Fake news? How to check your bias before you share news on social media

  • There's no guarantee the information you see on Facebook or Instagram is true - here's how to make sure you're responsibly sharing it
  • Remember that social media shows you what you want to see!
Nicola Chan |

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It's more important than ever to double check news that you share with your friends, especially on social media.

Hongkongers have, through 17 weeks of ongoing social unrest in the city, been more plugged into social media than ever. The protests have become a hot topic in everyday conversation – for young people in particular – and many feel the need to stay updated on the latest developments and happenings.

The problem is, there is no guarantee the information circulating on group chats or stories showing up on our news feeds are true. To help you avoid falling for – or spreading – false information, here are tips to keep you mindful of fake news on social media.

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Social media only shows you what you want to see 

Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are designed to give you information that you are interested in. That’s all well and good when you are looking for a new pair of running shoes and an ad notifying you of a Nike sale pops up on your feed, but not when you are trying to stay fully informed on current affairs. 

If you are following certain groups or pages, or have liked posts that support a particular side of an issue, chances are you will only be seeing content that also support that side. 

The problem with that is people are more inclined to believe information that supports their views. A recent study related to the Hong Kong protests by Chinese University’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey found that Hongkongers tend to fall for rumours or fake news that supported their political stance.

It's more important than ever to double check news that you share with your friends, especially on social media.
Photo: Shutterstock

Keep your biases in check

In an interview published in US-based Northwestern University’s research magazine Kellogg Insight, social psychologist Adam Waytz suggests the reason we tend to instantly  trust information that supports our beliefs can be explained by two concepts in psychology: motivated reasoning and naive realism. 

The idea of motivated realism is that people are inclined to believe anything that confirms our pre-existing views, while naive realism suggests that people tend to believe their perception of the world is  the only correct one. 

If these concepts are true, that means we are inherently more likely to fall prey to false information that we read on social media and will readily believe anything that reinforce our beliefs.

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Realising the role of  your emotions

Your emotions can play a part in what information you choose to believe, too. In a 2015 study that looked into the relationship between emotions and news that goes viral, data scientists Marco Guerini and Jacopo Staiano found that the stronger the emotions a news article makes you feel, the more likely you are to comment  on or share the content on social media, especially if the story evokes negative feelings. 

So, the next time you come across a story that makes you feel angry, excited or sad, pause for a moment and let your emotions settle. Then, before clicking the comment or share button, make sure the information is true; and even after you’ve confirmed everything, ask yourself if it is crucial you engage with the story.

Be a responsible news sharer

Perhaps you have no biases, or are not emotionally affected by the news you read. Maybe you just like to be the first to get the latest news out to your friends. 

The great thing about social media is that it automatically hands you the latest and trending information. But keep in mind that the stories that appear at the top of your news feed can’t always be trusted. 

Don’t just read the headline and go spreading it around. Read the whole story and note words like “might”, “allegedly”, “claimed”,  “to be”, or “was reported”. 

These words and phrases are used when something is not necessarily fact and is just based on what someone has said. Also, be cautious when sources are not named, especially if the information doesn’t appear in other articles.

Make sure to look for words like "was reported" or "claimed to" in news stories - these phrases cast doubt on what's being said.
Photo: Shutterstock

But first, fact-check! 

We keep saying to fact-check to make sure the information you’re sharing is true, but how do you do this? 

The easiest way is to read multiple news sources and see if the information is consistent. If one source says one thing and another source says something different, one of them must have got it wrong, so you should wait before sharing either story until you confirm which is correct. 

Also, make sure you are reading from reliable and credible sources. If you’ve never heard of the news organisation, then you should be more sceptical of their stories. 

There are organisations that monitor the factual accuracy or news stories that can help you verify a story. For example, FactCheck.org, a non-profit platform, verifies news stories on US politics. They have a great guide on how to spot fake news that you can check out.

There are not a lot of platforms that verify local news stories, but Chris Shen Fei, an associate professor of City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Media and Communication, says Facebook page 求驗傳媒 @kauyim is a good source. 

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At least now you’re aware

“Most of us read news in our leisure time, and we don’t usually spend a lot of time analysing the content,” says Shen.

We don’t expect you to fact-check every single piece of information you read; thorough fact-checking takes time and effort. But we hope that now that you’re more aware of the potential traps and triggers, you will read everything with a grain of salt, and think before you share.

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