How to spot fake news, propaganda and deceptive social media posts

A point-by-point response to the New York Times quiz

Image source: The New York Times

1. Does the post evoke a strong, visceral emotional response?

TL;DR: If a social media post provokes a strong, visceral response when you see it, pause and ask yourself: would this post provoke an equally strong, visceral response in someone who holds the opposite opinion? If the answer is yes, it’s probably by design.

2. What story does the post tell? Does that story have a clear agenda?

Image source:

TL;DR: When you see a post with a powerful visual, ask yourself, what story is this post trying to tell? Is that story nuanced or one-sided? Does the story have a political agenda? If so, what is it?

3. Does the post use absolutist language?

TL;DR: Absolutist language is a big red flag in a social media post. Ask yourself, “Is there a hidden agenda that this language might serve? What might that agenda be?”

4. Does this post play into existing cultural fears, tropes, or stereotypes?

TL;DR: Beware posts that reinforce existing stereotypes or claim to be “just common sense.” They are more likely to divide than to inform.

In short, how to spot Facebook propaganda (just in case you skipped to the bottom):

  1. Watch for posts that evoke a strong, visceral emotional response, especially if the content is inflammatory, controversial or divisive.
  2. Pay attention to the story the post is trying to tell, both visually and textually. Ask yourself whom the narrative serves and whether there might be a hidden agenda.
  3. Watch for absolutist language and “everything you think you know is wrong” messaging.
  4. Be aware of cultural fears, tropes, and stereotypes that the post might be playing into.
  5. When in doubt: if you notice yourself getting riled up, pause. Take a breath. Ask yourself why you’re having that reaction. There’s a good chance it’s by design.



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