What’s real and what’s not? How to spot disinformation, misinformation and fake news

Last reviewed on 15 December 2021

When you look up something online or see a post on social media, how often do you stop to consider if it’s true? It can be all too easy to take an article, photo, video, gif or meme at face value but it’s really important that you think about who created it and why.

There has been lots of false information about COVID-19 over the last 18 months, for example – from conspiracy theories to miracle cures to anti-vaccine campaigns. At times, you might have felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information and made decisions you wouldn’t normally make. According to the Nominet Digital Youth Index, more than a third of young people (35%) have been upset by disinformation, misinformation or fake news.

As London’s digital mental wellbeing service, Good Thinking understands how false information can affect your mental health. It can be very stressful living in a world of fake news and not knowing what to believe. If you’re looking for health advice online, it’s particularly important that you know who to trust.

We are supporting Safer Internet Day 2021! Tuesday 9 February

To mark #SaferInternetDay 2021 and its #AnInternetWeTrust theme, we put together these tips to help you spot what’s real and what’s not and to think carefully before sharing content with other people. Before we start, we thought the BBC’s definition of fake news might be useful:

“Fake news could start as disinformation (things deliberately made up for a specific purpose) or end up being misinformation (false content shared accidentally by people who don’t know that the information is inaccurate).”

  • Who has the content been created by (a journalist? a scientist? a celebrity? a friend?) and are they from a reputable organisation?
  • Do I trust the judgement of the person who shared it? Remember, even people you trust, like family and friends, might share something that is factually incorrect without realising it.
  • Is there any hard evidence (e.g. scientific data) to back up the claims?
  • Are certain words – like ‘amazing’ or ‘shocking’ – being used to get my attention?
  • Are there any spelling mistakes and does the website have an unusual address (URL)?
  • Could the creator have an ulterior motive (e.g. to make money from clickthroughs)?
  • Have I seen this content anywhere else?
  • Is it too good to be true?

We recommend using BBC Reality Check, Google Fact Check Explorer or Full Fact to confirm the validity of online content.

  • Try to get your information from trusted sources, such as well-known news websites.
  • Only check the news and your social media once or twice a day – ‘doomscrolling’ for hours on end isn’t healthy.
  • Switch off social media notifications.
  • Remove yourself from certain groups (e.g. on WhatsApp and Facebook).
  • Look for verified content, such as verification ticks on YouTube channels and blue verified badges on Twitter profiles.
  • Do a reverse image search on Google to find out where a particular image came from.

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tom Phillips of Full Fact wrote in The Guardian, “It’s a natural response to a scary situation to pass on advice that you think might help protect your friends and family. But if that information turns out to be inaccurate, you risk doing more harm than good.”

  • Take a moment before you share any content, such as social media posts or links to articles – think how widely your web of contacts could pass it on!
  • Ask yourself the questions outlined in step 1 (above).
  • Consider the impact the content could have on the people you share it with – if you think it might upset or worry them, don’t send it.
  • Try not to worry about something you’ve seen online until you’ve checked it out in more detail.
  • Don’t get drawn into heated debates with online contacts – social media is great for connecting with other people but you might not always agree with everyone’s opinions.
  • Try to avoid ‘echo chambers’ (places where everyone has exactly the same opinion and might try to change your personal views).
  • Balance your screen time with other activities – go for a walk, listen to some music, call a friend.

The BBC website has lots of useful advice about false information and fake news and an interactive game called BBC iReporter that gives you the opportunity to be a journalist working on a breaking story. Here are some useful links:

BBC iReporter

How false information spreads

Tips for spotting fake news online

Be social media smart: Is seeing believing?

Fake news and mental health

The seven types of people who start and spread viral misinformation

Let's create an internet we trust

For more advice about boosting your mental health, check out our young people section.

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