What To Do If Your Family Or Friends Shares Misinformation On Facebook

Should you call out a friend who shares disinformation or misleading stories about COVID-19 or anything else on social media?

If you’ve been on Facebook the last few years (or any social media platform), you’ve probably had an experience like this: You’re scrolling your news feed and you see that a family member or friend has posted something that you highly doubt is true.

Maybe they link to a disreputable site ― or it’s clear propaganda for or against one presidential candidate. Maybe it’s COVID-19 disinformation ― a clip from “Plandemic,” the slickly-produced conspiracy theorist “documentary” many shared in the early days of the pandemic.

Maybe it’s meme about QAnon, an increasingly popular conspiracy theory that claims former President Donald Trump is secretly fighting a Satanic pedophile ring run by liberal politicians and celebrities.

Now that Russia has launched a wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, many are concerned that there will be a deluge of misinformation and repurposed video footage shared on social media. (On TikTok, many users are livestreaming the “Ukrainian invasion” and asking followers for donations. But as NBC News reports, some of the videos are just static shots of the tops of houses in the U.K., with sirens and gunshots dubbed over it.)

Whatever gets posted, you might feel a sense of responsibility to call it out. After all, the impact of misinformation can be huge. After the 2016 election, many feared that fabricated stories circulating on Facebook about both candidates altered the outcome of the presidential election.

According to a 2017 study by researchers from NYU and Stanford, social media plays a larger role in bringing people to fake news sites than it plays in bringing them to real news sites. More than 40% of visits to 65 fake news sites came from social media, compared to around 10% of visits to 690 top U.S. news sites, according to the researchers.

“Creating a ‘gotcha!’ moment is not likely to go over well. Keep in mind that your comment on their post can be seen by many people.”

- Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist and director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media

Under increasing pressure the last few years, Facebook has taken steps to curb the spread of disinformation on its platform (and on Instagram, which it owns. Twitter now points out misleading content as well), but critics and social media experts say that’s often not enough. Misinformation and conspiracy theories still get through the cracks, said David M. Dozier, a veteran journalist and a faculty emeritus at the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University.

“Facebook’s algorithms cannot replace our own media literacy,” Dozier said.

“We all have an obligation as citizens in a democracy to identify misinformation and disinformation when we find it,” he explained. “We’ve seen Russia mount concerted campaigns to spread disinformation during our elections. We must all be vigilant. There are no alternative facts. Just facts. Finding facts, however, is no easy task.”

If that’s the case, do you have a moral obligation to help your friends and family make sense of what they’ve come across and shared? Should you really play fact-checker with your friends and family?

“I believe it is worth saying something if someone you know posts misinformation/disinformation, however it is important to be careful in how you go about doing it,” said Sherry Pagoto, a psychologist and director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media.

“Creating a ‘gotcha!’ moment, though, is not likely to go over well,” she said. “Keep in mind that your comment on their post can be seen by many people.”

So how do you fact-check posts without coming across like a patronizing jerk to family and friends? Below, experts offer their advice for debunking fake news with as much tact as possible.

“Send a private message first," veteran journalist David M. Dozier said. "It’s best that the person who posted the misinformation or disinformation takes it down and/or explains why the information is false."
sorbetto via Getty Images
“Send a private message first," veteran journalist David M. Dozier said. "It’s best that the person who posted the misinformation or disinformation takes it down and/or explains why the information is false."

First, you have to understand the difference between disinformation and misinformation.

Before going full-on fact-checker, it helps to be able to distinguish disinformation from misinformation. Though the words sound similar and may be used interchangeably, what separates the two is the intent of the sharer.

Disinformation is blatantly false information shared with the intent to deceive others. For instance, after the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, Russian information operatives trying to manipulate the 2020 election results increased disinformation campaigns about the BLM movement and other volatile race and social issues in U.S. politics. That’s a clear example of disinformation.

Misinformation, on the other hand, is often shared unintentionally. Your friends and family may not be aware that the link they shared contains false or misleading information. One popular example? At the beginning of lockdowns in Europe, many shared a viral story about dolphins and swans swimming in the canals of Venice, since the waterways were cleared of motorboat traffic. It was a harmless enough story, but not exactly true. If you shared that link without verifying the story, you peddled misinformation.

That’s obviously a lighthearted example. More often than not, “the false news that’s being passed along is from innocent people that are shocked or worried by the sensational headlines they’ve read and are concerned how it may impact their friends and family,” said Daniel Kent, the founder and CEO of AI Literacy and Net Literacy, a youth-run nonprofit organization that promotes computer and internet literacy among adults.

Make sure what the person posted is false or misleading.

Ideally, Facebook’s fact-checking tool has already added a “disreputable” label under your friend’s post. But that may not be the case; a recent report from the activist nonprofit Avaaz found that a mere 16% of health misinformation on Facebook analyzed by its researchers carried a warning from fact-checkers.

