#SaferInternetDay: How Online Users Can Detect Misinformation

Misinformation is an issue that has come firmly to the fore over recent years, fuelled by increased access to the internet throughout the world. While higher internet usage provides enormous benefits, enabling people to stay more informed and interconnected, the scourge of fake news is a significant side effect. A variety of perpetrators, ranging from cyber-criminals intent on scams to nation state actors aiming to create discord in rival countries, are increasingly taking advantage of the ability to post unfiltered content to mislead people about crucial issues. This is hugely damaging for democracy and society at large. “The first thing to grasp is that it isn’t about making up completely fake news. It is more focused on exaggerating real issues in society and sowing divide between groups,” explained Lisa Forte, partner, Red Goat Cyber Security.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided even more opportunities for bad actors to spread mis and dis-information. Not only have social distancing measures led to a huge rise in the number of people using online services, but the highly emotive and rapidly evolving nature of the health crisis has been a major lure for people to click on links to stories related to it, exposing them to conspiracy theories and scams.

Elliott Champion, leader of brand and fraud divisions at CSC DBS, explained: “The key to understanding misinformation is what the intended outcome is. For example, misinformation could be created to incite fear or polarize social opinion especially with political changes across the globe. Also, given the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, misinformation is being used to take personal credentials and money. Misinformation around COVID-19 treatments, events, related news, (fake) tracking apps, vaccinations, monetary relief schemes, charity drives or donations have become widespread.”

It is therefore not fanciful to suggest that COVID-19 misinformation can lead to fatal consequences.

While there has been more efforts to tackle misinformation online by social media firms recently, as shown in high profile cases such as that of former President Donald Trump, the issue is set to remain prevalent for the foreseeable future. Paul Bischoff, privacy advocate at Comparitech.com, said: “Social media companies have largely resisted public pressure to censor legitimate users from expressing unpopular opinions. They have gone after coordinated misinformation campaigns by deleting accounts and censoring posts, but those are not considered valid users. Still, misinformation is rife on social media, particularly Facebook and Youtube.”

It is against this backdrop that this year’s annual Safer Internet Day campaign is focusing on enhancing reliability online, with a global theme of ‘together for a better internet.’ This emphasises how everyone can play a part in making the online world safer. In the UK, a major aspect of this year’s campaign is to reduce the impact of misinformation online by educating people on how to identify it whilst using the internet.

With this in mind, Infosecurity has compiled a range of tips and advice from security experts on how people can recognize misinformation online and separate fact from fiction.

Be Aware of Emotive Subjects

Online users should be especially vigilant about fake news when reading about subjects that are highly emotive in nature, COVID-19 being a prime example. Learning to stay calm and think clearly in the face of controversial headlines and stories is a big first step in combatting misinformation. Nick Biasini, threat researcher at Cisco Talos, explained: “Misinformation is mainly tied to highly charged and emotional topics. That emotion is what most provocateurs are after to get the shares and likes that elevate their content on social media platforms. Readers and users of these platforms can help to stem the tide by taking a few minutes to pause, breathe and think before sharing a headline or a story.” 

Javvad Malik, security awareness advocate at KnowBe4, added: “Perhaps the most useful thing people can do is to examine how a particular piece of information makes them feel. If it immediately creates a sense of outrage or panic or fear, or any emotional response, then the best advice would be to slow down and try to think rationally about it.”

“Using highly emotive language makes us feel enraged and then we overlook the fact that they haven’t actually cited anything specific to back up their claims”

The use of overly negative emotional language in social media posts or articles is also a sign that the author is compensating for a lack of factual evidence, and seeking to elicit an immediate response from readers, according to Forte. “This is used to mask their lack of specific references to facts, research or statistics. Using highly emotive language makes us feel enraged and then we overlook the fact that they haven’t actually cited anything specific to back up their claims,” she outlined.

Research the Source

If the website or social media account the content emanates from is not recognized, online users can take steps to satisfy themselves it is a legitimate source. There are a variety of indicators people can look out for in this regard. One of these is the length of time they have been operating. “Spotting these fake news websites can be a simple matter of checking how long they have they been posting news. Usually, these websites have two/three weeks’ worth of ‘content,’ which should be a first sign of suspicion,” said Liviu Arsene, global cybersecurity researcher at Bitdefender.

A similar rule of thumb applies to social media accounts, especially those purporting to be high profile figures. Champion advised: “These are becoming more common for executives, but anyone can review the date an account was setup. If it is in the past three months, beware.”

