How to spot fake news, propaganda and deceptive social media posts
A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times published a quiz challenging readers to distinguish between legitimate Facebook posts and those from foreign influence campaigns.
I found it deeply troubling, and not only because it shows how easily social media can be twisted to sinister aims. Most of us have known about that for awhile. Those of us who work in the marketing industry, as I do, have known about it even longer. Hell, the idea of filter bubbles has been around since at least 2011. It’s not like we couldn’t see this coming.
No, what really troubles me about the article is this: even as it advises readers on how to spot fake social media posts, the article repeatedly emphasizes how difficult, indeed “nearly impossible” it is to actually identify them. If the author is to be believed, language clues, fact checking and investigating known Russian pages are presented as our only — and woefully inadequate — weapons against the onslaught of propaganda in our feeds.
The entire piece reads like an attempt to redirect and deny any collective responsibility we may have for spreading propaganda and fake posts. We are at once appalled — by the power and ubiquity of deceptive Facebook posts — and absolved — after all, it’s “nearly impossible” to tell the difference — for any part we may have played in spreading them.
I suppose this makes a certain sense when you consider how badly the mainstream media, including but not limited to the New York Times, has screwed up coverage of the election and its aftermath. Perhaps the Gray Lady hopes that by giving us a way to absolve ourselves of any culpability, we’ll extend a bit of grace towards our errant press, as well.
But here’s the thing: it usually isn’t that difficult to spot propaganda, provided you know what to look for. It’s not always easy or obvious, but I was able to correctly identify every single fake post in the article. I did this, not by using grammar clues or checking facts, but by asking myself about the purpose of each post. What emotions is the post trying to evoke? What reaction is it trying to elicit, and how strong is that reaction? Is this post likely to make certain groups of people feel very angry or afraid? Does it play into narratives of division, fear and resentment?
In other words, I used curiosity and critical inquiry to cut through the immediate emotional response that propaganda is designed to evoke.
I thought it might be helpful to offer a point-by-point description of how I did it. So here is every comparison in the New York Times quiz, along with the reasoning I used to determine which post was fake.
1. Does the post evoke a strong, visceral emotional response?
There are a few language clues in this one, which makes it easier. The post on the left has some pretty strange wording that a native English speaker would be unlikely to use — an immediate red flag (and yes, the lefthand post is the fake one). Beyond that, though, you can draw a clear ideological line between the two posts by considering their respective target audiences.
The post on the right appears to be aimed at teenage girls and young women, an age group that’s dealing with relationships and their accompanying power dynamics for the first time. The language in this post is clearly empowering. It’s designed to help girls and young women learn to recognize and respond to unhealthy boundaries in a relationship, specifically around manipulation, control and jealously.
The tone of this post is mostly positive. The imagery is bright and optimistic. It isn’t trying to make anyone angry or draw ideological lines in the sand. It doesn’t contain any coded language, and it doesn’t provoke a strong emotional response. Instead, it invites the reader to consider what it means to be in a healthy relationship, and offers helpful (albeit direct) guidance about how to identify and end an unhealthy one.
The lefthand post, on the contrary, provokes a knee-jerk visceral reaction, whether or not you agree with the message. If you do agree, the post feels like a license to shout, “Hell yeah! Fuck the patriarchy!” If you disagree, you might respond with an equally enraged, “This is man-hating feminist bullshit!” The language is clearly designed to provoke, especially the phrase, “Her body, her rules,” which is coded pro-choice language (many pro-choice arguments are grounded in the principle of bodily autonomy).
Whatever you believe about feminism and women’s rights, you can find something in this post to be angry about. The tone is self-righteous and divisive. Even the image is inflammatory — a man standing up for feminism could alternately be seen as cause for celebration or fury. Everything about the post is combative, and deliberately so.
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?
Both of these images tell a story about pre-Columbian Aztec society.
On the left, we see a bustling urban square. The streets are wide and clean, the people lively and vibrant. Vendors and artisans barter with customers while laborers work the docks in the background. This image tells a story of daily Aztec life before the European conquest. It’s somewhat idealized but not overtly divisive or controversial.
