By Natasha Kassulke
It happened again. Flooding plagued a major U.S. city and the photo started popping up on social media. The image shows a great white shark swimming next to a car on a flooded highway. Possible? Sure. It’s happened in movies – cue your favorite Sharknado line – so it must be possible, right?
But, there’s a serious problem with the photo. It’s been heavily manipulated. It’s no longer a documentary photo. It’s a digital hoax. Thank Snopes for exposing the truth. According to Snopes, a respected fact-checking website, the image of the shark was lifted from a 2005 photograph of a kayaker being trailed by a great white and then pasted into a photo of a flooded street.
As Jerry Apps and I argue in our book, Planting an Idea: Critical and Creative Thinking About Environmental Issues (Fulcrum Publishing, 2023), one reason people are so quick to believe misinformation such as the validity of the shark photo, is that they do not know what to look for to tell if it is fact or fiction.
With the varied Internet technologies available today, anyone can become an author of fake news or edit a photo and begin to spread it quickly and widely for free.
The danger of disinformation and misinformation
In our book we assert, that disinformation and misinformation is dangerous and deters our ability to engage in critical thinking and informed conversation. Disinformation is the process of manipulating information to mislead, while misinformation is dissemination of false or incorrect information but without the author realizing it is erroneous. Both misinformation and disinformation are sometimes referred to as fake or false news.
What sometimes happens, instead of correcting disinformation, is that false news is shared with like-minded friends or family who do not question its validity and then spread that “news” to their friends and before we know it, sharks are swimming all around us.
Some of the most popular science fake news over the years includes, that COVID-19 is spread through 5G networks, denial of man-made climate destruction, and the flat-Earth theory. Some readers probably find some of this “news” as funny. But we are not laughing. The growing influence of fake news is undermining public confidence in science. And in the wrong hands, hearts and minds, fake news can be dangerous and even deadly.
How to spot a fake
In our book we challenge readers to take a closer look at the source of your “facts.” Don’t be duped. We also call on social media platforms to monitor for, and quickly remove fake news.
Fake news also fills the vacuum for people offering instant solutions to various problems. Sometimes it is just easier to accept a story, no matter how outrageous it might seem, rather than take the time and effort to confirm that it is true.
We encourage readers to ask, who is the author/sponsor? What are the author's credentials or organizational affiliations? Is the author qualified to write on this topic? Also, does the URL reveal anything about the author or source ? Usually, a .gov or .edu is considered more reliable than a .com or .org. Not that .coms and .orgs are not good sources, but they deserve a closer look for reliability.
We suggest that readers explore the truthfulness of the content. Is the information supported by evidence? Has the journal entry been peer reviewed? Does the tone seem unbiased and free from emotion?
And we ask readers to consider the sources’ s motive. What is the purpose of sharing the information – to inform, educate, entertain, or persuade? There are many motives for creating fake science news, the most obvious being financial gain and ideological beliefs. What are the goals of the authors and does their point of view appear objective or are there political, religious or personal biases?
Remember. “Just because many people believe something is accurate doesn’t mean it is accurate. Critical and creative thinkers verify that every piece of information is accurate before accepting it.” (Planting an Idea, Chapter 3)