The Fastest Ways to Fact-Check a Viral Tweet

The Fastest Ways to Fact-Check a Viral Tweet
Photo: fizkes, Shutterstock

The sum of human knowledge — and millions of people’s perspectives — are available on your phone. Unfortunately, not everyone sharing information is reliable. Some people or sources might want to deliberately mislead you, while others just might be doing it out of ignorance.

The next time you see a viral tweet full of sensational news you just can’t believe is true, you should pause for a second. It might not be true at all, and even though you may be compelled to send it to your mum, friends, classmates, or — with a simple retweet — your entire following, remember that the consequences of widespread false information can be dire. Here’s how to quickly fact-check a viral tweet.

First, a note on media literacy

This part isn’t exactly the fast solution we promised, but doing some work now to strengthen your media literacy will make you faster at identifying suss content in the future. Frankly, media literacy should be taught in schools, especially as our technologically-enhanced world evolves faster around us every day. Unfortunately, it’s not. (The American school system has a habit of glossing over or outright ignoring difficult topics, in case you didn’t notice.)

Just as you’ve had to relearn the real history of holidays or the basics of sex ed in adulthood, you need to tackle media literacy on your own. Fortunately, academics and other big brains out there have also noticed how ill-prepared the average adult is for their daily encounters with bogus news and context-free tweets. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for instance, has an entire webpage dedicated to helping you enhance your skills. Here’s what you need to do, in brief:

  • Understand the media landscape. A headline or tweet that generates a strong emotion, like outrage, is designed to do that. If there’s a link attached, you better believe someone wants you to click it, spend time on that site, and help them make ad money. If it’s a standalone tweet, understand that the creator is gunning for retweets, which will net them more retweets, followers, engagement, and, one way or another, money or clout. When you start to consider that your emotions are being manipulated to line someone else’s pockets or enhance their status, you’ll feel less inclined to participate. What do you get out of playing into that game, besides higher blood pressure and a reputation for being a little gullible?
  • Pay attention to language. Does the tweet in question have emotionally-charged words or a clear point of view? News from a reputable source will be straightforward. We’ll move on to how to Google for more context shortly, but for now, practice reframing whatever you’re reading in a calmer, less outraged tone. Without the sensationalism, is the viral tweet still telling you anything particularly noteworthy?
  • Build up a personal database of trusted news sources. This will take some time, but spend a while on the homepages of, say, the Associated Press. Then do the same with tabloid outlets. Spend enough time doing this and you’ll start to see the signs of overhyping news while underdelivering anything worthy of a genuine reaction. Apply that new lens to everything, including tweets, and you’ll be a master of media literacy in no time. Look for less sensationalism and more context.
  • Understand your source. A writer or columnist is not the same as a reporter. An opinion is not the same as a fact. Always check out who wrote the tweet you’re looking at and try to figure out what they gain from it. If they work in politics, or for an organisation with a particular bent, or are somehow otherwise incentivized to spread their own opinion far and wide, of course they want to make their content as outrageous as possible. In a war of ideas, sides are decided by emotional responses.

Consider the know-it-all in the tweet replies

You may be a casual consumer of news, a calm scroller susceptible to shocking information. Some people, however, are fiends for this stuff and will rush to be the first person to point out that an embedded video purportedly showing present-day violence is years old or a quote is misattributed to a historical figure. Let their passion for being a public-facing know-it-all help you, but remember that they, too, have some kind of bias.

Read if Twitter tagged it as a false or misleading claim

Twitter also appends little notifications to false or misleading claims. We can go back and forth about the possible biases of Twitter, too, but for now, just click on the notification. It’ll bring you to a page with more context about the content of the tweet in question, which will help you form a more informed opinion. If a claim is viral enough, Twitter will also have fact-checking resources about the claim in its Trending column.

Google the quote without biased language

Weed out any biased or emotion-laden phrases, like, say, “indoctrinating” or “woke mob.” Boil it down to its most basic, unbiased form, and Google that.

As an example, look to the furor around what right-wing influencers and outlets called a “free crack pipe program.” Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Sen. Marco Rubio have been insisting for weeks that the administration wants to distribute “free crack pipes” in low-income communities.

“There is no end in sight for this lunacy,” said Rubio in a tweet that has racked up thousands of engagements. Of course, these kinds of tweets have plenty of retweets and likes, but little to no context. This is when you head to Google and search for the stripped-down terms. “Lunacy” is out; but when you search “Biden administration crack pipes,” you’ll find fact-checks from reputable sources who looked into those context-free tweets and took their shot at explaining what you should know. (This is where your personal database of solid outlets comes in handy.)

If you happen upon a viral, context-free tweet before the major outlets have a chance to post an in-depth fact-check, read everything you can. In this example, you’d find that the $US30 ($42) million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is not a crack pipe distribution fund, but rather allocates money for harm reduction services designed to reduce overdoses and the spread of diseases among individuals who use drugs. You’ll also find that news of the grant’s establishment is months old, and it got very little attention until the “free crack pipe” outrage cycle.

Once you have context, tweets about “free crack pipes” seem absurd and myopic, even when they come from high-profile elected officials. Keep in mind that everyone who generates sensational tweets has something to gain from manipulating your emotions. What do politicians gain from stoking outrage and fear? Votes, once they promise to do something about the problem that they just made you believe exists.

Armed with better information, though, you’re free to go be one of the know-it-alls in the replies. Have fun.

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