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  • Pauline Hoffmann

Just the facts...but how do you know?

This is the inaugural issue of the WTF? (What the Facts?) newsletter. You may find it on LinkedIn and Substack.

Welcome to the inaugural issue of the Data Doyenne newsletter! I am a communication professor working in public health. That's my very brief introduction. Visit my website to learn more, much more about me (

I am interested in dispelling myths; in separating fact from fiction; in truth-telling; in learning and knowing.

Each week I hope to share with you how to recognize disinformation and then what to do to help dispel it. I have heard from people that they think it is hopeless to try to fight disinformation. That with social media there is no way you can combat disinformation. I don't accept that. It is ridiculously daunting, yes. It is not impossible.

What is disinformation?

Let's start with the basics. What is disinformation? You often hear the terms misinformation and disinformation together. They may be one and the same depending on who is sharing, how it is shared, and why it is shared.

Misinformation is sharing false information without intent to harm. In fact, you likely don't know the information is false. Disinformation, on the other hand, is knowingly sharing information with the intent to harm and/or profit. Suppose I am feeling particularly evil and I decide that I want to start a vicious rumor. So I share this on my Twitter feed (warning: not true - not even a little bit): Holy cripe! Did you see that Biden has declared war on Canada? Justin Trudeau stole his lunch money. #payback

Suppose a student of mine sees it. He is outraged that Canada behaved in such a way so he shares the tweet adding his own commentary. He knows my credentials. He knows that I am truthful - or trusts that I am. That tweet then continues to get shared.

I just created a small disinformation campaign that could have deleterious consequences. I knowingly shared something blatantly false in the hope of starting trouble. My student sharing my tweet was misinformation. He didn't do it maliciously. He thought that a tweet coming from me would be perfectly fine and truthful. No matter what you call it - misinformation or disinformation, it could cause havoc and has in many ways.

That is a very minor example and one that you might laugh at and say, "Come on now, who would believe that?" Honestly, I find myself saying that quite a bit when I see falsehoods shared primarily online. And the examples of disinformation are endless. I should be able to write this newsletter forever!

How do you know if something is truthful?

I have resources! There are many organizations out there - and organizations that are incredibly good and doing good work to help dispel myths. I will share a couple I refer to often to get information.

In my classes, I tell students one of the best resources is The University of California Berkeley Library. It offers a comprehensive guide to evaluating resources including paying attention to the following (taken directly from its website):

  • Authority: Who is the author? Is it someone you can trust? (Keep in mind my example above, though).

  • Purpose: Who is the intended audience for the piece? Why was it created?

  • Publication and format: Where was it published? On social media? On a personal blog? In the newspaper?

  • Relevance: Is it relevant to the topic? What is the scope?

  • Date of publication: There are certainly seminal works that all researchers still reference (I am a huge proponent of Diffusion of Innovations - a theory formulated mid-last century, for example.), but, generally, the more recent, the better.

  • Documentation: Are sources cited? Who did they cite?

A word of warning....the above are useful guidelines but they may not be enough. Recently, I asked students in class to share a really bad data visualization. One student shared a graph from a source that cited data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The data sounded and looked suspect to me so I went to the CDC website to find the data referenced. Not there. Completely made up. Here was a guy who has an online following sharing "data" from a credible source. Data that doesn't exist. But he said it came from the CDC. Due diligence is required. If something seems suspect, check it out. Don't accept everything at face value.

I shared the above bulleted list to get you thinking. In future newsletters, I will break each down more specifically. Also - data visualization! Expect me to also talk about this.

How do you handle disinformation when you see it?

This is the million dollar question. Seriously, if I could answer this definitively, I'd have millions of dollars. (I would set up a foundation to combat disinformation - after some traveling.)

Let's tackle the example I gave in this newsletter. Expect that I will share additional tactics in future newsletters.

Let's suppose I am a friend of the student who shared my terribly untrue tweet about war with Canada. The first thing you might do is go through the bulleted list above. Who originated the tweet? Oh, his professor. Crap. She has some knowledge and clout and the item seems recent but this still seems suspect. I might then check reputable news outlets in the U.S. and Canada to see if anything is being reported. If the U.S. were to go to war with Canada, there would be news coverage. Why would this professor be the first to know?

I might then reach out to him and say, "Can you even imagine if we were to go to war with Canada? I hope it would take more than stolen lunch money, but stranger things have happened. I did do some checking and I don't see this in any of the major news sources so it might not be true. I know you trust your professor but what are the chances she would know before anyone else?"

Notice that I didn't say something like, "What kind of stupid are you? Do you really believe that?" It turns one likes to be called stupid. It helps to know your audience. What do they think? How do they feel? What motivates them?

(You can also expect that I will do a deep dive into audience understanding in future newsletters and master classes. Stay on the edge of your seats for that!)

Additional Resources

The following are two sites I frequent and I encourage you to do so as well.

News Literacy Project is a nonpartisan education nonprofit, is building a national movement to advance the practice of news literacy throughout American society, creating better informed, more engaged and more empowered individuals — and ultimately a stronger democracy. (This description is taken directly from its website. I cannot recommend this site more highly.)

Our World in Data whose mission is to publish the “research and data to make progress against the world’s largest problems”. (This description is taken directly from its website. If you are a data nerd or just curious, you may lost on this site. So much fun information!)

Those are two outlets to get you started. I have many more and will share in future newsletters.

Thank you for reading my newsletter. I am glad you found me. If you like this newsletter, please subscribe and share! Also, comment. I value feedback. If you have questions or concerns, I'd love to hear them. I am an educator, after all.

Remember, stay curious.

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