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Seeking Truth in the face of misinformation

A photo of Emily Rosenberg giving a presentation on misinformation.
Ryan O'Connell / THE GATEPOST

By Ryan O'Connell

Sophomore Emily Rosenberg, a political science major and Arts & Features Editor for The Gatepost, recently gave a presentation on misinformation. She worked alongside Boston Globe journalist Emily Sweeney on preparing a presentation about critiquing online information in the current age, Oct. 20.

The talk, hosted in the Alumni Room of the McCarthy Center, was sponsored by the New England First Amendment Coalition (NEFAC), and primarily allowed students to think critically about their interactions with unknown sources online.

Sweeney, however, was unable to attend the lecture due to sudden illness.

Justin Silverman, executive director of the NEFAC, was able to fill in for the guest speaker, and contributed his thoughts alongside Rosenberg’s presentation.

At the beginning of the presentation, Rosenberg said that in the past year, she took a break from social media around the time of the election. She said it was mainly because it felt like she was being told how to think through short, biased opinion pieces.

“I go on to see 10 posts, sharing the same five opinionated TikToks that all focused on unconfirmed and exaggerated misleading headlines,” Rosenberg said.

Rosenberg connected her thoughts to a past OP\ED article she wrote for The Gatepost, sharing how she found social media “has stripped us of our ability to first interpret and gather our surroundings.” She added these platforms have stopped people from “reading and sharing straight news from real news sources.”

She went on to describe the harmful impacts of the term ‘fake news’ and how alternative phrases like disinformation or misinformation are more correct ways to identify wrong information. Rosenberg then gave examples of misinformation to look out for, including parody sites, impersonation web pages, or fabricated content.

One of her central points was identifying this misinformation.

“I say, check your articles like you check your sources for a research paper,” she said. “Does the author have a reputation of being credible?”

Rosenberg added that evaluating a source’s citings can also help reveal if it is reliable. She said, “Every quote you’ve ever seen must be accredited, and every fact came from an article.”

Additionally, the audience is reminded that spelling or grammar errors and conflicts of interest are obvious red flags when pursuing reliable information.

Rosenberg then presented several examples to the audience from multiple platforms, such as

Instagram and Facebook, before introducing Silverman to speak on the subject.

To begin, Silverman said it would be dangerous to choose leaders without first recognizing what is true and false about them, helping to explain the importance of identifying misinformation.

Referencing the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, he added stopping misinformation is something all individuals should be committed to. He said this code was a set of rules that can be applied not only to newswriting, but also informal, everyday interactions.

“Verify information before releasing it ... But how often are we guilty of seeing something on social media, and just quickly sharing it, without giving it much thought?” he said.

Silverman said he recognizes that most people find it inconvenient to research every headline, but encourages everyone to dig a layer deeper and confirm whether what is posted is true. He added that it’s important not to take posts at face value, no matter the person posting it.

“Even a post that says ‘straight from the New York Times,’ may not be in fact from the New York Times,” Silverman said. “Whenever you see a post that you’d like to share, take that additional step. Verify it. Find an additional source.”

He added, however, an important distinction is that sources of information are different from the platforms we receive them on.

“Well, what is a source? What’s a source versus a platform? Right, Twitter, not a source. Facebook, not a source,” he said.

“It’s like saying that certain information you’ve got came from newspaper or television. These are platforms on which we provide information, but who is providing?” Silverman said.

He added that the entities who are uploading to these platforms are “really what we want to get to,” and listed some of the valid sources Rosenberg contributed, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Silverman reinforced the statement that by taking these steps it is possible to become better citizens.

He retained that being skeptical of what is read online is a very important aspect of being an informed individual, and that it is worth listening to your instinct. If a headline sounds too good to be true, or super ridiculous, it’s probably worth reviewing before promoting it.

Silverman then read through more of the Code of Ethics, reminding everyone that it is important to allow the civil exchange of views, and to “balance the public’s need for information,” to remember that not everything needs to be shared online.

He encouraged listeners to show compassion online to people who are posting misinformation, but to still hold them accountable for their actions.

“I think the majority of people are sharing misinformation because they don’t know better,” he said.

Silverman concluded the presentation by reminding people to be weary of what they read online, and encouraged listeners to get more used to calling out misinformation online.

“Fake news, let’s get away from that term. By definition, news can’t be fake. If it’s fake, it’s not news,” Silverman said.

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