Matt Venezia is a sophomore studying biology with a minor in writing.
The rise of social media in the early 2000s allowed Instagram and other platforms to become hotspots for activism and sharing information. Users today are taking advantage of media spaces to have conversations about relevant issues like COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
People will often post “threads” informing others on a topic through apps such as Twitter or Instagram. For example, this Instagram account informed its followers about the alarming disparity of prison sentences between different races. It seems straightforward, but most threads don’t come from traditionally reputable sources. Instead, they often come from individuals unaffiliated with news media or social media accounts reposting those individuals’ posts.
Unfortunately, over the past few months, I found some of these widely-shared threads have contained fallacies ranging from harmless to potentially harmful.
An Instagram account with thousands of followers, incorrectly concluded that overpriced industrial cabinets meant children were being trafficked by the company Wayfair, went viral on both Twitter and Instagram earlier this month. The fringe right-wing conspiracy group QAnon, which believes President Donald Trump is using his power in Washington to expose a high-level child sex-trafficking ring that runs our society and worships Satan, quickly picked up on the Reddit-born conspiracy theory.
From a QAnon page, hundreds of thousands of people on Instagram liked and shared the post, which has been confirmed by numerous fact-checking sites as false. The post was not meant to raise awareness about the serious issue of child sex-trafficking, which impacts thousands of American children. Rather, it was meant to expose a non-existent sex-trafficking ring and further QAnon’s political agenda, which only concerns ridding society of this supposed ring of pedophiles by supporting Trump. Disturbingly, the post went viral on Instagram overnight.
In a similar fashion to the Wayfair conspiracy posts, social media users recently spread false information and encouraged viewers to watch a documentary called “Plandemic,” which framed the COVID-19 pandemic as planned. Other posts have made an array of wildly untrue claims regarding COVID-19, from understating its lethality to completely denying its existence. Many have also made unfounded accusations, that Bill Gates has killed children abroad with his vaccinations, and falsely accused him of trying to kill again with a potential vaccine for COVID-19.
Every one of these conspiracy theories has seen some form of widespread traction. QAnon is gaining traction as a viable platform for some Republican congressional candidates. Pew Research found “most Americans have heard of the conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 pandemic was planned” and of those who had heard of it, one third said it was “probably or definitely true.” Similarly, a White House petition calling for the investigation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation “For Medical Malpractice & Crimes Against Humanity” has over 630,000 signatures — the most of any currently active White House petition as of Aug. 6.
Clearly misinformation has a vast reach online, and it has the potential to spread very quickly. Instagram and Twitter’s responses to these posts and others in the past suggest that social media sites will likely not fact-check a post until it is viral or may not fact-check it at all. In truth, Instagram has only been working with third-party fact-checkers to slow the spread of misinformation since 2019, and the system is very far from perfect, as political speech is not being fact-checked and false flags occur often.
So then it is up to individuals, like you and me, to fact-check what is being shared. It is also imperative to fact-check ourselves before sharing a post on Instagram or Twitter.
What I have found to be most helpful before I choose to share any information, is to do a quick Google search to find out if what I am reading comes from a reputable news source, such as the Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, United Nations News, NPR, Wall Street Journal, BBC and others. I believe it is important to determine if these sources are covering the topic. If not, it is probably best to wait for the professionals to cover it before sharing any potential misinformation.
You can also find a fact-checking site, such as Snopes or FactCheck.org, and assess if a statement is true here. Additionally, researching peer-reviewed papers from PubMed or searching Pew Research for insight on public opinions are both viable options for research outside the realm of the news media. Finally, there are many excellent resources for evaluating a source, such as the CRAAP test and the media bias chart.
When dealing with a social media source, there are steps to take before reposting information in addition to those previously mentioned. One is to check for the verification symbol, which is usually a blue check mark located next to the username of the account that is posting information. While this does not indicate with absolute certainty that the information is correct, it is best to get news from verified sources rather than unverified ones.
Additionally, Johns Hopkins University suggests that recently created accounts are not usually credible, as these accounts could have been created solely to promote a specific viewpoint or agenda, without proper account verification. Finally, before sharing, always check with reputable sources and corroborate the information. Remember do not share if you cannot confirm the information in the post with a reputable source.
Misinformation is a nuisance at best and dangerous at worst. As Sridhar Dharmapuri of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations puts it, fact-checking has now become “as important as hand washing.” Just as we wash our hands to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we also must check our facts to prevent the spread of misinformation. Any sharing of misinformation, no matter how trivial it may seem, is a step in the wrong direction and it is entirely preventable — but only if we are willing to go the extra mile ourselves.