took his word for it that his grandmother and girlfriend had died on the same die, just like he told the outlets. No questions asked. No one confirmed it. He was unwittingly being catfished and didn’t have all of the facts himself when he made the claim. But all major news networks just took it at face value.
This Costco example highlights what was almost certainly a false story being spread rampantly online. Mis- and disinformation are so easy to share. With one tap on a phone screen, completely false information can be disseminated in an instant. What has in previous years been slow to trickle from mouth to mouth, mutating slightly with each retelling, has evolved into chain mail or forwarded email to now screen grabs or re-posting and can reach thousands of people in an extremely short period. It’s so easy to share and it’s just as easy to create. A relatively accurate screenshot of a tweet from what is seemingly an authoritative voice can be created in mere minutes. It doesn’t take some hacking sleuth that has spent decades on the dark web to make it happen. You or I can do it easily. No special software needed. Just an app, of which there are plenty.
So before we get into the nitty gritty of how to combat this pervasive epidemic of false information online, let’s lay some groundwork for what exactly is happening.
The types of information you view online can be placed into two broad categories: accurate and inaccurate. The inaccurate information can be further stratified into misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation. (Source)
Misinformation: information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm
Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country
Malinformation: Information that is based on reality, used to inflict harm on a person, organization or country
・misinformation: sharing an article with outdated information and not realizing it
・disinformation: a competitor that creates false statistics about you or your business to deliberately try to discredit you
・malinformation: hackers releasing emails from Hillary Clinton’s private email server that she used for official communications as Secretary of State. This was allegedly committed by Russian hackers and directed by Vladimir Putin to intentionally attempt to destabilize her campaign during the 2016 presidential election.
So information is accurate, inaccurate, and partially accurate.
Let’s talk about the partially accurate. Why is it partially accurate? Is it to make one side look bad? Or, hand-in-hand to make one stance look better?
A preference for one particular side or stance in media is called “bias.” Bias does not necessarily mean wrong or inaccurate. All humans have bias. No one can be completely unbiased. Our past experiences and personal ethics dictate our individual bias.
In the US, bias is often discussed in terms of political ideals—whether a publication is biased left, right, or center. I’m linking a media bias chart from Ad Fontes media that has classified nearly 2000 news sources in terms of their bias.
As a reader, you could consider reading the same type of information, maybe on the same subject area, from multiple sources on the bias chart to understand differing viewpoints. I consider myself fairly liberal or left-leaning and I do search out viewpoints from center and right-leaning sources of information. It is important to not constantly live in an echo-chamber of only listening to the same points of view and consider different opinions. Again, bias in media doesn’t necessarily mean wrong but it is important to realize what type of opinion might be intertwined in the news article you’re reading. Where are they coming from? What is the intent for the reader to takeaway from the article?
That leads to another point of discerning accuracy in media. What type of article is reporting this information? What are the credentials of the writer? Are they qualified through education or expertise to discuss the topic?
A news report that is filled with facts, names, dates, specific events, etc. will have a different intent for the reader. They’re usually more formal and depending on the urgency of the need to disseminate the information, could be very brief as more information is available.
An editorial, essay, or opinion piece in comparison could be much less formal. These types of articles can be informative (for example, discussing the impact of local issues on a community’s citizens) or entertaining (such as a comedic interpretation of an everyday topic). These kinds of articles can be more biased and are not given the same weight as fact-based news reports. They are not useless, however. An opinion piece could be from a respected expert in a field whose opinion could be helpful on a specific topic. Or an editorial could just provide a lighthearted, thought provoking read. Still valuable.
Some obvious less credible sources of information to look out for are tabloids that often sensationalize their subjects with the intent to grab attention more so than provide educational content. Blogs can sometimes be informative and may link back to information that is considered credible but are often opinion-based and informal.
Notice what I didn’t mention as a credible source of information: social media. Mainstream tech platforms and especially extreme channels that thrive on free speech (or thinly veiled hate speech, rather) are never a source of information. Crazy conspiracies thrive on social media like a modern, infectious version of the telephone game. “ I heard from a friend that posted on Facebook that their sister’s neighbor saw X happen” has become far too common. Prior to the internet, it took a lot more work to spread extreme views. Maybe a passerby had to intentionally stop and listen to a crazy person yelling on a street corner or wait to read a print article or even get a chain letter in the mail. Times have changed. Now crazy talk can be found on every corner of the internet and spread very swiftly with just a quick screen tap. With so much information available, it’s so much easier to become misinformed.
And social media algorithms are designed to continue to show you what you interact with the most. If you like, save, or share something within a general category, that tells the algorithm that in order to keep you interested and engaged and ON the app, that must mean that that’s the type of content you will want to see more often. The same goes for search engines. A user’s previous search history dictates the search results of the same terms on the same platform.