Users should also utilize mechanisms big tech firms have introduced to help highlight legitimate websites and social media users. Champion said: “Confirm the URL in the address bar contains ‘https.’ For example, to check a site’s security in the Google® Chrome™ browser, look to the left of the web address at the security status that may read: Connection is secure – proceed; if it says ‘do not proceed,’ then abort.” He added: “Pay attention to verification badges on social media platforms. These can help promote trusted or verified users.”

In addition, extreme caution should be taken when digesting information from websites that offer little to no information about the identity of authors, such as forums. John Callahan, principal application security consultant at nVisium, noted: “It should also go without saying that random forums and WordPress blogs, like reddit and 4chan, cannot be trusted in and of themselves. While they can be a great place to find aggregated data and interesting opinions, treat all information available on those kind of sites with a massive grain of salt until they can be confirmed via more reliable sources.”

Cross-Check Stories and Claims

Another important habit individuals should establish is to cross-check claims made in stories they see online. One way of doing this is to seek out reputable sources and ensure they are covering the same story using the same facts. Arsene explained: “The simplest way to distinguish between reliable and unreliable information online is to fact-check everything you read against information from reliable sources, such as government websites or reputable news websites and agencies.”

In regard to political issues, it is important to note that accurate news stories and facts will be reported by all major media outlets, regardless of their political leanings. “The most efficient and broad approach one can take towards ensuring they’re consuming accurate information is to not rely on any single source. Legitimate news will be covered by news media outlets on both sides of the spectrum,” explained Callahan. “Read stories from Fox News, CNN and The Hill before forming an opinion. Additionally, broadcast news tends to engage in far more speculation and spinning than print media does.”

There are also online tools available to help fact-check particular stories that users should be aware of. Ben Koppelman, head of research and innovation at CyberSmart, highlighted: “From an individual standpoint, it is encouraged that people remain skeptical at all times and seek help from trusted third parties, such as politifact.com, to assess the reliability of a news story. There are even efforts underway to develop automated tools that can fact-check in real-time, which users should explore. For example, https://fullfact.org/about/automated/.”

“Stick to first-hand reporting instead of reposts and commentary”

Additionally, if a particular news story is being spread through numerous reposts, it is well worth searching out the original source to ensure the facts have not been exaggerated or twisted in any way. “Stick to first-hand reporting instead of reposts and commentary,” advised Bischoff.

Analyze the Content

Clues for misinformation can also be found by examining the content of posts and messages. Timur Kovalev, chief technology officer at Untangle, explained that grammatical errors and unusual formatting may suggest it is not a legitimate source. “Review the language used in a post or an email that you’re trusting,” he outlined. “If there are misspellings, if words run into each other with no paragraphs, or if the tone of the message is different than it usually is, this is a common sign that it might not be from who you think it is from.”

Lisa Forte noted that perpetrators of misinformation tend to limit the use of self-reference in their wording. “In an attempt to be more persuasive the posts will likely use ‘we all believe’ instead of ‘I believe,’” she stated, adding that “they use URLs and quotation marks more than a normal user would. This is to try and make their posts seem more factual and impartial.”

In regard to links that are included in posts and articles, users should take time to carefully analyze the websites that they would be taken to before clicking on them. This can be done by hovering over the hyperlink and then researching the source that comes up. Kovalev warned: “If a link is included in a social media post or an email, validate the source of the link. The link may take the user to an unverified source providing information on a website that is not reputable.”

The surge in misinformation over recent years is proving hugely damaging in a number of ways, emphasized in the past year during major events such as the US elections and COVID-19. While pressure is increasingly being exerted on big tech firms to clamp down on fake news being spread on their platforms, difficult balances around free speech issues mean this will always be a complicated and controversial process. It is clear that individual citizens must take action into their own hands, and be far more skeptical and forensic when it comes to the information they digest online. A major aspect of this year’s Safer Internet Day is therefore around educating users to separate fact from fiction whilst navigating the online world.

As well as taking the types of steps set out above, as a more general point, it is important for online users to take their information from a variety of sources, and aim to have a more well-rounded perspective. Dirk Schrader, global vice-president at New Net Technologies (NNT) commented: “The best way to avoid getting into an info-bubble is to use various sources, stay connected in real life and apply scrutiny by trying to find proof for a specific aspect. There are many search engines out there (in addition to Google) like DuckDuckGo that help you to find that, and – as weird as this might sound – libraries still exist.”

Combatting the scourge of misinformation will be explored in a panel session at the upcoming Infosecurity Magazine Online Summit, taking place March 24. Register for free here.

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