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How to spot false information on Twitter

The 2020 US Democratic primaries are in full swing and no place offers a more direct way for candidates to campaign and share information with voters than Twitter (if they can fit it into 280 characters).

Up until recently, the website was former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg’s favourite place to share news about his campaign – though not everything we saw was strictly true.

From seemingly purchasing 70 accounts to push pro-Bloomberg content to attributing fabricated quotes to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and editing debate videos to make it look as though he had the final word, Bloomberg was no stranger to stretching Twitter’s terms of service to their absolute limit.

Though Bloomberg has since dropped out of the race, his tweets remain examples of a series of ways that lies and misconceptions can gain traction on social media and potentially influence the way a person thinks – or even votes.

But, how can you avoid falling victim to false information on Twitter?

Related: How to delete a Twitter account

Trusted Reviews asked UK-based fact checking organisation Full Fact how the average scroller can tell fact from fiction on Twitter.

“Bad information can spread from many different sources, including politicians, the media and prominent social media accounts”, said Full Fact deputy editor Claire Milne.

“It might even have started off as correct, but over time loses important context; or originated as an honest mistake where people say the wrong number or misunderstand complex data”.

When it comes to spotting that bad information, Milne offered the following advice:

“When we come across information online, we should consider where it has come from and what it is designed to make us feel – particularly when it triggers a strong emotional response.

“People deserve the good and accurate information they need to make important decisions about their lives, whether that’s how they vote, make health decisions or how they spend their money. We all have a responsibility over what we choose to share with our friends and family online”.

Full Fact also offered up a few tips on what to consider when you’re unsure of the reliability of a tweet.

These include searching for the source for a story, reading the whole story beyond the headline, being aware that images and videos can be faked, checking trusted news sites and fact checkers, looking out for sources that might want to manipulate how you feel and remembering that, if a tweet looks too good to be true, it probably is.

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False information has become such an issue during election periods that Twitter has announced a new synthetic and manipulated media rule.

The rule, which went into effect on March 5 and is based on user feedback, reads:

“You may not deceptively share synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm. In addition, we may label Tweets containing synthetic and manipulated media to help people understand the media’s authenticity and to provide additional context”.

In light of this new rule, Twitter might now remove media, label tweets, display a warning before the retweet button, hide tweets and/or prevent them from being recommended.

The website might also create a landing page for additional explanations or clarifications, as shown in this short video:

The first ‘manipulated media’ label was actually handed out yesterday and – to the surprise of absolutely no-one – the prize went to a politician.

The Washington Post’s Cat Zakrzewski spotted the label on a deceptively cut video of presidential candidate Joe Biden promoting President Trump.

The video was posted by White House social media director Dan Scavino and shared by the president himself.

Twitter already has a number of rules in place to protect election integrity, published in April 2019.

The election integrity policy reads:

“You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress voter turnout or mislead people about when, where, or how to vote”.

However, these rules apply primarily to misinformation around the act of voting itself or falsely representing an affiliation with a candidate.

That means that inaccurate statements about elected officials and candidates, controversial content, public polling info and the use of a pseudonym to discuss politics are not banned under this rule.

For this reason, it’s more important than ever that you take those few extra steps to ensure a tweet is telling the truth before sharing it with your followers.

Full Fact has a toolkit available to help you spot misinformation with a section dedicated to fact checking online material, including social media.

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