The whirlwind of misleading or fabricated reports tied to Iran’s retaliatory attack in Iraq on Tuesday night illustrates the depths and dangers of the nation’s misinformation crisis.
Fueled by social media, the false reports generated fears of a wider outbreak of war when international tensions were already high and Americans on edge.
Among the false reports was one widely circulated tweet that 20 American troops died and the nation was on the “precipice of another horrible war in the Middle East.” Other posts on Facebook and Twitter, in particular, circulated falsehoods about the attack, using images from unrelated events to suggest a horrifying outcome.
It turned out there were no casualties from the Iranian attack on two Iraqi bases in retaliation for a U.S. strike that killed a top Iranian general.
The barrage of misinformation underscores that despite the pledges and efforts by big tech companies to crack down on falsehoods, fabricated or misleading content remains a significant threat.
“You have a system where the potential for people to spread misinformation that gets believed on a wide landscape is huge,” said Josh Pasek, an associate professor of communication, media and political science at the University of Michigan, who has studied the issue.
The topic of war, long known as a haven for propaganda, is especially ripe for spreading false reports.
“This is the type of story that incites an emotional response from people, so it is a prime target for misinformation and disinformation and bad actors,” said Katy Byron, editor and manager of MediaWise, a program from the journalism training nonprofit group Poynter that educates youth about how to sort fact from fiction online.
Some government officials have misled Americans. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., shared a doctored photo appearing to show President Barack Obama shaking hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“The world is a better place without these guys in power,” he tweeted.
After the photo was flagged as a fabrication, he called reporters “dim witted” and wrote, “No one said this wasn’t photoshopped.”
False rumors about the prospect of the draft being reinstated circulated widely among young people on social platforms such as TikTok and Twitter, where users shared videos with the hashtag #WWIII. (The reality is that the draft is extremely unlikely to be reinstated, even in the event of war.)
The U.S. Selective Service System’s website temporarily crashed Friday after a surge of traffic following the killing of Iran’s Gen. Qasem Soleimani. False information reported online about the draft suggested that “gay Americans are exempt” and left “the impression that felons can’t be drafted,” according to an analysis by fact-checking site PolitiFact.
It’s particularly challenging to fact-check information about war, said Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact.
“In situations like this, where you have to rely more and more on official government information, it becomes more difficult for us to fact-check,” he said. “In many cases, we’ll be able to help a little less because we’re not on the ground and we can’t see things with our own eyes.”
Since he took office, President Donald Trump has made more than 15,400 false or misleading claims, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker database.
“The fact that there’s just not a lot of credibility in what this administration says (means) people are searching for what the real story is here,” Pasek said. “You have something ripe for conspiracy theories, misinformation and the like to spread.”
The bottom line: Anyone with a social media account can mislead – and people in power can do it on a grand scale.
It’s unlikely to change anytime soon. There are simply too many users of social media for platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to monitor or block all misinformation, absent some form of artificial intelligence or outright censorship that poses its own set of challenges.
Each outlet has instituted policies to excise certain forms of false information from their platforms, while allowing others. None of it is enough to stamp out falsehoods altogether.
When assessing the situation, it helps to take a step back and look at how quickly things have changed. In the pre-social media age, journalists, who are trained on source validation and fact authentication, largely controlled the information that people encountered.
Today, social media algorithms have become the new gatekeepers for many people. The algorithms filter information, typically presenting material based on a benchmark for engagement predicated on clicks, shares and likes.
Paired with the human nature for confirmation bias – our tendency to seek out information that validates preexisting beliefs and ignore disconfirming material – it’s a recipe for political polarization and the spread of misinformation.
“What’s apparent is information spreads pretty quickly whether it’s right or wrong – and seemingly particularly if it’s wrong because it has that additional novelty bonus,” Pasek said.
The democratic nature of social media, which provides a platform to anyone and everyone, empowers the spread of falsehoods masquerading as insight.
“All of a sudden everyone’s an expert on Iran,” Sharockman said. “So you have moments where the publishing platforms – Facebook and Twitter and Reddit – allow anyone to claim expertise on the subject.”
Here are tips on how to validate information you encounter online:
Visit primary sources whenever possible. “Do a little digging” and seek out the original source of the information to ensure that people aren’t misconstruing it online, Byron said.
Cross-reference information from different sources. Stanford History Education Group’s Sam Wineburg, who conducted research for MediaWise on how young people navigate the internet, recommends “lateral” reading. That means navigating to unrelated sites to authenticate or disprove information from the original source. One tip to get started is to visit sources listed at the bottom of Wikipedia entries.
Don’t reflexively trust people in authority. Be skeptical. “Just because someone has a big blue checkmark next to their name on social media doesn’t mean they’re an expert on that topic,” Byron said, referring to the logo that verifies a user’s identity. “We always really push people to go to that key question of who’s behind the information.”
Be wary of photos, video and audio. The rising likelihood of fabricated or misleadingly edited video, photos and audio is a source of serious trouble. Known as “deepfakes,” this technology is enabled by artificial intelligence and will allow people to create content that makes it look like people did things they never did and said things they never said.
“A lot of people manipulate images for disinformation and negative purposes,” Byron said.