Defeating misinformation and disinformation starts with learning how to spot them.
Often the most viral and persuasive examples of misinformation or disinformation is based on some element of truth, or at least has some truthful facts and data points that support it. That’s what makes it believable – and especially problematic.
Misinformation is often neither 100% true nor 100% false, or it relies on narrow interpretations of what statements mean that others may define differently. Good examples that were (and still are) repeated widely are the claims that the 2020 election was stolen and the charge that Jan. 6 rioters beat a police officer to death with a fire extinguisher.
So as you watch for disinformation and fake news – deliberately deceptive content – be aware that you should also watch for misleading information (aka misinformation), which is often driven by media bias and political agendas.
Below are some tips, tools, and real-life examples to help you learn how to spot and avoid misinformation, disinformation and fake news.
Misinformation and Disinformation
How to Spot it Online
- Check multiple sources
- Research writers and sources
- Know the difference between primary and secondary sources
- Click on hyperlinks
- Wait for evidence
- Read past the headlines
- Watch for partisan bias
- Be skeptical of labels
- Trust your instincts
- Train your brain
Check multiple sources
TIP: This is the oldest trick in the book.
If you can’t find more than one source that’s reported something as fact, it’s best to be skeptical of it until more information comes out. The most trustworthy information has been verified by multiple sources. Since many examples of misinformation or misleading information are reinforced by sources with similar political agendas or other kinds of bias, it is best to find alternative sources which have different biases.
TOOL: Use the AllSides Balanced Search to quickly see if other sources have reported the same information. Refer to AllSides Media Bias Ratings to find sources with different biases.
EXAMPLE: In June 2022, USA TODAY (Lean Left bias) deleted 23 articles from its website after an internal investigation found that the reporter who wrote them used fabricated sources.
According to the website, its audit followed an external corrections request, and “revealed that some individuals quoted were not affiliated with the organizations claimed and appeared to be fabricated.” If you double-checked one of the fabricated sources yourself by using a search engine or looking for them on social media, you may have uncovered the misinformation yourself!
Research writers and sources
TIP: Can you easily identify who owns a publication or how it makes money? Does the writer of an article actually have expertise on a subject? Do they have connections or possible political biases? Have they ever openly advocated for government policies, stated their political positions, or worked for an organization with a political agenda? What can you learn about their worldview and political leanings?
A lack of information about this doesn’t always mean a source isn’t trustworthy. But context about ownership and funding is important when considering why sources cover certain stories or details, and information about a writer’s personal biases and beliefs is relevant when considering why they focus on certain topics or perspectives. Sometimes, bias and misinformation in news is born from the agendas of the entities that fund those sources.
TOOL: Use the ICANN Lookup website to see who owns a website and when it was established. And scan through a news website’s About pages to see if they disclose information about their funding model. You can also find ownership information about news sources at AllSides - just click on the name of the source within articles or within the Media Bias Ratings to learn more. For individual writers, peruse their public social media accounts, their other writings, and maybe even their LinkedIn profile to get an idea of who they are.
EXAMPLE: A supposed “international relations senior analyst” for the Department of Labor wrote op-eds published in Washington Examiner (Lean Right bias), Newsmax (Right bias), RealClearPolitics (Center bias) and The National Interest (Center bias). But he never existed.
An investigation by the Daily Beast (Left bias) revealed that the writer’s credentials and social media profiles were bogus. The Washington Examiner deleted its article and issued an editor’s note. Newsmax deleted the articles without explicit mention of the misinformation.
If you looked up the writer yourself, you would have likely reached a similar conclusion about their merit.
Discern between primary and secondary sources
TIP: Consider whether or not a piece of information is coming through a firsthand source or a secondhand source.
A primary source of information is a firsthand, eyewitness account; it has direct access to the subject and firsthand information. Examples include a video of an event, a photograph, a published study, the original text of a law, court records, police reports, data from a survey or poll, an interview transcript, or direct observation. Primary information has not been filtered through another person or entity.
A secondary source of information is a step removed from a primary source. It is essentially interpretation, analysis, or a secondhand account about a primary source. Secondary sources include op-eds, political commentary, analysis essays, biographies, newspapers, or someone conveying what someone else said. Pay attention to whether what you are reading is coming from a firsthand or secondhand source.
TOOL: If you are unsure if information is true, try to track down the original, primary source. For example, if someone says new legislation will “erode our freedoms,” read the original text of the bill to verify for yourself what it does. If someone says a politician “insulted his opponent,” find an unedited video of his remarks to decide for yourself if this interpretation is true.
