Disinformation can be extremely harmful during an election: it can confuse voters, dissuade them from voting, delegitimize results, and more. It’s critical, as a result, that journalists be prepared to counteract it. This entails understanding how it spreads and what tools are at our disposal to stop it.
Where does disinformation circulate? False content doesn’t just spread on social media. Rumors and dirty campaigns existed long before these platforms emerged, after all. But the ease with which anyone can publish and spread false information on social media today has changed the dynamics.
The path that disinformation often follows is like a trumpet: it begins in small circles, such as Telegram and WhatsApp groups, or other smaller social networks. As it gains traction, it moves to more open platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube, among others.
Identifying the spaces in which disinformation circulates can buy us time to prepare before the harmful narratives hit the big social networks and reach hundreds of thousands more people.
The best time to fact-check disinformation is once it is spreading on the bigger platforms. Debunking disinformation too early on, when it is still circulating in small circles, can unintentionally give the disinformation more visibility. Even by disproving a false claim, we help put the issue on the agenda and make people who have not been exposed to it aware of its existence.
On the flip side, if we wait too long before intervening, a false claim can go even more viral. The intervention should be made at this sweet spot in the disinformation’s life cycle – when many people have seen it, but before it has grown out of control.
Beyond virality, it is important to take into account the damage that could be caused by the disinformation. If the content might prevent people from voting because it gives false information about their voting location, for instance, it may be important to disprove it even if it hasn’t yet gone viral.
It is also imperative to analyze strategies for disseminating your debunks. The people who need to see them most are those who were exposed to the disinformation. It’s thus important to share your fact checks on the platforms on which the false content was originally posted.
In some cases, you might elect not to disseminate a fact-check on social media. This may be the case if the disinformation you’re debunking has not gone viral already: you may want to avoid amplifying the original false claim. Instead, you can publish the fact-check in a location where if someone seeks it out, they will easily find it.
It’s critical to know how best to present a debunk. It is better to use affirmative headlines, instead of posing questions. For example: “It is false that it will be possible to vote without documentation,” instead of “Will it be possible to vote without documentation?” Since we know that many readers will simply skim the headlines without reading the substance of the piece, we should make the most of that space to equip them with the key clarification they need.
It is furthermore important to be transparent about how the information was obtained. This will give audiences more confidence about the reasons for denying false claims, and understand why they are inaccurate. This can also help readers identify similar disinformation they come across in the future.
Finally, before fact-checking a false claim, put yourself in the shoes of a person who believed the disinformation. This can enable us to debunk the false claims in an empathetic way, raising our chances of getting through to our audiences.