Countering misinformation and disinformation about the indictment of former President Donald Trump
Tips for journalists and community leaders
Reports indicate that former President Donald Trump has been indicted on charges related to hush-money payments made to a woman with whom President Trump had an affair. The public is likely to be inundated with conflicting information, some of it reliable, some of it accidental misinformation, and some of it deliberate disinformation. Such information overload can foster confusion and make people uncertain about what sources to trust. PEN America offers the following guidance to journalists and community leaders.
1. Debunk–and prebunk–misinformation
Take time to review the trending falsehoods. Reporters should be prepared to quickly debunk those for readers, while taking care about how they describe those falsehoods in their reporting. Take time to debunk–and prebunk when possible–misinformation for readers in every relevant story, providing facts and context to accompany any misleading content you feature.
- For reviewing and verifying credible information, consider utilizing fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org or Factchequeado as well as reverse image searches. Or employ lateral reading, and run source stories through a search engine with the terms “true,” “false,” or “hoax.”
- If you’re using visual examples of misinformation, watermark images to make clear they are false and to prevent manipulation from bad actors.
- Anticipate potential spaces where lack of understanding could lead to vulnerability. In this instance, it might be beneficial to provide additional context about the indictment process—what steps are required to make an indictment, the possible consequences of a resulting indictment (both legally and politically for a current presidential candidate), what an indictment does not mean, etc.
2. Consider your headlines and coverage of mis- and disinformation
We know that articles and links are often shared before an individual reads them (or reads them fully), making the headline crucial to sharing credible information. Confirm that headlines accurately and unambiguously relate the details of the story. And, if directly reporting on disinformation, clearly describe how information has been manipulated rather than solely describing the manipulation. Take care with language that could potentially be accusatory or inflammatory, recognizing the potential for emotional reactions to information.
- First Draft’s 2019 guide on responsible reporting in an age of information disorder is a great resource for additional suggestions on crafting headlines, covering conspiracy theories, and more.
- Keep sociocultural context top of mind in your reporting–some communities are directly targeted by purveyors of disinformation, and often these are the same communities (communities of color, rural and low wealth communities, diaspora communities, etc.) that are underserved by credible news outlets. Keep in mind that history affects the way people consume information, and some groups may also harbor feelings of distrust in the U.S. government.
- Take care not to sound dismissive of those who may have questions or doubts about what is happening; empathize and educate. You can read more on the psychology behind disinformation here (2022 resource), and how to enter into conversations about disinformation with individuals here (2020 resource).
3. Use social media thoughtfully
Many people use social media as their primary pathway to information, and they may be following you as a trusted source. In the days surrounding the indictment, use social media thoughtfully to boost credible information. When you do share, share things that help your followers understand the process. However you choose to engage your followers, remember that you have the power to help inform how others respond to this unprecedented event. When a piece of content is retweeted or amplified by a journalist associated with a major news outlet, then like it or not, the imprimatur of credibility that that media organization enjoys can elevate and legitimize the information, whether it has been reported or verified by that outlet or not.
- Share context about your post, including your source material. And, be transparent about your posts that are based on opinion, rather than fact.
- Consider using bot-verification and social media monitoring tools like Bot Sentinel or Hoaxy before sharing social media posts or retweeting other accounts.
4. Ask readers what they want and need
If you or your team have the bandwidth to practice community engagement journalism on this issue, pose questions to readers about what they find confusing about the news related to President Trump. If time or resource constraints don’t allow for questioning, seek out FAQs from expert sources and local journalists with experience covering the Manhattan DA’s approach to high profile cases. Understand the needs of your community beyond your typical audiences, and find ways to include the voices of community leaders to draw audiences in. Misinformation can evolve and fester even after you’ve debunked stories in your reporting. This is especially true for people who speak a language other than English or may be receiving information via alternative platforms like WhatsApp. Couple your reporting with repetitive messaging on common issues raised by readers.
For community leaders:
During times of uncertainty or political tensions, community leaders and other trusted messengers can play a critical role in helping community members sift through the noise and disseminate trustworthy information. Below are some straightforward tips to share for assessing the credibility of information and avoiding spreading falsehoods. For further guidance, check out this toolkit from PEN America and Over Zero: “Communicating During Contentious times: Dos and Don’t to Rise Above the Noise.”
1. Before you share check the credibility of a source
Always ask where the information is coming from–can you trust that it’s true? “Daily Buzz Live” may sound like a legit news site, but there are countless examples of bad actors–and hyperpartisan sites known as “pink slime”–creating fake news outlets that sound real. Check to see if the source of a story is credible before passing it along to others. If you see friends or family sharing false information, you can learn more about how to engage them here.
Make sure that the information or news sources that you’re sharing are culturally attuned to the communities you serve. In some communities, community media and in-language local journalism may be the most trusted source, especially when it pertains to high profile events.
2. Question your reactions to things you see online
Disinformation thrives on engagements–likes and shares–on social media platforms. Oftentimes disinformation is designed to cause an emotional reaction and encourage you to disseminate posts, even if they’re false or misleading. Before taking the bait, question the credibility of everything you see, especially if you get the sense it might spark a sense of alarm in others. That might be the whole point.
3. Fact-check what you’re reading
Not sure how true a story is? Run it through Google or another search engine alongside the terms “true,” “false,” or “hoax.” You can also check out fact-checking websites like FactCheck.org, or Fact Chequeado as well as reverse image searches and video verification tools.
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. Distinguish between news and opinion
Some stories look like news but are actually opinion pieces. Is it news? Is it an opinion piece? Before hitting share or forward, consider the type of content first.
6. 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.