Disinformation is one of the three Information Disorder types. It is spreading information that is known to be false.
Disinformation is most commonly created by these types of disseminators or disinformation actors on social media:
- Bots - fully automated social media accounts controlled by code to feed a particular agenda
- Sock puppets - fake accounts created and controlled by one person, pretending to be different people, in order to amplify and repeat messaging
- Trolls - people who intentionally create discord and provoke negative emotion either to further an agenda or for personal reasons like amusement and attention seeking
Public affairs professionals as well as general media consumers need to be able to spot these disinformation actors on social media. There are no hard and fast rules for spotting disinformation actors, but there are signs that may tip you off. If you suspect an account may be that of a disinformation actor, follow these tips and take a closer look at it.
Look at the account details.
Accounts bent on spreading disinformation often lack a long history and/or personal information. These accounts usually surface within the past three years. They will usually have less than the average number of friends or followers that you see on the platform.
The perpetrators of these accounts like to leave out the kinds of information that real people have on their accounts. You won't see complete contact information. You won't see posts shared about their school or work life, the kinds of things that happen to real people. They don't share pictures of their friends, families or pets. It's often easier to leave these things out rather than make them up.
Think like the bad actors think. It would be hard to keep track of which of your sock puppet accounts had that particular Black Lab photo, and the name you invented for that dog, compared to all of the others. It's easier to keep it simple and stick to the task at hand: spreading false information.
Another detail to take note of is the profile picture. In a way, disinformation actors are also in the job of marketing. They will often use profile pictures of young attractive women, in the same way that advertisers sometimes do. While this type of profile picture alone does not point to a disinformation actor, consider it when paired with the other indicators mentioned here.
It's not just individuals.
Not all disinformation actors will represent individuals on social media. Some accounts may look like they are representing an affinity group or organization. If you suspect a group's account is suspicious, look at the group's leadership or administrators. Disinformation actor accounts for groups usually have no mention of any individuals leading the group.
Look at the content.
You also need to look for patterns in the content posted by the account. The posts of a disinformation actor will usually reflect an extreme political view and direct objection of the opposite extreme. Look for overuse of hook statements like, "This is unbelievable," or "I can't believe this," used to convey a feeling of shock. Posts will often be inflammatory, trying to intensify anger and division in the readers.
You may also see a lot of direct sharing of content from prominent individuals in the community that they purport to represent. For instance, there may be numerous posts shared from a prominent politician representing "their side." These will have little to no original content added, and will often be non-divisive in nature. These types of posts gain credibility and support with the account's followers. These may have a feel of automation behind them.
The frequency of posting content may also be a clue to the existence of a disinformation actor. They will usually post far more frequently than the average user, perhaps even several hundred posts per day.
Read between the lines.
There are patterns in what you don't see in the content as well. You won't see compromise or middle-ground posts. There won't be anything that strays far from the established doctrine line of the account. Real accounts are more likely to show some faults in their own side and some good in the opposition. You usually won't see that on the accounts of disinformation actors.
Does the account lack original content and rely more on reposts? Is there very little content that is not political or controversial? Also, if there are non-political posts, do those posts lack variety? Can you spot patterns in those posts? For instance, they are always posting existing inspirational messages, famous quotes or song lyrics. These clues may point to automation and a disinformation actor.
Disinformation actors also often lack messaging regarding local issues to the account's listed location. Real people tend to care about local issues and post about local concerns and/or local events. Missing content about the local area or state is a disinformation actor red flag.
Know the facts.
Stay informed. Obviously, a major item to look for when trying to spot disinformation actors is shared information that you know to be false. Look for deep fakes, altered images, manipulated graphics and anything that you know isn't true. Look for known hoaxes pushed out by bots, sock puppets or trolls. The more you know about what is true and false proactively, the easier it will be for you to spot disinformation actors on social media.
You should be media literate. Media literacy is the ability to analyze content presented in order to assess its credibility and truthfulness. Learn more about media literacy in this "What is Media Literacy?" video created by the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC).
When analyzing a piece of content, utilize what First Draft calls the 5 pillars of verification:
- Provenance: Are you looking at the original account, article or piece of content?
- Source: Who created the account or article, or captured the original piece of content?
- Date: When was it created?
- Location: Where was the account established, website created or piece of content captured?
- Motivation: Why was the account established, website created or the piece of content captured?
There are also online tools available that can help you verify information.
The Google reverse image search is helpful in verifying visual imagery. This allows you to see other locations on the internet of an image, perhaps in a different context. If you are unfamiliar with using the Google reverse image search, there are several tutorials available on YouTube for varying platforms and devices.
TinEye is a website that offers another tool for searching an image’s possible location elsewhere online. TinEye displays results in chronological order so that you can easily see an image's first appearance.
Fact checker websites can also be valuable tools for verifying information. There are many options available. Meta offers a list of their independent fact-checking partners by country. Fact-checking sites can be trusted sources, but remember to practice your critical thinking of media literacy there as well.
These tips are just some elements that you can look for. There are no concrete perfect rules for spotting disinformation actors. Even false information on social media may be the result of unintentional misinformation and not intentional disinformation.
Just like disinformation actors try to look legitimate, legitimate social media users may sometimes look like disinformation actors. Look closely at the account overall and trust your instincts. If you think you've identified a disinformation actor, report it to the platform to investigate further.
Urbani, Shaydanay. (2020, September 22). Verifying Online Information. First Draft.