“Media Literacy Toolkit” in text and PEN America’s logo

The spread of disinformation threatens the very fabric of our democracy, with misleading and false narratives undermining our ability to engage in fact-based public discourse and influencing people’s attitudes and behaviors. As we navigate through the onslaught of misleading content infiltrating our news feeds on topics ranging from the pandemic to protests to elections, it is vital that we all become more discerning consumers of information and news. PEN America’s Knowing the News project offers media literacy trainings to equip the public to identify and prevent the spread of false and misleading information. Drawn from that curriculum, here are five quick tips for defending against disinformation.

1. Take control of your digital experience.

Regularly conduct scans of how and where you consume information. From social media? Directly from news outlets? Stay aware, diversify your news diet, and look to credible sources of information like professional news outlets, technical experts, or official sources where relevant.

2. Pause and question your reactions to things you see online.

Disinformation thrives on engagements—likes and shares—on social media platforms. Bad actors write headlines designed to inflame your emotions and encourage you to disseminate their posts, even if they’re false or misleading. If you see something that seems too outlandish to be true, or that makes you especially angry or emotional, it might be an attempt to mislead or deceive. Before taking the bait, take a step back and question what you see.

3. Understand what you’re seeing: Distinguish between news and opinion.

Some stories look like news but are actually opinion pieces. Is it news? Is it a friend tweeting about their opinion? Some advertisements are designed to read like articles. Before hitting share or forward, consider the type and purpose of content first.

4. Check the captions of images and videos.

Images, videos, memes, and other visual content can be intentionally miscaptioned or presented out of context to mislead. Consider the time and place of what you’re seeing. If you’re feeling like you want to go pro, try a reverse image search. Here’s one tool to get you started.

5. Verify before you share with a quick fact-check.

Not sure how true a story is? Verify before passing something along to others. Check out the “About Us” page on unfamiliar sites. Run it through Google or another search engine alongside the terms “true,” “false,” or “hoax.” This is called “lateral reading.” Make fact-checking a regular part of your online routine.