EXAMPLE: In summer 2020, some news outlets reported that then-president Donald Trump suggested injecting bleach to kill the COVID-19 coronavirus. But those who viewed a transcript or watched the original video of Trump’s comments would discover he did not do this.
Rolling Stone (Left bias) at the time wrote, “What Would Happen to Your Body If You Actually Injected Bleach?” A year later, Politico (Lean Left bias) ran the headline, “It’s been exactly one year since Trump suggested injecting bleach. We’ve never been the same.” In search results, an Uproxx headline reads, “Trump Suggested Drinking Bleach To Cure COVID One Year Ago Today.” However, when the article page is viewed, the headline is, “One Year Later, People Are Still In Disbelief About Trump’s ‘Craziest And Most Surreal’ Press Conference.”
Click on hyperlinks
TIP: Writers can use links to make it seem like they have evidence for their points – even if they don’t.
Click hyperlinks to see for yourself if the linked information really backs up whatever assertion the writer is making. Did the writer accurately reflect what is written in the source material, or did they spin or distort it to back up their point?
TOOL: Once you click on a hyperlink to go to the primary source, use the “Ctrl+F” or “Command+F” key code to quickly search a page for a word or phrase.
EXAMPLE: An Epoch Times (Lean Right bias) article published in March 2022 said that a recent study showed how “the messenger RNA (mRNA) from Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is able to enter human liver cells and is converted into DNA.” But the study didn’t actually say that.
HealthFeedback.org, which investigates health-related claims online using reviews from doctors and medical professionals, explained that “the experimental system used in the study is artificial. For example, it used liver cancer cells growing in the laboratory, which aren’t representative of healthy cells or a human being, to study whether the vaccine mRNA was reverse-transcribed. The study’s results therefore cannot be extrapolated to people.”
If you’d accessed the study and conducted a page search for the specific wording used by The Epoch Times, you would have come up short, thus giving you grounds to treat the information more skeptically on your own.
Wait for evidence
TIP: Some stories initially reported as true turn out to be false.
That can be for many reasons, such as: more information came out, the reporter was biased, or partisan loyalties led them to discredit a certain source or piece of information. Sometimes, it’s best to wait for evidence.
TOOL: Monitor the news on an ongoing basis to see if more information comes out or a story is retracted. By reading sources across the political spectrum on an ongoing basis or refusing to settle on a personal belief or opinion until more information comes out, you can avoid spreading or buying into false stories and claims.
EXAMPLE: A 2021 New York Times (Lean Left bias) report on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot claimed that Capitol Police Officer Brian D. Sicknick was bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The claim was repeated by media outlets including MSNBC and CNN.
However, the District’s chief medical examiner later ruled that Sicknick suffered two strokes and died of natural causes a day after the January 6 riot at the Capitol, meaning the New York Times’ claim was false.
Read past the headlines
TIP: Headlines don’t always match stories.
Sometimes, they are crafted specifically to shock, grab your attention, and get you to click, but distort reality in the process. This is especially true when using social media or just browsing the homepages of big news sources, which sometimes use different (and often more emotive) headlines on their homepage than they do on the actual article.
TOOL: One 2016 study from Cambridge University says that “59% of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked.” You should actually click on headlines and read the body text to see if the headline accurately represents the content – don’t just read a headline and assume it is true, or base your entire opinion off a headline without reading the whole story!
EXAMPLE: In May 2021, after the Black Lives Matter activist organization tweeted a statement saying it “stands in solidarity with Palestinians,” Fox News (Right bias) reportedly issued a headline in a tweet that said, “Black Lives Matter says it stands with Hamas terrorists in Israeli conflict.” However, Fox News’ article did not back up the Twitter headline.
While some screenshots circulate online, AllSides can’t independently confirm Fox’s Twitter headline. However, it’s true that news outlets sometimes use different headlines on social media, homepages, and article pages. Fox News’ Twitter headline would be an example of how sensationalism and unsubstantiated claims can lead to misleading headlines.
Watch for partisan bias
TIP: Partisan bias can influence what information reporters accept or reject.
If a particular story or piece of information does not suit the agenda of their side of the political aisle, their partisan loyalties can override fair and accurate reporting. Being aware of this can help you determine whether a reporter’s partisan leanings may be influencing how or whether they report on a particular story.
