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By Alice Huguet, Julia H. Kaufman, Melissa Kay Diliberti

In a healthy democracy, having accurate information is crucial for making informed decisions about voting and civic engagement. False and misleading information can lead to knowledge that is inaccurate, incomplete, or manipulated. Such knowledge can erode trust in democratic institutions and contribute to divisions within society.[1] And, on a personal level, it can be harder to have conversations with friends, family, and neighbors when you do not share the same facts.

Research shows that older generations are well represented online but are not as confident in their technological know-how as are younger users.[2] They are less likely to recognize and prevent the flow of misinformation,[3] which can exacerbate divisions between groups and contribute to polarization. These issues are particularly important given that older generations are more likely than younger people to vote,[4] and, thus, their skills in identifying false and misleading information can affect democratic processes.

Fortunately, the ability to identify and resist false and misleading information is not static, because this ability relies on skills that can be learned.[5] However, many of the tools that help individuals identify false and misleading information are designed for students in school. More interventions tailored to the needs and preferences of older U.S. residents are needed to help them stop the spread of false and misleading information.

For these reasons, we developed this tool and three brief informational videos with people aged 55 years and older in mind. However, if you are interested in practical strategies for combating the challenges of false and misleading information — regardless of age — this tool is for you. This tool and its accompanying videos walk through three strategies:

  1. reading across sources rather than readily believing information from a single source
  2. resisting emotional manipulation that can lead to sharing and believing information that you otherwise might not agree with
  3. taking personal responsibility to stop the spread of false and misleading information.

We identified these strategies by reviewing existing research and conducting a brief survey in 2022 of nearly 1,000 U.S. adults aged 55 and older.[6] We then designed a set of three animated videos — each focused on one of the three approaches above — to help put these strategies into action.

1. Reading Across Sources (Lateral Reading)

What Is the Problem?

It is important for individuals to know the difference between trustworthy and false or misleading information. However, identifying what is trustworthy can be difficult and is often influenced by the way information is presented online. For example, if someone reads about a product using only sources that are paid to promote it, that person might not know about any negative side effects. This practice can lead to one-sided understanding and put the person at risk. The same concept holds true when it comes to information about politics or current events.

In response to our survey, older U.S. adults reported that they are not always confident in identifying whether or not information is based on fact. Older generations, in particular, may feel unsure about how to know which information to trust. But there are practical approaches to teasing out fact-based information from the rest. Lateral reading is one simple strategy that has proven particularly effective for checking the trustworthiness of information.[8]

What Is the Solution?

Lateral reading is when you check whether information you found online is trustworthy by looking for corroborating evidence through other websites or sources. Lateral reading has been shown to be more effective than trying to determine whether something is trustworthy based only on clues from the information itself.[9] Before you share information, either online or in person, you should pause. The minimum time that it takes to verify details across sources through lateral reading may prevent you from contributing to the problem of false information.

After you have identified the information that you want to verify, follow these basic steps:

  1. Open a new tab in your browser (e.g., Safari, Firefox, Google Chrome, Edge) on your computer or smartphone and navigate to a search engine, such as Google.
  2. In the search engine, enter text about the topic in which you are interested. The search engine will bring up news stories and other websites that discuss the same topic.
  3. Skim those additional sources to expand your understanding. Focus on information from organizations that do not seem like they are trying to influence you and news sites that do not aim to shock or excite readers.
  4. Search for the author and the organization from which the information came. Look for answers to such questions as the following: Who paid to produce this work? What kinds of expertise do the author and the organization have? Do other people seem to think they are credible, and why?

Now that you are armed with more context, think critically about whether the information you found is based on facts. Practicing this process — opening a new tab on your browser and searching for additional sources — can help prevent you from accidentally sharing false or misleading information.

2. Resisting Emotional Manipulation

What Is the Problem?

Emotionally charged information travels fast online. Social media can make people feel strong emotions that lead them to share things quickly.[10] This concept is built into the design of social media platforms: Appealing to people’s emotions is one of the most certain ways to capture their time and attention online.[11]

Bad actors understand that people are more likely to interact with emotionally charged content. As a result, some people share things that are meant to make readers feel a certain way — even if details are exaggerated or untrue.[12] People are more likely to believe false information when they are in a heightened emotional state.[13]

Engaging with false and misleading information because of the emotions it evokes can have tremendously damaging effects. For instance, if someone believes false information about a group of people, that information may contribute to treating that group unfairly or even causing direct harm to the group.

What Is the Solution?

Although reading across sources is an important step in stopping the spread of false information, some misleading information cannot be confirmed as true or false. Such information might instead contain an opinion or an unprovable assertion. It may be sensational or accompany a shocking image. This kind of information often relies on emotional manipulation, which is why focusing on fact-checking is helpful. However, fact-checking is not always enough to curb the spread of misleading information. To do that, people must be prepared to both fact-check and resist emotionally manipulative content.

To prevent the spread of emotionally manipulative information, the following steps would be helpful:

  1. Before liking, sharing, or commenting on information online, ask yourself why you want to do so — that is, is it because of an emotional reaction or for another reason?
  2. Take a moment to reflect and step back from any emotional response you notice after reading.
  3. Think critically about the information at hand, and what you would accomplish by liking, sharing, or commenting on it.

Studies show that engaging in critical thinking rather than reacting solely based on emotion can reduce the chances of spreading false information.[14] By taking these steps, you can resist emotional manipulation and help prevent the spread of false and misleading content.

3. Taking Personal Responsibility

What Is the Problem?

Our survey showed that most people aged 55 years and older are concerned about false and misleading information spreading in the United States. However, our respondents were more worried about other people spreading bad information than about doing so themselves. Other studies show that, compared with younger people, older generations are less likely to feel that the spread of misinformation and disinformation is their personal responsibility.[15]

Some survey respondents said that they felt that social media companies and government agencies should be responsible for stopping the spread of false and misleading content, at least to an extent. However, people cannot always rely on these groups for protection from misleading posts online. Some information might be manipulative but not break any rules, so it would not be removed by companies or the government. Although some information categorized as “fake news” is filtered out of feeds or flagged by social media companies, their systems cannot filter everything. It is simply not enough to believe that someone else will address the problem.

What Is the Solution?

The solution may be shifting your mindset and sharing what you have learned. By taking the following steps, you can remind yourself of your powerful role in addressing the problem of spreading false or misleading information:

  1. Remember that you play a crucial role in stopping the spread of false and misleading information.
  2. Read across sources before interacting with content.
  3. Reflect on your emotional state before engaging.
  4. Initiate conversations with friends and family about stopping the spread of false and misleading information.

You can multiply your positive impact by discussing these strategies with family and friends, particularly those who you notice may be sharing false or misleading information. Research shows that people are more likely to correct missteps in sharing false information when someone they trust responds with accurate information.[16]

A Call to Action: Limit the Influence of False and Misleading Information

The spread of false and misleading information can lead to a lack of trust in institutions, a breakdown in civil discourse, and increased polarization. By being responsible and using such strategies as checking multiple sources and avoiding emotional manipulation, people can reduce the impact of bad information during the next election cycle. By working together, individuals can create a more-informed society and protect democracy. Take action by using these strategies and discussing them with others.

Think before you share, because posts have power. And so do you.


This piece originally appeared on the RAND.

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