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Election 2020: How social media giants fight disinformation. And how you can, too

Oct. 21, 2020

The 2020 election season has been challenging for social media companies hoping to keep false information from their sites. Disinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories can spread quickly, especially when they are amplified by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or other social media platforms.

How are social media companies battling back the fake news this election season? And how can you recognize disinformation when it pops up in your Facebook feed, Twitter timeline, or Instagram stories?

Here’s a look at the challenges facing social media giants today and the steps you can take to steer clear of disinformation this election season.

What is Facebook doing to fight disinformation?

It's been a busy election year for Facebook. According to Time Magazine, the social media giant removed more than 110,000 pieces of content from both Facebook and Instagram in the United States because this content violated Facebook's policies on voter interference.

And from March to May of 2020, Facebook placed warnings on more than 50 million pieces of content that it judged as unreliable or false. The Time Magazine story said that this effort appeared to have paid off, with nearly 95 percent of people seeing these warning labels not clicking through to read the original posts behind the content.

Then came the news in early October 2020 that Facebook has banned all QAnon accounts from its social media platforms. Followers of the QAnon conspiracy believe that ‘deep state’ politicians and celebrities are engaged in a child-trafficking ring that President Donald Trump is fighting to expose and destroy. The theory is a hoax.

These are just some of the steps that Facebook is taking to keep disinformation, conspiracy theories and fake news from spreading across its platform.

How Facebook has changed its policies

Facebook has announced significant changes to its policies for the 2020 election. For instance, Facebook said that it will not allow any political ads a week before the November 3 election.

The hope is that this policy will reduce the amount of misleading or inaccurate news hitting the feeds of Facebook users in the days before they head to the polls.

Facebook says that it will also add warning labels to posts claiming that the results of the election won’t be valid. The company is doing the same with posts saying that voting by mail will lead to an increase in voter fraud.

Facebook is also adding labels to posts from candidates or campaigns that declare victory before the final election results are tallied. The label will direct readers to information from national news wire service Reuters or the National Election Pool, a group of legitimate news networks.

Are these changes enough to keep disinformation and conspiracy theories off of Facebook completely? Maybe not. But they are a start.

How to protect against disinformation on 5 social media platforms

You can take actions on your own, too, to avoid political misinformation. Here are strategies you can use on five social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, and Reddit.

1. Facebook

On Facebook, your first step might be to be selective in whom you follow. The news that fills your Facebook feed is influenced by the users you follow. If you follow users who traffic in conspiracy theories or who spread misinformation, the odds are higher that the posts in your feed will be inaccurate and misleading, too.

It's a good idea to follow reputable news sources and those who provide reliable information that can be backed up by verifiable statistics, interviews, and studies. If you do this, your news feed will include other reliable, fact-based sources.

You can also unfollow or block users if you believe they are frequently sharing fake news or disinformation. If you'd rather take a more intermediate step, you can hide the posts of people and organizations that frequently send bad information. You can also put posters on snooze, which temporarily hides their posts.

If you want to do fact checking on your own, you can check out this list of reliable fact-checking organizations. The list is maintained by American University in Washington, D.C., and is a useful tool if you want to decide whether or not a piece of news you read on Facebook, or any other social media site, is legitimate.

You might also consider exploring the "Why Am I Seeing This" option on Facebook. By clicking this, you'll receive information on why a specific post has shown up in your feed. You might be in an online group, for instance, that frequently posts misleading information. You might find that you comment frequently on a certain account. If you do, this will increase the likelihood that posts from this account will show up in your feed, even if these posts contain inaccurate information.

2. Twitter

Twitter is similar to Facebook in that what you see in your Twitter timeline depends largely on whom you are following. If you follow sources that regularly post misinformation or conspiracy theories, your timeline is more likely to be filled with this kind of distorted information.

That's why it's smart to be selective when choosing whom to follow on Twitter. You could potentially boost your odds of following legitimate news sources by using Twitter's Lists feature. Lists are curated groups of Twitter accounts that you can follow.

A List, for instance, might only include well-known news sites or reliable journalism organizations. If you follow such Lists, you'll likely reduce the amount of conspiracy theories, hoaxes and disinformation in your Timeline.

You could turn to Twitter's Topics section, too. This feature lets you follow specific topics. You might choose to follow COVID-19 news or information about the November 3 election. You can also unfollow subjects that you'd rather not see in your timeline.

