Checklist: Navigating Disinformation on Social Media

Social media can be a powerful tool for newsgathering and reporting. But its unique ability to amplify false information within seconds makes it an attractive resource for bad actors looking to manipulate narratives and influence public opinion. The rapid evolution of how content is shared, how quickly it’s shared, and by whom, makes it challenging to identify and monitor disinformation online.

We’ve created a checklist to help you guard against inadvertently sharing false information in your reporting (along with fact-checking and verification techniques you already use). For more context and details, check out our full-length guide and recommendations here.

Anticipate areas of vulnerability for disinformation and trust your instincts.

  • Ask yourself what topics might incite deep-seeded emotional reactions in your audience or play on sociocultural vulnerabilities.
  • If a post appears to trigger these vulnerabilities, or catch improper activity red-handed, consider whether another interpretation might be possible. 
    • i.e., an image of workers counting ballots but that claims to be of individuals counting fake ballots after election observers were sent home.

Ensure the source account is credible and legitimate.

  • Analyze the poster’s profile (username, photo, bio, and accounts followed):
    • Does the poster follow accounts affiliated with extremist groups or other groups known to spread mis- and disinformation?
    • Do they frequently tag journalists or public figures to attract attention?
  • Check for indicators of bot activity:
    • Blank or sparse bio with no easily verifiable information in the profile.
    • Recently created account with thousands of followers.
    • Lots of political or sensational posts with little to no content about the account holder’s personal life, interests, or local community.

Use contextual analysis and online tools to analyze photos and videos.

  • Scan the photo or video for timestamps.
  • Check for geographical markers like street signs, building names, or landmarks. Use tools like Google maps or Bellingcat’s OpenStreetMap Search Tool to verify their location.
  • Look for corroborating contextual clues, i.e., if the image shows people walking through the rain, was it raining in the claimed location at that time? 
  • Use online tools like Google Reverse Image Search, TinEye, or RevEye or InVID to analyze and gather contextual information. See our Disinformation Defense Toolkit for step-by-step instructions on how to use these tools.
  • For possible deepfakes:

Use social media accounts to boost credible information and build trust.

  • When content is amplified by a journalist associated with a news outlet, the imprimatur of credibility that outlet enjoys can elevate and legitimize the information. 
  • Resist the urge to use sarcasm or catchy language that could be taken out of context. A bad actor may cherry-pick words or images in your post to spread disinformation or discredit your reporting.
  • Be transparent. If you call out mis- or disinformation, explain why and cite your sources.
  • Watermark fake or manipulated images you share in your posts to make clear they’re false and to prevent further manipulation from bad actors
  • Consider responding to thoughtful questions or comments on your posts. 
  • Ask your followers what they’ve found confusing or frustrating about recent news and consider following up with further reporting.
  • Correct errors as soon as possible.

Protect yourself against online harassment and abuse.

  • Refer to PEN America’s Online Harassment Field Manual for strategies on responding to online abuse, tightening your digital safety, and providing assistance to colleagues.