If the post is still up, you can use reputable fact-checking websites like Factcheck,org, Politifact (which is run by The Poynter Institute) and Snopes to evaluate the veracity of the story in question. The Washington Post also has a particularly good fact-checking series for political news. And if you’re fact checking on anything to do with COVID-19, the World Health Organization has a helpful myth-buster page.

You can also Google keywords from the headline of the story in question to see if anything else has been written on the subject from more credible sources.

Decide if you should publicly respond or direct message them.

Now the hard part: Once you do your due diligence to confirm that your relative or friend has, in fact, shared fake news, how do you address it with them without appearing condescending? Should you reply directly on the post or keep it private by messaging the person?

“The advantage of replying is that it has the potential to sway observers even if your reply does not sway the original poster,” Pagoto said. “The disadvantage is that if you reply in a way that makes the original poster feel embarrassed or defensive, you may push them further into their corner, and worse, they could simply delete your reply which diminishes your opportunity to sway others.”

What’s more, any engagement on their post may get more eyeballs on the post since Facebook’s algorithms boost any content with high engagement.

You should approach these instances on a case-by-case basis (you may want to consider your level of closeness with the sharer, and tailor your approach and delivery to that), but generally Dozier said he favors a two-step process.

“Send a private message first. It’s best that the person who posted the misinformation or disinformation takes it down and/or explains why the information is false,” he said. “Failing that, then you post to the social media site that the information is false, with links to authoritative sources that indicate that’s it’s false.”

Remember that fact-checking is a team effort. Pass on tips you've learned on curating your Facebook feed so misinformation is less likely to make an appearance.
sorbetto via Getty Images
Remember that fact-checking is a team effort. Pass on tips you've learned on curating your Facebook feed so misinformation is less likely to make an appearance.

When calling out a misleading news story, do so tactfully. Consider the feelings and perspective of the sharer and be smart about the sources you cite.

To broach what may be a tough conversation, Pagoto suggests starting with point of connection. You might say, “I’m glad you brought up this issue because like you, I think it is important and should be discussed” or “I couldn’t agree more that ... ”

Then, she said, share the factual information with a credible source.

“I would avoid news sources if possible, particularly those that are heavily criticized by one side, and opt for a site like Politifact,” she said. “If there is a more direct scientific source you can find, like a study, that may have even greater impact.”

The goal here is to come across emphatic so you may even want to give the person an example of when you fell for misleading or fake news, Kent said.

“You can use that as a way to recommend a fact checking site that you’ve used before for them to check out when they have questions about a story,” he said.

If your friend or family member still isn’t convinced ― or worse, feels that you’re the one sharing misinformation ― social media may not be the ideal place to continue the discussion.

“You could point out that clearly you are in disagreement as to what is a credible source and you’d be open to discussing further privately or dropping the matter,” Pagota said. “If you continue to run into these situations with the same person, you may need to reassess whether this is someone you want to follow on social media.”

Unfollowing someone on social media doesn’t have to mean your entire relationship is severed ― though it certainly can lead you in that direction ― it could just mean that you want to eliminate the stress of seeing their misinformed content on a regular basis, Pagota said.

“If there are other venues in which you can tolerate this person, your relationship could be limited to those venues,” she said.

Remember that fact-checking is a team effort.

When you approach this conversation with empathy and treat fact-checking as a team activity, it’s bound to reduce resistance.

“You aren’t telling your family member or friend that he or she is wrong, you approach the information’s accuracy as an open question,” Dozier said.

Catching misinformation and disinformation is part of overall media literacy, he said. As you learn to become a more discerning consumer of news, consider sharing little tricks and tips on your Facebook.

For instance, did you know that Facebook users can set their accounts to prioritize 30 reputable sources (trusted news and fact-checking outlets, more often that not) in their news feed? When you do that, content from these trustworthy sites is more likely to get top billing when you log on.

While reading news on Facebook, also look for the “News Feed Context Button,” which provides extra information for some links and pages that share content on your feed. If a site doesn’t come up as having a formal presence on Facebook ― plus, there’s no info about them on Wikipedia ― you may want to stay wary of articles from them. (Once you’ve identified that an outlet peddles misinformation or disinformation, you can also block them.)

If you’re regularly seeing people on your feed sharing doctored or incorrectly captioned videos or photos ― for instance, this aerial image of a Seattle Black Lives Matter crowd protesting in June 2020 that many shared with an incorrect caption stating it was Democrats protesting in favor of mail-in voting ― share a post about how to verify images. If you have to, walk your followers through how to do a Google reverse image search to fact-check images. For verifying the legitimacy of videos, First Draft, an organization that fights mis- and disinformation online, has a great pocket guide on how to do that.

As Dozier has learned in his own life, passing on tips like this can be one of the most effective ― and easiest ― ways to combat the influence of misinformation.

“My wife is an avid user of social media,” he said. “When something pops up that doesn’t seem true, I suggest that we locate the original source of the misinformation. Make this a shared family activity. In the process, you increase everybody’s media literacy. It’s the difference between giving somebody a fish versus teaching that person how to fish.”

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