Is the Internet Your Source for News?

When you take what’s on your screen at face value, it creates an opportunity for someone to take advantage of you. We see this with phishing websites. If the website looks exactly like your bank or your work login, you assume it is safe. Once you’ve entered your personal information, like a username and password, it’s stolen by the operators of that bogus website.

The same dynamic seems to be at play with online disinformation efforts. The website has the word “news” in it—it must be factual, right? An article has “gone viral” with over 200k shares and retweets. It must be both correct and a complete representation of the underlying event, right?


Are you looking at fake information or real news?

What is Disinformation?

In a recent interview on podcast #113, Clint Watts, former FBI special agent and author of the book Messing with the Enemy: Surviving in a Social Media World of Hackers, Terrorists, Russians, and Fake News, discussed the dangers of disinformation and ways to counter it. Disinformation (or misinformation) is literally false information. A disinformation campaign is a deliberate effort to spread fake information for the purpose of swaying people to a particular way of thinking.

Here at Cyber Safe Workforce, we see disinformation awareness as part of overall cyber awareness. Similar to education around phishing, people have to be aware that disinformation exists. Second, they have to have enough knowledge to recognize it. And finally, they must know what to do about it.

One major challenge is getting people to care. We see this in cyber awareness training. “It doesn’t apply to me” is a common sentiment among people who think security is only the IT department’s job. With fake news, people tend to enjoy reading and following content that reinforces their own biases–an echo chamber. A six year study of Facebook usage around news pages (from 2010 to 2015), showed that users interacted with a limited set of news pages. Users therefore chose to be exposed to news from the same set of sources over and over again.

Is It Disinformation?

If a story seems outrageous or invokes an emotional response, pause and find out who published the article. Look at the website of the article.

Clint Watts provides four ways to evaluate online news outlets:

  1. Is it fact or opinion? Are statements backed up with verifiable facts?
  2. How much content is produced daily? If it’s a lot, consider that the site may be manufacturing stories instead of vetting and properly sourcing them, which is not how real journalism is produced.
  3. Can you easily find out where the news organization is physically located? Reputable news outlets have no problem sharing where they are headquartered.
  4. Is there a clear revenue structure such as a subscription service or advertisements? If the site is publishing for free, they may be ideologically motivated.

Does this apply to me?

If you read news online in a social network or receive links to news articles from friends, you should pay attention. In 2017, about 67% of adults got news from social media, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The internet is a great place to receive information quickly, especially breaking news. However, it’s also where disinformation efforts can reach you and influence your thinking.

What to Do

If you’re fairly certain that you’re not viewing a reputable news outlet, don’t like, share, retweet, or in other ways amplify the content. Many social platforms provide ways for you to report the content. Below, you can see how to report a tweet on Twitter.

twitter report

As a savvy news reader, you can help stop disinformation campaigns by reporting content and outlets that spread disinformation.

If you’re interested in testing out your fake news detection skills, check out this free online game developed by Indiana University called Fakey.

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