A Quick and Easy Guide to Spotting Disinformation

(Alicja Nowakowska / Getty Images)

Misinformation vs disinformation: Many use the terms interchangeably. But the difference lies in the intent.

Misinformation is any false information that is spread. Disinformation refers specifically to false information intentionally created to mislead the public.

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For example, if someone in your Facebook group shares an inaccurate statement because they saw it on Twitter and thought it was true, that’s misinformation. If someone shared a statement they knew was false to sway opinion or cause chaos, that’s disinformation. 

Below are ways to spot both.

How you can spot disinformation  

If a video or social media post seems too outrageous to be true, it just might be. Below are some red flags to watch out for:  

  • Edited or modified videos: Look for visible edits or unnatural transitions in images and videos.  
  • Short clips: A video that only shows a portion of a longer interaction or incident may have been clipped to remove context.  
  • Emotional buzzwords or presentation: Analyze the writing and presentation of the content. Is it meant to elicit a strong emotional reaction? 
  • Political narrative: Review the post or story to see if it supports a known political agenda. 
  • Suspect sources: Check to see if information comes from outlets that seem untrustworthy or have a clear ideological bent.  
  • Lack of sourcing or attribution: You should always be able to verify facts. Reliable content will include sourcing. 
  • Dubious claims: Check to see if the claims within the content are plausible based on known facts.  
  • Visual comparisons: Compare the photos and videos in the content against existing, authentic visuals. 
  • Anecdotal evidence: If a story or post is completely based on a personal story or anecdote, it should be closely examined.  

An example of disinformation 

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court striking down Roe v. Wade in 2022, there was a lot of misinformation and disinformation spread online about abortion — including the safety of the procedure and its legality. For instance, anti-abortion groups posted the following false claim, which then spread throughout social media: Having an abortion increases the risk of future infertility. 

What are the red flags in this false statement? 

  • 🚩 Red Flag 1: It plays into a political, anti-abortion narrative. 
  • 🚩 Red Flag 2: It lacks sourcing and attribution.
  • 🚩 Red Flag 3: It is a dubious claim that raises a few questions based on what is known: If this statement was true and abortion put women in danger, why haven’t numerous ob-gyns and medical institutions spoken out about it? Why have so many women who’ve had an abortion gone on to have children?

How to check the validity of a post or story  

Once you’ve spotted some red flags, it’s time to verify if the content is accurate. The steps below are not just useful for journalists verifying information, but anyone suspicious of a dubious post.   

  • Identify the source: Was the person or entity that posted the content the first to do it? If not, see if you can find the earliest version by searching social platforms and doing reverse image searches
  • Research the source: Find out everything you can about the source. Does it make sense that this source would have this content or know this information?  
  • Contact the source directly: For journalists verifying information for a story, try to contact the source to determine its credibility. Phone or video calls are preferred, but direct messages may be sufficient.  
  • Analyze the content: For journalists, is what you are reading or seeing related to the topic or event you’re reporting on?  
  • Confirm what happened: Review coverage by credible news outlets and gather your own facts to ensure a reported event actually happened. 

An example of verifying information 

Let’s apply the verification steps to the abortion statement above.

  • Identifying the source: Does the person who posted this statement have any political or organizational affiliation mentioned in their social media bio?  
  • Research the source: Scrolling through their social feeds, has this person posted false information in the past? 
  • Analyze and confirm the content: Can you find credible sources to confirm or debunk this false information? 

To answer that last question, yes, credible sources validate that this information is false. Numerous studies, including a 2018 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, have found no association between abortion and infertility. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also says abortion does not increase infertility risk.

Ultimately, the next time you come across a post that looks suspect, follow these steps and tips to verify if what you’re seeing is accurate. You don’t want to share information that could be false and harmful to others.