Fact or Fiction? Filtering Out the Bad Information on Social Media

Rumors, satire, lies… social media is full of misleading information.

I’m writing this article as I prepare to give a presentation of the same name to Oregon Women in Timber this weekend. So much information gets passed around social media- which has the ability to shape public options, make businesses second guess their decisions, and start movements. With such power to gather people to action, here’s what do you need to know before jumping on the latest bandwagon.

Fake News Site - The SpudFilter #1: Is it Satire?

Our first filter is to find out if’s it’s real or satire. Sources like The Spudd and The Onion look like news site, but are completely fake. Often making fun of or playing off of popular headlines. The Onion even calls itself “America’s Finest News Source,” I’m sure with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but it’s difficult to know that at first glance. The front page has Politics, Sports, Science/Tech, and Recent News sections and nowhere on that home page is there a hint that it’s a satire paper. Of course looking at some of the headlines might give you a clue. “Report: You’re Actually Saving Money With Roller Rink Membership” or “Obama Sleeping With Louisville Slugger Under Bed Now” would be head scratching headline for a normal paper. At least The Spudd has a pop-up warning you that its a fake news site.

Several entertainment news shows also show up in my feed with people taking them much too serious. Hint; SNL is for entertainment purposes only, it’s not real news. And  there is a reason that the Daily Show is on Comedy Central. While I think he brings up some good points every now and then, Jon Stewart’s main job is to make fun of the real news. It’s satire. Take it with a grain of salt.

The worst offenders:

  • The Onion
  • The Spudd
  • SNL (Saturday Night Live)
  • John Oliver
  • The Colbert Report
  • The Daily Show

Filter #2 Is it a Rumor?

dangerous diy scentsy rumorRumor noun “a currently circulating story or report of uncertain or doubtful truth.” Everyone should know that if the info comes from TMZ it’s likely from the rumor-mill. But sometimes other info comes across our screen that it purely rumor that people mistake for truth. In my mind one of the greatest source of these posts is in the diet-fad and DIY craze. Recently a post suggesting that you add water and vapor rub to your scentsy was debunked as dangerous by a skeptic site I trust. They pointed out that:

“The danger of putting vapor rub in with water and heating it is it can cause splattering (and thus a burn), could potentially start on fire as it evaporates, and is directly against the label directions on the vapor rub. So just don’t do it.”

 Another one I see from time-to-time is a DIY weed killer that is suppose to be free of those nasty “chemicals” because it’s made out of stuff from your kitchen. First of all soap and vinegar are both made from chemicals. A weed scientist blogged about the mixture:

“The acetic acid in the homemade mixture is nearly 10 times more lethal than the glyphosate in the Eliminate mixture. And this doesn’t include the salt…. Truth is, it is easy to make a chemical (any chemical) sound pretty nasty, even if you use verifiable, factual information.

It turns out that the homemade recipe might be more dangerous (depending on the exact recipe and how it’s use) and it more expensive than Round-Up too. Yet rumors like these persist because of what skeptics and philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy. Being that if it’s natural it must be good or better than a man-made counterpoint.

Rumors exist on buzz words; telling you that it’s natural, you’ll save money and/or time, it’s healthy, it’s a newly discovered secret or secrets the pros don’t want you to know, it’s super quick and easy, or that it’s a new use for an every day product. You can see that when you remove the buzz words and phrases from the rumors it’s sounds like a bad infomercial.

Snopes.com is a great place for debunking rumors of all kinds. At the very least they list their sources so you can dig for more info. Factcheck.org deals with political rumors. About.com has a running Hoax List: Current Netlore & Urban Legends. While the search isn’t great there you’ll quickly see the top internet myths and rumor debunked there. Beyond using these sites you can look for credible sources with the information you are seeing. The caption of a photo isn’t enough to go on. Is the person posting an expert in the field? Does it link to a site of an expert? What kind of claim of expertise do they have? Is there research to back it up? What does the manufacture say (eg is it telling you to use the product in a way that is warned against by the label?) Are they selling you something or getting paid for click-throughs? Just thinking critically about the information you see can make a huge difference. And when in doubt there’s no reason you have to share.

The worst offenders:

  • OMG the chemicals!
  • Miracle weight loss
  • Home Remedy
  • All Natural
  • Secret Tip/Trick
  • Insanely Easy DIY
  • DIY Healthy Version of Junk Food

 Filter #3 It is from a Quack?

Chow babe makes fun of the Food BabeThis list of worst offenders might save you a lot of time when judging info you see on social media. The source matters and some sources you can completely discount. The ones on the list below have all gone off into la-la-land and if you see a link from their accounts you can just dismiss it.

They often use vague phrases to claim that you should fear or be suspicious of something. One of the recent examples of classic quackery is the Food Babes attack on Subway. When she called on her follower to pressure Subway to remove azodicarbonamide from it’s products by calling it the “yoga mat chemical.”

Forbes called her out here: Quackmail: Why You Shouldn’t Fall For The Internet’s Newest Fool, The Food Babe. Independent Women’s Forum wrote about her in “Useful Idiot Alert: The Food Babe” using lots of links to substantiate her views. And John Coupland a Professor of Food Science at Penn State wrote about it too The Food Babe and Sudden Change in our Food system.

The Food Babe, Dr Oz and these others often use vague words like dangerous, hidden, alarming, toxic, nightmare, shocked, artificial, and magical. They link to sponsors or activist website for their sources or worse self-reference. Dr. Mercola is especially bad about self referencing. Trying to track down a study quoted on his site can be maddening. In one instance I was taken to four different pages on his site before I gave up. Remember the more they can get you to look at the ads on their site the more they make. They make lots of money off of their fear mongering by selling you alternative products, affiliate (sponsored) links, and ads on their sites.

Look for articles and blogs that list references or link to reference. When you click on them do they go to a source like PubMed (more than 24 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books) or Science or another scientific journal? Or do they go down a rabbit hole forcing you to spend more time on their site without ever getting to reliable sources? When looking at scientific studies online a pay-wall (where you have to pay to see the full report) is not always a bad thing. (Sometimes your local library or university will have a subscription to these site and if you are a member or student can log in to view them that way.) While you may not be able to see the full study without either paying for signing in you should still be able to see the title of the study, it’s authors and their credentials and a summary of the reports findings. Google Scholar is another good place to look for info on scientific or health claims, you can even enable a library where you can save the articles you view into a personalized library and see related articles.

Boil all that down and it’s just easier to skip the quacks who are out to profit off of fear-mongering.

The worst offenders:

  • Infowars
  • Natural News
  • Dr. Mercola
  • The Food Babe
  • Dr. Oz
  • Modern Alternative Mama

Check out these other cool sites that I trust to help debunk internet myths and explain science:


Respectful Insolence


Genetic Literacy Project

Science Based Medicine

inFact with Brian Dunning

While no site (and no one) is infallible, this guide should help you filter out the worst of the bad information floating around on social media, give you the tools to double check anything that seems suspicious, and stay away from getting onto bandwagons that might embarrass you later on.

Comments are closed