Fake news: how to recognise and deal with it

January 25, 2023

Collage with photos by Nastya Dulhiier and Rasheed Kemy at Unsplash

Robby (name changed) focuses on how to combat misinformation and highlights how we can be vulnerable to it

Although some people dismiss online conspiracy theories and fake news as something that only affects a few people on the fringes of society, it’s more pervasive and detrimental than we might think.

The internet is increasingly being used by extremist groups to radicalise young people. These groups will often offer solutions to feelings of being misunderstood or being treated unfairly.

Personal vulnerabilities or environmental factors – which may result in increased isolation, a loss of self-esteem, behavioural problems and being coerced into gangs  – can also make a young person more susceptible to extremist messages.

Fake news and misinformation can appear where and when we least expect it.

Recently I came across a report on the BBC News website about an online conspiracy theorist, Richard D. Hall, who was creating and spreading false content to his online following. He described how the 2017 Manchester bombing was faked and victims were lying about their injuries.

In fact, the event was a terrorist incident where a suicide bomber detonated explosives in the Manchester Arena after an Ariana Grande concert, killing 22 and injuring hundreds more – many of whom were young people and children.

Rather than spending time poring over malicious comments, close up the app or website

After reading the article I was shocked about the lack of empathy, and the irresponsibility of conspiracy theorists, to spread such malicious messages to a large online audience. What’s more, Hall was stalking and secretly recording victims to ‘gather evidence’. This wasn’t just something restricted to an online bubble – it was encouraging real life abuse.

Curious to find out more, I clicked on a YouTube video the BBC had posted about the case and went into the comments section expecting to see other people also upset by the harm this man had caused.

Instead, the comments were filled with praise for Hall and his ‘investigation’, with many people accusing the BBC of spreading fake news. Seeing the brazen support of the harassment of victims of this tragic event made me feel hopeless – I couldn’t understand how people could be so hateful and ignorant.

Rather than spending more time poring over every single malicious comment, I closed the app. It’s always important to take yourself out of an online space that is spreading dangerous misinformation or conspiracy theories. Attempting to engage with or challenge people online will only give that group what they seek: more attention and more ammunition to be hateful.

Engaging with online posts, by commenting on them, may make the algorithm amplify more of the same content to you

To reduce the spread of this kind of content, it’s always useful to block and report it which you can do anonymously on most social media platforms. This is also the best way to avoid content like this from coming up in your social media feeds in the future. Engaging with posts by commenting on them may make the algorithm amplify more of that type of content to you and to others, so it’s always important to disengage from it. It would help if algorithms were upgraded to moderate what can and can’t be posted on social media platforms. You can read more about how algorithms work here.

How do I know if something is fake news?
To help spot fake news or conspiracy theories, here are some simple steps you can take:

  • Firstly, does the content seem as though it’s rational? Is it representative of things that you have known or heard to be true? Is it espousing hate against a particular marginalised group? If it seems illogical and bigoted then it is likely to be a conspiracy theory.
  • Secondly, is the source reliable? Are you reading it from a reputable website or app? Is it on social media or a news website? If it’s a news website, what are the other articles like? Do they share a similar viewpoint? If it’s a social media account, what are the other posts like? Can the information be verified or critically assessed using other websites?
  • Thirdly, do your own research. If the content is talking about a specific event or group – research this and weigh it up against other sources.

If you feel upset by misinformation or conspiracy theories online, it’s important to talk to people about it

The last step is very important. It’s essential to critically engage in the information that you are consuming, no matter the source.

If you are ever made to feel anxious or upset by misinformation or conspiracy theories online, then it’s important to talk to people about it; whether it’s a trusted friend, family member, or teacher. It’s essential to open up about these things. When we keep these worries private, they only fester and make us feel worse.

What can be done to eliminate misinformation in the long-term?
I feel that sometimes young people who find themselves caught up in conspiracy theories are experiencing other issues which misinformation helps them make sense of. This problem can’t be looked at in a vacuum – young people become more vulnerable to conspiracy theories when they feel isolated or unprotected in other areas of their lives. It can happen when they’re surrounded by people who are reinforcing an echo chamber of harmful ideas and beliefs.

A multi-faceted approach needs to be taken within our education system and in other public services, focused on wraparound care, with social as well as mental support. You can find more information and advice from the NCPCC here.

Check out free resources here from Shout Out UK to help fight misinformation with education and creativity!

Teachers can access resources at Educate Against Hate to safeguard their students from radicalisation and promote inclusive values in their school.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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