3. YouTube

YouTube has become a key source of news for many. The problem? That makes YouTube a target for those hoping to spread fake news and conspiracy theories. It's why YouTube has taken several steps to limit the spread of misinformation from its site.

YouTube reports that since the beginning of 2019, it has launched more than 30 changes designed to reduce the recommendations of borderline content and misinformation.

What are these changes? YouTube now more heavily promotes authoritative content in its "Watch Next" panel when people are watching borderline content in the United States. It has also reduced recommendations to this kind of borderline content.

The hope is that viewers watching questionable content will click on a recommended video from a legitimate news source after watching questionable content, potentially counterbalancing some of the misleading information these viewers had just watched.

YouTube in July 2019 also began reducing recommendations to English-language borderline videos outside of the United States to cut back on misinformation from across the globe. This is an important step now, with worries that foreign countries are using social media to influence U.S. elections.

You can help stop the spread of fake news on YouTube by reporting violations at this link. You can report conspiracy theories, hoaxes, and scams anonymously.

4. Instagram

Because of its popularity, Instagram, too, has become a target for scam artists, conspiracy theorists, and pushers of fake news. Facebook, which owns Instagram, said that it has hired third-party fact-checkers to check for false information. Facebook says that it works with 45 third-party fact checkers across the globe. These checkers are certified through the International Fact-Checking Network, a non-partisan group.

When these fact checkers find fake or incomplete information, they make it more difficult for users to find by filtering it from Explore and Hashtags. Instagram also reduces the visibility of this information in Instagram Feed and Stories.

If Instagram tags a post as false information, you have two options: You can tap the "See Why" option to read why fact checkers identified the post as fake news or you can click "See Post" to view the information anyway.

Instagram provides several tips to help users spot false information. It recommends that users be especially skeptical of headlines. Scammers often use all-caps in their headlines and end them with several exclamation points. As Instagram says, if the information in a headline appears unbelievable, it is probably fake.

Instagram recommends, too, that you always investigate the source of a post. If you recognize the source — maybe it's the Washington Post, New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, or other reputable news provider — you can determine whether you trust the information.

But if the information comes from a source you've never seen before? You might consider being more skeptical when reading what seem like bombshell revelations or scandalous information.

Watch, too, for misspellings, incorrect grammar, or awkward layouts. These may be signs of false information.

Also be on the lookout for satire. As Instagram says, fake news often comes from parody accounts such as The Onion. These stories are satire and aren't meant to be taken as true. If you read something absolutely shocking on Instagram about a politician or celebrity, make sure the information isn't coming from one of these parody sites.

5. Reddit

It can be particularly challenging to spot — and control — disinformation on Reddit. That's because Reddit is made up of a large network of online communities that are created and run by Reddit users. It can be easy, then, for users with a political agenda to spread misinformation through the site.

Reddit, then, is a loosely policed site. The social media platform, though, does publish a set of rules governing user behavior. This includes not using the site to harass, bully, or threaten others. Reddit also forbids spamming, content manipulation, and impersonating individuals or organizations in a misleading manner.

Users who break the rules can have their accounts temporarily or permanently suspended. Reddit can also ban entire communities and sub-Reddits or quarantine them.

When a community is quarantined, it isn't erased from Reddit. But quarantined sub-Reddits will show a warning that requires users to opt-in to viewing their content. These communities also won't appear in non-subscription-based feeds and are not included in search or recommendations.

Spotting misleading or false information on Reddit takes a careful eye. If you read something surprising or scandalous, make sure to investigate the source behind the claim. If you don’t recognize the source, or recognize it as a known provider of false information, the post you are reading is probably inaccurate, misleading or completely false.

The takeaway on spotting fake news

Social media platforms are an increasingly important way for people to get information and connect with friends and family members. But because sites such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are so popular, they are often utilized by those wishing to spread misinformation, promote conspiracy theories, launch hoaxes, and smear political candidates or social causes.

No matter what social media site you use, it’s a good idea to read the content with a critical mind. Something that sounds impossibly shocking could be an example of misinformation. It’s up to you to vet the information you see by researching the source of it and fact checking it online.

It will be good practice. The amount of fake news, conspiracy theories, and hoaxes on social media platforms may increase every time a big election looms.

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