Media Supermajority Education Fund

How to Combat The Spread of Fake News on Your Feed


We’ve all been there: you’re scrolling down your Facebook feed and see a post with a headline or topic so sensationalized and ridiculous that you immediately know it isn’t true. But you also see that a friend or family member either shared it themselves or have liked or commented on the post as if it were true.

As a new study out of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government points out, fake news stories can have serious consequences in terms of how Americans protect themselves during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and on how they vote at the polls. Worst of all, misinformation can fool even those who think they know how to spot it, according to the paper’s authors note.

Luckily, there are steps every social media user can take to push back against misinformation and make sure that they don’t fall for fake articles and news sites that are “getting harder and harder to spot,” Erin McNeill, the president of the advocacy group Media Literacy Now told Supermajority News

We asked McNeill for her tips on how news consumers can see through deception and advice on what to do when someone you care about shares something false or misleading.

Look out for headlines that try to manipulate your emotions

One big reason that people click on and share misleading information is because it provokes an intense reaction. “False information gets shared a lot more when people are having an emotional reaction usually because they are getting angry,” said McNeill. “If you are angry, it is a sign to slow down” and check if the story is true, she adds.

Those emotional reactions to the news means that readers are often particularly vulnerable to stories about seemingly big and consequential decisions on topics they are passionate about. “Say you see a headline that says ‘The Supreme Court decides in favor of X.’ Those are just facts. The facts might make you mad but that isn’t the same thing as reading a story that’s intentionally making you angry,” said McNeill. By contrast, a headline that says something like “Unbelievable, the Supreme Court has allowed Democrats to get closer to banning guns” will instantly create an emotional and angry response among many social media users. 

A good sign of this are “those extra words that they are throwing into the headline and the article will say something like ‘You need to take action now before they take away your rights,’” McNeill noted. The best defense against those immediate emotional responses is to take a moment to react before sharing. 

Check your sources

It’s also important to educate yourself about the motivations of those who created the articles, memes, and graphics we see on our feeds each day. “You should ask yourself ‘who posted this?’ and ‘why did they post it?’” said McNeill. “Is it an individual who shared it? Is it an organization?” Once you have learned more about who shared the piece, McNeill recommends looking up a more neutral source on the same topic and comparing the information in both pieces.

In addition to the actual content of misleading social media posts, readers should also pay attention to the web site addresses of the pieces they are sharing. Disinformation sites with addresses like abcnews.com.co and cnn.com.de are specifically designed to look like the major American news companies of the same name.

Do a reverse image search

McNeill also stressed double checking that photos used in graphics and viral Facebook posts are real. She recalled seeing a photo on her own social media feeds recently that claimed to be related to the recent anti-police protests across the United States. But when she did a reverse image search — which anyone can do by dragging the image into their browser search bar — she quickly found that the post was fake. “What came up was a story about something that happened in Madrid years ago,” she said. “So I commented on the post and said  ‘I googled it and I found the photo in this completely different story. So this is probably made up.”

Have conversations with those who share false information

Because false information can be so damaging, it is also important to try to talk to friends and family who share misleading posts. These conversations are most effective when you try not to shame someone for sharing misinformation and acknowledge that everyone can make a mistake given the level of misinformation out there. “It’s hard to talk to somebody about this who is maybe a relative or friend,” McNeill acknowledged. But McNeill still reached out to her friend who shared that misleading post in order to discuss the issue further. “I think the way to talk about it is by using the facts. So I emailed them and presented my findings,” she said. “I just said ‘by the way, here what I found and I think it would be a good idea to take that posting down.’’