Tip Sheet

Amid mass demonstrations against police violence, misinformation and disinformation about the protests are spreading fast online. False, misleading, and misattributed stories and images can polarize communities, unfairly damage reputations, and obscure the truth. By sharing and amplifying this content we often further the goals of those who aim to discredit and divide.

PEN America offers three simple tips to minimize the spread of misleading information:

1. Verify images and videos. Photos and videos might be distorted or taken out of context. 

Not all videos and images that are shared on social media platforms as depicting the current protests are legitimate. Some are miscaptioned, misidentified, Photoshopped, or drawn from different protests elsewhere in the world and even years prior. Before sharing or validating these images, consider the source, run a Google image search to learn more about the image’s origin, or see if the image or video is available from someone who was an eyewitness or can confirm it has been misattributed. Reputable news organizations and even fact-checking organizations have sophisticated tools to authenticate video so their feeds can be a useful guide. Look at First Draft’s pocket guide on how to verify videos.

2. Verify accounts. A Gmail account inviting you to attend a protest might be bogus.

Bad actors are using bogus email accounts to invite people to protests, and unverified social media accounts and bots are purporting to be organizing demonstrations. Whether you are getting an email from [email protected] or seeing an accusatory or mobilizing message in your Twitter feed, think carefully about the source. Do you know who actually sent the email or wrote the post? Does the fact that a certain name, slogan or hashtag is used necessarily mean that that organization or movement is behind the message? Watch out for accounts that very recently joined Twitter or Facebook, including those with a lot of recent activity or posts with low engagement. These can be warning signs of fake accounts.

3. Verify sources. Keep an eye out for unverified sites that promote false headlines.

One common disinformation tactic is the creation of false news sites, which often have believable names and masquerade as reputable local papers. Maybe it’s called The Local Gazette or Chesapeake Bay Times; you might come across these stories and take them as credible. But bad actors intentionally invoke the trappings of bogus news outlets to elevate conspiracies and falsehoods. Whether it is a site pretending to be a real outlet or a blog that seems to be sharing credible information, verify the sources of your news before you share them. Fact-checking sites like PolitiFact by Poynter and NewsGuard’s tracking center can help. Misleading news may identify specific people as agitators: These claims are often false and can lead to the trolling of individuals who are misidentified in images and videos as violent perpetrators.

Learn how to increase your media literacy skills with additional PEN America resources, including our guide on how to spot COVID-19 disinformation.