Disinformation spreads online, causing harm to Canada and Canadians. Learn how to identify and fact-check disinformation.
On this page
- What is online disinformation
- Tools for fact-checking
- How disinformation works
- Additional resources
What is online disinformation
Disinformation is false information that is deliberately intended to mislead. It is sometimes called “fake news”.
Misinformation is false information that is shared without intention of misleading.
Any type of false information can cause harm.
If you are unsure whether something you see online is true, check before sharing it.
Disinformation can be hard to spot, but there are some common signs to watch for. Look for content that:Footnote 2
- provokes an emotional response
- makes a bold statement on a controversial issue
- makes an extraordinary claim
- seems too good to be true
- contains clickbait (such as “You won’t believe this video!”)
- uses small pieces of valid information that are exaggerated or distorted
- has been shared widely on platforms with a track record of spreading disinformation
These traits don’t prove that the content is false, but they are signs you should be wary of.
Consider doing a quick fact-check before sharing the content with others.
Tools for fact-checking
Find resources to help you identify and fact-check false information.
You can fact-check information you find online.
MediaSmarts provides these fact-checking tips to help verify what you’re seeing:Footnote 3
Use fact-checking tools: See if a professional fact-checker has already debunked the story.
Find the source: Check the link to see who is responsible for publishing the information.
Verify the source: Check Google or Wikipedia to see if the source is real and if it has a good reputation.
Check other sources: Do a search to see if other news outlets are reporting the same story.
Spot fraudulent websites
Fake news stories can be posted on fraudulent websites that are made to look legitimate. This is called spoofing.
These tips can help you spot a fraudulent website:
- Do a Google search for the organization and follow the link. Does it go to the same place?
- Check the Wikipedia page for the organization. Does the information match?
- Perform a WHOIS lookup on the web address to see who owns it, and when it was registered.
WHOIS lookup tools:
Spot fake social media accounts
Disinformation is often spread using fake social media accounts. The Better Business Bureau recommends these tips for spotting fakes:Footnote 4
- Check the profile photo. Fake accounts often have no profile photo at all, or a photo that has been copied from somewhere else online. Do a reverse image search to see if the profile photo is a copy.
- Look for recycled images. Fake accounts often fill their feeds with stock images and memes. If there are no original photos, you may be dealing with a fake.
- Look for typos. Many spelling or grammatical errors, or very little written content, can be signs of a fake account.
- Look at the account profile. Is it very new? Does it contain specifics about the person’s name, occupation and background? If not, be wary.
- Look for the verified badge. Some social media platforms have a verified badge, like the blue check on Instagram. If the account person you want to follow is famous or influential, look for the verified badge on their profile.
- Look at the engagements. Some fake social media account owners purchase engagement. If the majority of comments seem random, contain only emojis, or all come from one person, the engagement may be artificial.
- Look at the follower-to-engagement ratio. Account owners can also buy followers. If an account has thousands of followers with very little engagement, it’s likely fake.
- Beware of polarized political opinions. If an account posts only one-sided political views, and never reveals information about the person posting, it may be a fake intending to mislead.
- Watch out for phony reviews. If an account posts only very positive or very negative reviews of brands or products, it’s probably not real.
- Be wary of scams. Scammers use fake social media accounts to trick you into clicking on links infected with malware. Only click links you trust.
Conduct a reverse image search
A reverse image search can reveal if an image has been altered or copied from elsewhere on the internet.Footnote 5
To reverse search an image, copy the image, or the image’s URL into the search bar of an image search tool.
Search results will show if the image appears in other locations on the internet.
Image search tools:
You’ve fact-checked a piece of online content and discovered that it is false. What next?
Don’t share it: You don’t have to do anything at all. Just by not sharing false content you are helping to stop the spread of online disinformation.
If you do choose to take action, consider these tips from MediaSmarts.ootnote 6
Ask a question: Asking a question can be almost as effective as correcting false information. If you don’t want to do this publicly, you can send a private message. Try saying: “Are you sure?” or “Is that source reliable?”.
Correct it: You can correct false information by giving accurate information instead. Make sure your information is from a reliable source and be sure to show where it came from. You don’t have to repeat the bad information or tell anyone they are wrong. Just share accurate information that shows the facts.
Debunk it: If you can clearly show that the information is false, you can debunk it by saying it’s wrong and showing why. Don’t link to the false information or the original social media post. Use a screenshot instead.
Report it: You can also report the disinformation to some social media platforms by clicking on the three dots … and selecting “Report post”.
How disinformation works
The impact of disinformation
How disinformation causes harm
of Canadians who found COVID-19 information online saw content they suspected was false.
Most of us make decisions about our lives based on information we find online. Those decisions may be about our health, our finances, or other issues affecting our families and communities.
When we base our decisions on false information, the choices we make may not be in our best interests.
Even if you don’t believe it, false information causes doubt and confusion. It makes it harder to find factual content you can trust. It also may cause you to delay taking an important decision that could affect your wellbeing.
False information can also continue to influence your beliefs even after you find out it’s not true. It can be difficult for the mind to let go of a former false belief after it has been corrected. This effect is known as the continued influence effect and it is another way that disinformation can cause harm.Footnote 7
There is also the financial harm of disinformation. When disinformation spreads about companies, it can dramatically impact stock prices.
How your social media feed amplifies disinformation
Social media platforms are built to capture and hold your attention for as long as possible; this is part of their business model. They use social media algorithms to place content into your feed.
A social media algorithm is a set of rules that automatically determines which content to show you based on how likely you are to interact with it.
The more engagement (clicks, likes, comments and shares) a piece of content gets, the more the algorithm promotes it.
Online disinformation is designed to provoke an emotional response such as surprise or anger. This makes people more likely to share it, triggering the algorithm to amplify the content even further.Footnote 8
The more you engage with false information, the more that kind of content will show up in your feed.Footnote 9
Artificial intelligence and disinformation
New developments in artificial intelligence mean that it is becoming easier to create fake images, fake audio recordings and fake video. These are sometimes referred to as deepfake images, voice cloning and deepfake videos. These emerging technologies can create more and more realistic-looking fakes, making it more difficult to determine what is real.
How disinformation undermines democracy
Disinformation about polarizing issues spreads and can lead to division in our society. Disinformation about persons and institutions can lead to mistrust in those persons and institutions.
Disinformation influences the political landscape and can affect people’s voting decisions.
Over the long term, disinformation may even pose a threat to democracy itself.Footnote 10
Who is creating disinformation and why
Disinformation is created by different people and groups for different purposes.
Foreign states create disinformation to:Footnote 10
- generate support for their actions
- influence public policy
- influence voter decisions
- polarize opinions
- discredit individuals or public institutions
- undermine trust in democracy
Individuals and groups create disinformation to:
- promote extremist views
- spread conspiracy theories
- discredit individuals or public institutions
- influence public policy
- cast doubt on scientific fact
- promote a bogus product or scheme
- get you to click on links infected with malware
- make money from ad views
Ultimately, the original source of any piece of disinformation can be difficult to trace. Even if it starts as foreign disinformation, local individuals or groups may share it – whether or not they know it’s disinformation.
Explore these initiatives focused on countering disinformation
- MediaSmarts: Break the fake
- CIVIX: CTRL-F
- Digital Public Square
- Apathy Is Boring
- EU vs disinfo
- UN Pledge to Pause campaign
- Video Series: Think twice before sharing online content
- How to identify misinformation
- CSIS 2021 Public Report, which discusses Economic Security
- Foreign Interference Threats to Canada’s Democratic Process
Government of Canada efforts to fight disinformation
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