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THE THREAT OF FALSE INFORMATION IN POLITICAL PARTICIPATION


A recent poll by YouGov found that 41% of young adults, those aged between 18 to 24, in the UK get their news from social media. This is unsurprising, given that 95% of individuals aged 16 to 24 have a social media account according to a 2020 report by Ofcom. However, the same report highlights that 26% of social media users do not check the truthfulness of news articles that they read whilst using social media. Whilst false information is nothing new, in recent years it has become more prevalent than ever, spreading further, and reaching more people than factually correct news. The worsening spread of incorrect information has a detrimental impact on many areas of society, such as public health and political participation, and once widely believed, disinformation is difficult to tackle.

In a permanently online world, information is becoming increasingly weaponised in the form of disinformation – information which is created in order to cause harm. The US Select Committee famously highlighted a significant and sustained disinformation campaign during the 2016 presidential election which aimed to disrupt the democratic process in favour of Russian interests. It had allegedly also previously targeted German elections. Preferred methods included spreading disinformation in high volume and across multiple platforms, spreading proven falsehoods, and using automated accounts to further spread disinformation. A report by the European Parliament found that disinformation confuses citizens, creates distrust in democratic processes, disrupts elections, and fosters incivility. Over 40% of people surveyed believed disinformation has a negative impact on a country’s politics and on political discussion. The presence of misinformation – information that is false but is not knowingly harmful, such as rumours or unconfirmed information – is equally dangerous. The House of Lords democracy and digital technologies committee warned that a ‘pandemic of misinformation’ significantly threatens democracy.

So how do we strengthen ourselves and our society against the effects of misinformation when we are increasingly online? The recent discussion paper by I HAVE A VOICE, ‘The many facets of political literacy and participation’, argues that increasing media and political literacy is a critical aspect of constructive political discourse, as people will be better able to analyse the content that they consume. In theory, by building better levels of media and political literacy among the population, people will be less easily swayed by false information and will have a better understanding of the political systems in place. This should lead to a stronger and more robust democracy. So how can we develop our media literacy skills? Here are just a few ways in which you can protect yourself against false information on the internet:

ONE – CHECK THE SOURCE

Always check where the information is coming from. Articles from satire websites are sometimes spread as legitimate information or without people being aware that the article is actually a joke. Other times, websites can seem legitimate, but contain intentionally misspelt URLs which are similar to legitimate sources in order to present themselves as factual. Other aspects, such as who has written the article or which ‘experts’ have been quoted, are also important to consider, as their writing may contain bias or spin information in a dishonest way to support a certain viewpoint.

TWO – CHECK OTHER SOURCES

If you come across a piece of information that you haven’t come across before, its always best to check to see if other sources are reporting the same thing. Check to see if other news outlets are reporting the same thing and see if figures or quotes are being used differently between the sources. Additionally, Fact checking websites like Snopes, PolitiFact, Fact Check, and BBC Reality Check, are all incredibly useful tools for clarifying what is real and what isn’t.

THREE – CHECK BEYOND THE HEADLINE

Sometimes it is very easy to get caught up in the headlines, after all this is their purpose. Headlines are designed to grab attention, but the facts, figures, and nuance of an argument aren’t easily contained within a headline. Always read the full article before sharing any information, especially if it’s just a screenshot of a headline, checking the sources of the information contained within.

FOUR – CHECK YOUR OWN BIAS

Confirmation bias, wherein people are more likely to search for and believe information which aligns with their pre-existing viewpoint, is a dangerous thing. It can keep us trapped in an echo chamber where our beliefs are never challenged and that can make it very hard to access impartial information which can help to inform a more accurate viewpoint. Always make sure to view any information with a critical mindset, even if you’re inclined to believe what it says.

FIVE – CHECK AUTHENTICITY AND ACCURACY OF IMAGES

Often, images are presented as absolute proof of the validity of a claim and, as the old saying goes, ‘seeing is believing’. However, thanks to modern technology, it is increasingly easy to edit photos and videos to provide ‘evidence’ to support a viewpoint. Always look for signs of editing, such as unusual shadows, jagged edges, or too perfect surfaces. However, sometimes the images used are completely legitimate, but are being taken out of their original context to purposefully mislead. Tools like Google reverse image search are useful for checking the origin of an image and seeing if it does actually support the viewpoint it claims to be supporting or to see if the image has been altered.

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