TOOL: Refer to AllSides’ Media Bias Ratings™ to determine if a source or writer has a particular political leaning.
EXAMPLES: In November 2021 in Waukesha, Wisconsin, at least six people were killed and 62 were injured after a man drove an SUV through a Christmas parade. Police charged Darrell Brooks Jr. with 76 counts, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide. Some on the right argued that CNN (Left bias) and the Washington Post (Lean Left bias) used passive voice to take the focus off the perpetrator and did not include his race in their reporting, despite widely reporting the race of other mass killers, in order to suit political narratives. “It would not fit their narrative that 'White supremacists' are the greatest threat of domestic terrorism," Cornell Law School professor and media critic William A. Jacobson told Fox News Digital.
In Oct. 2021, Breitbart (Right bias) ran the headline, “School Board Group Asks Biden’s Help with Anti-CRT ‘Domestic Terrorist’ Parents.” The headline seems to insinuate that the National School Board Association (NSBA) called parents who are against the teaching of critical race theory concepts in schools "domestic terrorists." The group's letter asked the Biden administration to investigate whether alleged threats against school board members “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” (a choice of words that the group later apologized for and retracted), but it didn't specifically label parents who are against CRT as "domestic terrorists." Here, Breitbart's headline used quotes in a misleading way to make it sound like NSBA explicitly called parents "domestic terrorists."
Be skeptical of labels
TIP: Occasionally, "misinformation," "disinformation," "fake news," and similar terms can be used in a misleading way. Labeling something as misinformation when it isn't is misleading!
TOOL: This is when it's important to stop skimming and read line-by-line.
Is a source presenting clear and verifiable evidence for its "misinformation" claim? Is it just quoting someone else who's making the claim? Or is there a total lack of evidence? These terms carry a heavy connotation, and because they can often be misused, you shouldn't take them at face value unless they're alongside clear evidence and context.
Just because a professor or scientist or politician or CEO says something is misinformation doesn't mean it is. If they have evidence, that helps, but where did it come from? An independent research group, or an entity with questionable allegiances? Understand that power lies in information, and that influential stakeholders will gladly mislead the public to wield it.
EXAMPLE: Proponents of the COVID-19 lab leak theory were often portrayed as conspiracy theorists by journalists and politicians early in the pandemic. Later, they were at least partially vindicated as more information came out about the possibility that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) in China.
Trust your instincts
TIP: If something doesn’t feel right to you at first glance, look into it a bit more.
You won’t always be right – sometimes the news really is that crazy or you get fooled by satire – but other times, you might uncover misinformation. There might also be times when you get the sense that a certain perspective or relevant context is missing, like when some AllSides team members noticed media outlets relying on incomplete data to portray a rise in racist violence against Asian Americans.
Luckily, it can be easy to fill in the blanks with a few minutes of extra research!
TOOL: That’s another good time to use the AllSides Balanced Search to see what other voices and sources across the political spectrum have said about the issue. Bias by omission is a form of misinformation, since it leaves you with an incomplete idea of the story. And when you come across a source and their perspective when reading an article, always ask yourself: is there another side of this that I’m not seeing here?
EXAMPLE: Satirical content from humor websites like The Onion (Lean Left bias) and The Babylon Bee (Lean Right bias) has at times been mistakenly labeled as misinformation by fact-checkers.
Use common sense – if something strikes you as too outrageous to even possibly be real, there’s a good chance you were almost fooled by clever online satire. And don’t make the mistake of sharing one of these posts under the impression that it’s real – then you’ll be the one spreading misinformation!
Train your brain
TIP: A study from Google researchers published by Science Advances in August 2022 suggests that “technique-based inoculation videos” can help people build resistance against misinformation and media manipulation. And just like studying subjects in school can help you learn more about that topic, studying misinformation and misleading media tactics will help your brain recognize them more quickly.
TOOL: Watch the five videos developed by the researchers, which seek to provide “inoculation” against five types of misinformation: emotional language; incoherence (distortion through illogical arguments); false dichotomies (when an issue is presented as “either-or,” even if more choices exist); scapegoating (when a person or group is blamed incorrectly for a particular problem); and ad-hominem attacks (when debates about issues devolve into personal attacks). And definitely refresh yourself on our How to Spot 16 Types of Media Bias guide, since there’s often overlap!
Editor's Note, 11/25/22: After feedback from our audience, the example from Breitbart under the "Watch for partisan bias" section was updated to more accurately explain the potential misinformation at play.