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December 22, 2020

Privacy Tip of the Week: Learn to Spot False Information Online

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Any internet user knows the digital world is rife with false information. It takes the form of spoofed articles, altered photos, fake videos, personal statuses, and more. Some of it is designed with malicious intent, to disrupt political processes, public health initiatives, and more. On the other hand, some false online information spreads simply because the people sharing it don’t know any better. Unfortunately, whatever the cause of the false information, it can have harsh consequences for your online privacy. By learning to spot false information online, you can protect yourself and others. Here’s how:

  • Learn the difference between misinformation and disinformation
  • Understand the types of disinformation
  • Know the dangers to your privacy
  • Learn how to spot fake information

Learn the Difference Between Misinformation and Disinformation

Many terms exist to describe false information online. These terms include things like “misinformation,” “disinformation,” and the notorious “fake news” claim. However, despite their interchangeable use, each term has its own definition. 

“Fake news” is the most ambiguous term. It’s reasonably new to the English lexicon and doesn’t have a generally agreed upon meaning. Some people use it as a description for actual content that has been faked. Meanwhile, others claim “fake news” when someone makes a statement they don’t like or agree with. In addition, it’s a term that was designed to deliberately discredit news media outlets. This harms the process of the free press (no matter where you stand in your opinion of their integrity).

Many people also commonly use the other two terms in place of one another. However “misinformation” and “disinformation” also have slight differences in meaning. “Misinformation” tends to be used as a term for when someone shares false information without realizing it’s incorrect. On the flip side, “disinformation” describes the process of deliberately creating or sharing false information with the intention of misleading audiences. Disinformation may be used for the purposes of causing harm or for creating personal, political, or financial gain.

These terms haven’t been agreed upon worldwide, however some governments (like that of the UK) are choosing to adopt them to make the creation of laws surrounding information and privacy simpler.

Understand the Types of False Information Online

There exists a wide variety of misinformation and disinformation for internet users to come across. Understanding the different types can help you sort the real information from the false stuff.

Fabricated Content

Digital media that is completely fake is known as fabricated content. The websites they originate from may look real. However, a deeper examination may show incomplete pages, broken links, and tons of grammatical errors.

Imposter Content

Some fabricated content may even attempt to spoof a real news source. For example, instead of CNN.com, the URL is CMN.com, which may not arouse attention from just a quick glance.

Manipulated Content

We’re all familiar with manipulated content. It takes the form of photoshopped images and “deepfake” videos (which creators skillfully edit to look real; take a look at this deepfake that makes it seem as though Chris Pratt played Indiana Jones instead of Harrison Ford).

Misleading Content

This type of false information online is especially common because it doesn’t take much to make something misleading. For example, a headline written to attract clicks (clickbait) may not accurately reflect the content of the article. An opinion piece circulated as fact is also misleading. Something as simple as sharing a year-old article may be misleading, because people believe it is a current event.


Satirical articles use irony, exaggeration, and humour to poke fun at people and current events. Unfortunately, some people don’t recognize that satirical content isn’t real and share it as if it were.

False Context

When someone shares an image in relation to an event, but the image actually has no connection to the event, it becomes false context mis/disinformation. This is especially common with natural disasters.

Know the Dangers to Your Privacy

When it comes to the deliberate sharing of disinformation, privacy settings and data collection online can make the spread of such content more successful…and more dangerous. Because browsers, websites, and advertisers collect as much data about internet users as possible, it’s simple to find and target those who would be most receptive to false information. From there, the content becomes spread and accepted like wildfire. 

In addition, even if you don’t spread misinformation, simply clicking on a fake article to confirm its truth (or lack thereof) may result in those behind the spread collecting your information to target you with a different campaign later.

Learn How to Spot False Information

One of the most effective ways to combat the spread of fake information is by learning to spot it. There are a few signs to look for, and questions to ask yourself:

Check the Source

Always take a look at where a piece of media is coming from. If you don’t know the website (or the URL is trying to pass as a credible source), try to find the same information but from a reputable outlet. In addition, if the content appears to come from a social media account that has few followers (and especially if it has no profile picture), regard it with skepticism. Finally, take a look at the dates of articles to ensure they’re current.

Check the Facts

Many websites exist to confirm or deny the veracity of claims made in online media. Snopes, for example, exists specifically for fact checking. Before sharing a post, try to ensure its accuracy.

Look for Spelling and Grammar Problems

This isn’t necessarily a guaranteed sign of fake information online. However an article, video, or captioned image riddled with spelling problems and incorrect grammar may indicate that the source of the content isn’t reputable.

Ask What Emotions the Content Creates

Disinformation often aims to make people angry, afraid, or appalled. If you come across an article stoking these emotions in particular, take a closer look at it. See if you can confirm the source’s reputation, the accuracy of the facts, and the polish of the content. Even feel-good stories, designed to encourage shares, may be disinformation designed to increase a page’s audience (and thus the likelihood of people accepting it as a credible source).

Do You Believe the Content Readily? Is it Hard to Believe?

Both these extremes may indicate disinformation online. Something that confirms all of your pre-existing beliefs a little too well may have targeted you directly as a likely source of shares. Meanwhile, something that seems completely outrageous often makes people want to share it. In these cases, fact checking the content is especially important.

Is it a Meme?

Memes are an easy way to digest content, especially when they’re funny. However, in recent years, some organizations have identified memes as a potential source for propaganda. If a claim comes disguised as a meme, don’t just accept and share it right away.

False information online is a common and prevalent threat to political systems, privacy, and more. Although identifying it isn’t always easy, learning to spot fake information is an important tool to prevent its spread.

Protect your privacy and make yourself less of a target for disinformation by using a VPN online. HotBot VPN encrypts your information and makes you anonymous. You can use it on Android and iOS devices, as well as Windows devices.

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