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  • Pauline Hoffmann

There are on coincidences...or...

Something I get asked quite often is how do I recognize a social media post, for example, that may be suspect. I have a couple of answers to that. First of all, I am very selective in who and what I follow. I tend to follow people or organizations I trust - like the News Literacy Project, National Geographic, Unbiased Science, to name a few. You certainly don't have to follow the people or organizations I follow, but I will like you better.

There's something about that last comment....I will like you better. To be honest, it doesn't matter to me if we follow the same things. I pull this particular statement out because often we are looking for others like us when we search on social media. We are looking for our communities. I can see that I am developing quite a community here on LinkedIn and I am thankful for it. There are other nerds or nerds in training! Hurrah!

But it may be in looking for our community - seeking out those who think and believe as we do - that we may run the risk of needing a disinformation "vaccine." I know most of you are thinking, "Not me, sweet pea. I know exactly how to determine what's real and what's not." Good for you. Would it surprise you to know that sometimes I believe things I later find to be untrue? Even I sometimes fall victim to a scam or disinformation?

Let me share two stories so you know that sometimes I am a dumbass. I know all about internet and email scams and would never fall for one. Until you tell me I might win donuts. I can't even remember what the email said or what I was allegedly supposed to do but I saw "donuts" and clicked a link. Another email was allegedly from my boss. What was odd about that one was that he had just said in a meeting that he would be sending an email with XYZ attached. The email looked to be from him with an attachment. Of course, I opened the attachment. You can imagine that our IT folks at work love me. The second example I shared scared me because it seemed so eerie. It was as if someone was trolling our meeting and knew they should send an email with an attachment allegedly from my boss. The donuts, well, ..... donuts.

Those are examples of phishing scams. Are they also examples of disinformation? They may be. Have I ever fallen for a Twitter or Instagram post that was suspect? I can't think of an instance of that, but I as I noted I am particular about who/what I follow. I also may not be aware. That's one of the differences between disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is knowingly sending something you know to be false for some nefarious purpose or financial or other gain. Misinformation is unknowingly sharing information that is false or misleading. Perhaps I am guilty of sharing misinformation? You and I may never know.

That doesn't mean that I haven't seen posts that are clearly lies. Part of what we do as infodemiologists is recognize what is incorrect and try to correct it or at least try to convince others that what they are seeing and then sharing is not correct. It is not easy!

What are some warning signs you should look for? If you see any of the following phrases, proceed with caution.

Let that sink in. This is really trying to get you to stop and think. It makes it seem as though you are getting some sort of information that requires you to think, perhaps do your own research and challenge established beliefs.

The media won't report this. I know there is great distrust of the media. Research studies bear this out. I can guarantee that the media is going to cover most things that are newsworthy. If you are getting this sort of supposed "insider information," media somewhere will report it. And I should stress that legitimate media will report it. You won't likely have information they don't or won't soon.

Make this go viral or Share this immediately or Share this with everyone you know. Some derivation of those three statements. This is a scare tactic to get you to act so that you may have a sort of "savior" complex. I knew all of this that the media won't cover and I have to share. I am responsible for sharing it! I have to let my community know!

Do your own research. Normally I am in favor of people doing their own research. But if someone says that in a post, be suspicious. If I am sharing information as I do in this newsletter, I am not going to tell you to do your own research. I will have done the research and am reporting it to you. You can trust me. (Bwhaaahhaaaa - that's supposed to be how you spell the sound of an evil laugh.)

There are no coincidences. Actually, there are. This is another tactic to scare you into thinking that, of course this must be true because, what are the odds? What are the chances?

How might this be presented? What if you see a post like the following: (Please note the following post is completely untrue - I made it up. Please note that you aren't likely to see all the tropes noted above in one post.).

OMG! Watermelons are not local and the seeds are actually tiny microchips to track all your movements and manage your thoughts. They are grown by a coven of witches in Mexico who are trying to infiltrate the government and our churches. Let that sink in! My mother got one of these watermelons and now she sees drones outside her house all the time and she speaks in tongues. There are no coincidences! The media won't report this! It's too juicy! I mean, do your own research, but share this with everyone you know ASAP!

Did you notice my pun? It's too juicy? (I know, I know, nerd....) Also, the number of !!!! (exclamation marks). Everything is important! That's another giveaway.

Certainly there are other ways to tell if something may be considered disinformation. In future newsletters I will unpack them. I just want to let this sink in first.

What should you do if you see something like this? I would say it depends. I think our first instinct is to fire back with a post telling the poster how dumb they are. Bad idea. You may recall that I've said that no one likes to be called stupid. You can think whatever you like but sometimes words should stay in your head rather than exit your mouth.

If this is someone who is moved by data, you might share some numbers or statistics about why this is untrue. You might share information from experts if that is what moves them. Perhaps it is someone else in their lives that may sway their thinking. It is also important to understand why they may think as they do. Is there something that happened to them in the past that may help explain the behavior? The fake post is full of things that may scare people - witches, loss of privacy, lack of caring my the media or others, loss of control, change, seeded watermelons. Understand what is it that scares them. It is critical that you think about the audience and understand them.

Just as there are other disinformation tactics, there are other ways to combat disinformation. I will unpack those in future newsletters. Please subscribe to make sure you don't miss an issue!

Please also be on the lookout for my upcoming Disinformation Clinic on Tuesday, September 27 at noon. More information including how to register is forthcoming.

Now, donuts.

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