What To Do When Family and Friends Share Disinformation

By doing our part to push back on disinformation with reliable, trustworthy, and accurate information, we can help make sure that truth wins out over lies.

After a year-plus stuck inside, social media is a bigger part of how many of us interact with the world than ever before. 86% of Americans get their news “often” or “sometimes” from their digital devices, according to a recent survey

Unfortunately, this also means disinformation on social media is more dangerous than ever. COVID-19 disinformation and disinformation attacking BIPOC communities and vulnerable communities online is rampant, as well as disinformation about our democracy, including the 2020 election. The shadowy forces behind these disinformation campaigns are very skilled at manipulating algorithms and platform rules to their advantage — which means that all too often, maliciously wrong information or outright lies are the first thing people see when they open Facebook or Twitter. And, because social media is built on sharing and virality, a lie can often spread much further and much faster than the truth.

When you see a family member or friend posting misinformation or disinformation about elections, it’s hard to know what exactly to do. After all, people take their posts very seriously! 

Here are four tips that can help you when you see disinformation about voting and democracy from your friends and family.

First, don’t amplify the disinformation.

It’s only natural to want to correct, debate, or even repost to debunk something that you know is incorrect or maliciously interpreted. But as tempting as that may be, you could actually be introducing the incorrect information to new audiences who wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. 

Engaging at all with disinformation can be a double-edged sword, because the algorithm feeds on interaction of any kind, positive or negative. Be especially cautious about engaging with strangers.

Second, look at the popularity.

If you see something that you believe to be disinformation, but aren’t sure whether to say something or not, consider how many likes, shares, or retweets it already has. You should engage in correction only if the post has a lot of engagement and traction already. If it doesn’t — and the post violates the site you’re using’s Terms of Service, you’re better off just hitting “report” and moving on.

Third, if it is someone you know, there are strategies to try and reach them.

One way to start is with a simple correction. As PEN America notes, research has found that “observational correction” — posting the correct information as a comment or a reply — helps others who might see the disinformation. This is a rare exception to the general rule of “don’t engage with disinformation.”

Another option PEN America suggests is contacting the person privately, especially if there aren’t already people responding to and spreading the post. That way, not only are you avoiding the risk of a public fight about it (or potentially embarrassing your friend or family member) — but you can have an actually constructive conversation with them and provide trusted sources, reputable news outlets, or fact-checks from non-partisan sites like Politifact and Snopes.

Finally, use reportdisinfo.org!

When you see disinformation about voting and elections online, you should submit it to our secure tip line at reportdisinfo.org — so we can track its spread and if necessary, work with social media platforms to get it removed.

So, the next time you see online disinformation about our elections, just follow these steps — post a correction if the post is already going viral, reach out to your friend or family member if not, and report it to us so we can take action.

Online disinformation — particularly about the integrity of our elections — poses a serious threat to our democracy. But, by doing our part to push back on disinformation with reliable, trustworthy, and accurate information, we can help make sure that truth wins out over lies.