This is an example of a specific type of bias called “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is the “tendency to favor information that confirms your already held beliefs.” (Source) The natural inclination is to find the answer you’re already looking for. It’s easier that way. One doesn’t have to spend the effort wrestling with their long-held beliefs if they can find the answer they’re already looking for. You can and will find what you’re looking for. So how can we avoid falling into the trap of confirmation bias? Again, by examining multiple viewpoints. Considering and entertaining a differing point of view doesn’t mean you have to come to the same conclusion or blindly accept it as fact. Think critically before forming a concrete decision and forever holding on to it as the only possible answer. (Source)
Backing away from social media, and circling back to types of news and information sources available, another important component to contemplate is when results are presented. Whether scientific, medical, political, social, etc., results and outcomes can be presented with two terms that are frequently conflated: correlation and causation. Correlation is used in statistics to illustrate how two or more variables move together. Correlation can be positive or negative by showing how the variable move in the same or opposite direction. Causation illustrates how one event directly causes another event to occur. They’re often, incorrectly, used interchangeably. This summarization is the statistics-lite version of the differences but there are much more thorough tests that can be performed to determine whether variables are correlated or causality. (Source)
A nonsense example of two variables that move together positively over time are “Per capita cheese consumption” and the “Number of people who died by becoming tangled in their bedsheets.” In no way did one of these variables directly lead to the other occurring. I’m linking to a website called “Spurious Correlations” in the show notes that has some very interesting examples of graphs that correlate, or move together positively, over time but in no way are related or causative. An example of causation is that smoking leads to increased incidence of cancer. That wasn’t always thought to be the case but over time, scientific study and re-examining of facts and data have formed that conclusion. When you hear or read results, consider if one factor truly lead to the other factor occurring or did they move together over time as happenstance. Look at multiple sources and interpretations of the results if available.
Being media literate is vitally important to so many facets of our society. It takes effort. A user has to take additional steps to do their due diligence prior to just accepting the first thing available as the only truth or whether it merits any truthfulness. Before you are either a victim of being lead to believe false information online or a perpetrator of continuing to spread false information, there are some basic steps that a user can take to prevent this from happening. The following list is from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (yes, the same department that was enacted after the terrorist attacks of 9/11—it’s that important):
- Consider the source: is it a reputable news outlet for the subject at hand?
- Triple check the source: fake websites are designed to mimic a legitimate source. Check out the website name, logo, and “about” section to verify.
- Identify the author: is there an author even listed? That may be a red flag if no author is listed. If an author is listed, look them up.
- Inspect the URL: Is there anything odd or extra about the URL?
- Examine spelling and punctuation: Webpages with misspelled words, unnecessary ALL CAPS, poor grammar, and excessive punctuation are often unreliable.
- Seek alternative viewpoints: Seek out other articles and sources for the same topic. If there isn’t anything else available or lots of contradicting information to the original viewpoint, that could be a red flag for needing further research.
- Think before you share: Remember that false information spreads more quickly than ever. “Emotional and sensitive topics are often used to manipulate readers into sharing without thinking.”
The SIFT acronym is also frequently used to evaluate information online and to fact check your feed. SIFT stands for Stop, Investigate the Source, Find Trusted Coverage, and Trace to the Original. (Source)
- Stop: Ask yourself if you know the website or source of information and what the reputation is of both the claim and the website. Depending on your purpose, a quick check is sufficient before resharing a post but if you’re looking for more substantial research, you may want to verify more claims and sources.
- Investigate the source: Know the expertise and agenda of the source. Consider what other sites say about the source. For example on social media, are they a known source of conspiracy theories or eliciting emotional responses?
- Find trusted coverage: Find trusted reporting and analysis and scan multiple sources to find consensus. Look beyond the first few results. Remember that even online search engines utilize an algorithm and your previous searches will affect future search results.
- Trace to the original: Look for the source. Was the post or article you saw clipped in part from a different source? Was it taken out of context? Was the original source presented with an accurate representation?
I recently read the book “Think Again” by Adam Grant who is an organizational psychologist. The book has so many insightful examples of being willing to consider multiple points of view and always re-thinking how we’ve been doing things. One quote from the book really summarizes this topic of becoming more media literate and not being so quick to emotionally react to the first thing we read:
“On Seinfeld, George Costanza famously said, ‘It’s not a lie if you believe it.’ I might add that it doesn’t become the truth just because you believe it. It’s a sign of wisdom to avoid believing every thought that enters your mind. It’s a mark of emotional intelligence to avoid internalizing every feeling that enters your heart.”
The next time you see a post on social media or an article in your newsfeed, I invite you to consider stepping away from the platform you’re on before you share that information. Consider the source, FIND THE RECEIPTS!, go back to the original source, find what other sources say on the matter, contemplate what is the intention of the source in question, and even consider the implications of what sharing that information could be.
The internet is an amazing tool and source of information but it has to be used responsibly. Misinformation has very real world consequences. Becoming more media literate helps us prevent becoming a victim of inaccurate information as well as being involved in the spread of that false information.
Before you hit the share button again, remember to check that fact BEFORE you react.
Thank you so much for taking the time to listen to this episode. If this is something that resonates with you, be sure to share it with your friends and family or share it on your social media. You can tag me on Instagram @sowhynot-podcast.
As always, I hope you can use these ideas as tipping off points to channel the ambition, curiosity, and desire to create the life you want to live. Thanks so much for listening. Our time is so important and I am so appreciative that you spent some of it with me.
Other helpful resources:
Council of Europe Report DGI (2017) 09
Are You a Target of Fake News? Learn how to be a DIGITAL DETECTIVE
Forbes: Spotting Misinformation On Social Media Is Increasingly Challenging