False and misleading information about voting and elections hurts both individuals and our ability to make the promise of democracy real for us all. This guide can help clarify what misinformation is, how it differs from disinformation, how to spot it and what we can do about it – including finding accurate election-related information.
Misinformation vs. Disinformation
Leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a Russian troll farm called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) knowingly created or amplified online rumors about Hillary Clinton, often in the form of memes and other social media content. This is believed to have influenced the outcome of the election and is one of the most impactful examples of election propaganda in recent years. It is also a classic form of disinformation. But what does that word really mean, and why do the IRA’s actions fall into that category?
While the terms are often used interchangeably, misinformation and disinformation are different. Misinformation is false or misleading information that is spread without malice or intent to mislead, and those who share it genuinely believe it to be true. Disinformation, on the other hand, is false or misleading information that is spread with malice and intent to mislead. Those who share it are aware the information is false or misleading. Disinformation is often used for social movements, political influence or financial gain.
Of course, the distinction is not always as obvious as the IRA example above, and intent is historically difficult to prove without clear evidence. Many individuals who believe in election-related conspiracy theories, for example, are spreading misinformation — not disinformation — because they genuinely believe the false stories they’ve heard from sources they trust. This makes it more difficult to challenge, and is partially why fact-checking alone is seldom enough to convince believers otherwise.
Regardless of the source or the intent, unsupported claims about the democratic process have persuaded people to monitor ballot drop boxes, become poll watchers and take on other roles that could allow them to interfere with what they believe to be election tampering – even if those beliefs are based on lies. Such practices lead to voter intimidation and concerns of voter or election worker harassment, which election workers experienced following the 2020 U.S. presidential election.
Where do we see misinformation? Where does it show up?
In the same way we get election-related information from many sources, misinformation can show up during the course of our daily routine access to digital and non-digital information about elections, voting and candidates. Misinformation can be part of conversations and speeches, woven into articles — even those also containing accurate information — recommended to you on social media and even taken from video clips of live events. It’s important to think critically about where you get information and consider both the source and the medium when assessing information accuracy.
Misinformation can come from many different sources — even those that may seem reliable. Often, misinformation is altered facts woven into longer messages containing accurate information.
Interviews: When listening to or reading about interviews, consider who is asking the questions and who is answering. Is the interviewer biased? What might they gain from twisting words? Does the person being interviewed have a reason to not tell the whole truth or lie by omission?
Live Speeches and Debates: Though we often hear speeches and debates in real time, there are two ways misinformation can multiply. First, misinformation can be spread from speeches and debates when the person who is speaking is not being fully truthful, either purposefully or unknowingly. Second, misinformation can spread from speeches and debates when clips are taken and altered in some form. Clips or small portions of a speech or debate can easily be taken out of context so it seems like a speaker was saying one thing when they actually meant another.
One-on-one conversations: Because the definition of misinformation includes both the willful and accidental spread of false information, it is important to remember that one-on-one conversations between friends, family, and others is an incredibly common way misinformation spreads. Because of this, it is important to confirm that someone has done the right research before taking what they say as truthful and then sharing that information yourself.
Unfortunately, misinformation can show up in all different forms of media and communication.
Social media or Website: Digital spaces are great sources of instant information but can also contain misinformation. Despite misinformation policies and efforts to catch misinformation, social media companies have limited oversight when it comes to the content posted on their platforms — and unfortunately many do not outright ban disinformation. Similarly, it is very easy for someone to create a website and post unfounded information there.
Newspapers and Magazines: While newspapers and magazines have more strict rules than digital platforms when it comes to publishing information, these sources can print click bait, publish opinion pieces, and include quotes taken out of context when reporting on various incidents. For this reason, it is important to not take everything you read at face value.
Television and Radio: It is common for interviews and debates to be televised or broadcast on the radio. Both the speakers during live events as well as the recaps of these events can contain misinformation.
Podcasts: Similarly to social media platforms, it is easy to create a podcast and post it on apps easily accessible to wide audiences. Podcasts are often edited to create a seamless episode. This editing process can result in great content but can also result in sharing misinformation.
How to spot false or misleading information
As election season approaches and we learn about candidates and voting issues, it’s important to make sure the information is accurate. Everyone is susceptible to misleading information. While it may take some extra time to check sources and assess the accuracy of what you’re reading and listening to, it’s worth the time. After all, this is your vote and your voice. Don't assume that just because someone you know shared a news story or told you something, that it’s true. Find out for yourself. It takes a few extra steps to evaluate a story’s credibility. Here are some strategies.
Learn how misinformation works. The first step is to be aware that misleading and false information is rampant, that it spreads quickly, and that you should never take information at face value. It may help to adopt a skeptical mindset. By understanding how false information works, you can ask yourself the right questions and protect yourself and others.
Consider the source. Consider where the information came from and then double and even triple check the source, making sure it’s reputable and reliable. Don’t just read the headline and move on. Read or listen to the whole piece. You can also check whether you can find this information elsewhere — specifically, other reputable sources like mainstream news sources. In addition, ask yourself who is providing or sharing the information and what their possible motive or bias could be.
Check the facts. If you are suspicious about the basic facts represented in the story, use fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org, Washington Post Factchecker, PolitiFact or Snopes. You can also seek out experts who might know more about the information.
Check the details. Do some quick research on the author of the piece and determine whether they are a legitimate journalist or have expertise in the subject. Also, check the date of the piece and any statistics provided to see if you can find that data elsewhere. Sometimes a story will cite “official” sources and if they do, check those sources because they could be fabricated.
Check the images. Images and photographs can be manipulated to convey false information. It might be the particular camera angle (i.e., crowd size at a rally or political event) or the photo itself could be photoshopped or altered in some way. To check for fake images, you can do a reverse-image search on Google Images or Tin Eye, use debunking websites like Snopes that vet viral images, and check the metadata on the photo.
Check your biases. “Confirmation bias” is the tendency to believe something that confirms our already-held beliefs or positions about people and issues. If you like a particular candidate, you’re more likely to believe something positive and not believe something negative about them. Therefore, it’s important to check your own confirmation biases and not allow them to impact your judgment. You can scrutinize the information (with the strategies above) more deeply and ask yourself whether you believe the story because it conforms to your beliefs and opinions.
What to do about false or misleading information
There’s a lot of inaccurate election-related information out there, much of which is harmful to voting rights and civic engagement. As you apply the techniques provided here, you’ll be able to better identify inaccurate information. There are things you can do to limit the spread of false or misleading information, both online and off – the most important of which is not repeating it.
Don’t spread false information. Don’t contribute to the spread of false information by sharing and re-posting without checking for accuracy. Before sharing, make sure you’ve gone through some of the steps outlined here.
Share your knowledge. As you learn more about misinformation and how to spot it, share what you learn with friends, colleagues and your online community so others can help to limit the spread of false and misleading information.
Report disinformation and misinformation. If you realize that information online is untrue, please DO NOT engage with it, since social media platforms reward engagement in their algorithms. Instead, report it to the platform and to Common Cause’s Disinformation Tip Line.