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Don’t get duped: Teasing out facts from fiction

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.