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The Battle for Truth: How you can fight misinformation and fake news, one post at a time

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Posted at 8:16 AM, Jan 24, 2022

TAMPA, Fla. — Experts studying trends in fake news often know their message correcting the record to a large group of people can fall short. But, if they can win over one person sharing misinformation or spreading lies, that in itself can be a big win for society.

The same analogy can be said about the impacts of the coronavirus vaccine. Dr. Kevin Sneed, Dean of USF Health Taneja College of Pharmacy, explained it best.

"Every individual that gets a vaccine is potentially three to four lives saved," Dr. Sneed said. "You know, if we really think about how you know how many people can one person, one infected person go in and infect? So, if I can help shut that down with even one person, we can begin to help."

Well before the pandemic, contested elections, and climate change deniers, misinformation spreads across the globe like wildfire. Today, it feels more like an inferno as an ever-growing digital one consumes our real worlds.

"A good conspiracy theory, which is a good old fashioned story, gives me a sense of like, oh, that's why that's why we're kind of drawn to that because the reality is actually harder to stomach," Claire Wardle, the Director of First Draft Newstold ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska.

"So, we're all a bit overwhelmed by information. But there is a problem that during a pandemic when information changes as we get more data and research. It's hard for our brains to catch up. We want certainty, we want clarity, and that's impossible during a pandemic."

Wardle said people tend to consume information that confirms their own beliefs. Sensational reports and believing conspiracy theories are part of human nature, but everyone has to rethink what we consume on TV, the Internet, and social media.

"So, whilst fact checks are important, and it's good that we have them if you believe something, simply reading an article that says you're wrong doesn't make us go, 'oh, thanks for letting us know,' we tend to double down on our beliefs. So that's why this is such a problem for our society," Wardle said.

"But I don't think people in the U.S. are taking misinformation seriously enough. And you're absolutely right, when we look globally, there are really serious examples of the ways in which misinformation has basically torn the fabric of a community apart. And, I don't think we're that far away from that in the U.S. And that's what's so disturbing."

ABC Action News teamed up with the national nonprofit News Literacy Project to try and stem the tide of misinformation. You can take steps to empower yourself not to be lied to. A quick checklist on how to spot fake news is a good start. You can even take online tests to gauge how easily you might be duped.

According to the nonprofit, we should recognize the term "fake news," which came to prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign, has become overused and weaponized. However, the reality is that misinformation is far more complex and varied than the use of one term would indicate. There are five types of misinformation: satire, false content, impostor content, manipulated content, and fabricated content.

The mission is to help everyone to share and consume only credible information. Take time to verify the author, check sources, question when the post was published, are the images associated with the report are real or doctored or from an entirely different event. Is the content designed to be inflammatory or make you mad? Those metrics are red flags that someone is most likely trying to manipulate you. Take a quiz to test your skills.

"Now, I've been studying this for 10 years, and we're just seeing more of it, and we're seeing the impacts being more harmful. So yeah, it's a difficult conversation to have," Wardle said. "But, I think we have to have it because if we dismiss it, historians are going to look back and say, you know, 2022, they were sitting there watching Netflix, and they didn't realize that actually, you know, the country was coming apart. So I'm with you, unfortunately, is that we have to take this much more seriously than we are."

We are coming up on an election year. So we will see more and more lies spreading across social media. But, the COVID-19 virus and vaccine misinformation hasn't stopped since the pandemic started. Some health officials are fighting an endless battle.

What's your advice for families, and how can they fight misinformation? How can parents get ahead of it? Paluska asked Dr. Sneed.

"You know, I get that question, very often when I do different interviews, and I know we're recording, I'm just kind of talking to you as a journalist right now. But, you know, to be perfectly honest, um, we find it, I find it very difficult," Dr. Sneed said.

"I'm finding it increasingly difficult to respond to that question because, you know, I'm not there at two o'clock in the morning when people are consuming a large amount of information. And misinformation can occur at any given time and go around the entire world. And then here I come along, trying to debunk something that has already fit into the fear that an individual began to feel, to begin with."

But Dr. Sneed is optimistic because he knows if he stays on message and delivers factual updated medical information, people will eventually listen. One person can spread the truth in their community through their platforms as fast as anyone else working to undermine society.

"When people have an opportunity to hear from a credible resource from a credible person like myself and the team that we have here at USF, it really does begin to make, at least, make the individual question what they've been hearing, what they've been exposed to. Or, now see the other part that they had not been told before," Dr. Sneed said.

"Very often, I hear people say, you know, no one's ever told me that before. And I say, well, yeah, that's why I'm here talking to you now to make sure you get very good updated information in a way that you can take home and understand and make a better decision than what you've been told up until now."