The righthand image might, at first glance, appear to be in the same vein. The scene is idyllic and pastoral. Canoes meander along a clear river, and beautiful Tenochtitlan rises up in the distance. In the foreground, a resplendent Aztec warrior surveys the landscape.
But the image on the right — which is, as you may have guessed, the deceptive one — is also rich in a very specific kind of symbolism. There’s something familiar about it, isn’t there? An unspoiled homeland, a great civilization, an implied threat, a strong and dashing warrior to defend it…
This is no accident. In both content and composition, the image mirrors many European nationalist propaganda posters of the early 20th century. Compare it, for example, with these Austro-Hungarian posters from WWI, especially the top middle and bottom right — the similarities are striking (more fascinating examples here).
Pictures like these are designed to, once again, evoke strong emotions and reinforce specific narratives, in this case, around race, nationhood and the many intersections between them. My guess is that the creators of the Aztec post wanted to sow division between people who felt threatened by image’s nationalist overtones and those who felt emboldened by it.
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?
I’ll admit, I had a tougher time with this one than with the others. At first glance, both posts seem relatively benign. One is a quote from Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, the other a vaguely New Age statement accompanied by an equally New Age-y image. Neither post is especially inflammatory, divisive or political.
What tipped me off, though, is the black-and-white language in the lefthand post. If you think about it, it makes a pretty strong statement: everything we’ve learned is wrong and must be unlearned. Our minds have been incorrectly “conditioned” in such a way that prevents us from understanding the truth. There’s no middle ground.
Framing issues in terms of absolutes, along with the “everything you think you know is wrong” message, is very common in the language of propaganda. When I thought about it this way, it seemed pretty clear to me that the deceptive post could be pushing a hidden agenda around questioning authority/the establishment/government in a way that the other post, which emphasizes compassion and turning inward, does not.
According to the New York Times article, the Facebook account that made this post seems to have been building an audience through inoffensive content while laying groundwork for more hot-button posts, a common troll tactic.
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?
This one is interesting. Both posts send a strong message. Both contain a political element. The lefthand post, though, is pretty non-controversial in both its imagery and its language. Few people would argue against teaching black children about entrepreneurship or call this post divisive (they’re out there, though — never underestimate the trolls within our own ranks).
The righthand post looks far more ominous… but it’s advertising a job description? That caught me off-guard at first. It seems strange that a Russian influence campaign would post a job description. If you look carefully, there is one language tell — a missing “the” in the first sentence, but it could just as easily be a typo.
If you ignore the words and focus on the image, it’s easier to see that the righthand post is the deceptive one. There’s something faintly Satanic about the young man’s staff and the symbol behind his chair. His gaze is dark and brooding. He appears to be holding a gun. Whoever posted this image chose it for its ability to stoke fear and racial tension.
Whereas the first post is a challenge to prevailing narratives about black people and culture in the United States, this one feeds directly into them.
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):
- Watch for posts that evoke a strong, visceral emotional response, especially if the content is inflammatory, controversial or divisive.
- 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.
- Watch for absolutist language and “everything you think you know is wrong” messaging.
- Be aware of cultural fears, tropes, and stereotypes that the post might be playing into.
- 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.
I’ll note, at this point, that while it’s helpful to also watch for language errors, they were not, for me, the deciding factor for any of the posts above. Typos abound in our post-proofreading world, and many legitimate social media posts are riddled with them.
The great strength of propaganda is its ability to weave toxic narratives around our existing prejudices and fears to validate, justify and flatter them. These narratives use powerful imagery and absolutist language to manipulate our emotions and bend us to their worldview. In the doing, we allow ourselves to be convinced that we’ve gained access to some new level of truth, even as we become more entangled in propaganda’s web of lies.
This is the great genius of propaganda. Thankfully, this is also its great weakness.
When we start to question the narratives and ideologies behind the words and images, it suddenly becomes much clearer which messages are meant to inflame and divide (whether they come from Russian trolls or misguided US citizens), and which ones are not. It’s sadly telling that a Pulitzer Prize-winning publication like the New York Times cannot help us learn to ask these questions, even in an article devoted to the issue of social media propaganda.
If we can’t always rely on our media to help us discern what is reliable and what is propaganda, we can at least demand better of ourselves and what we choose to share. We can view our feeds with a more critical eye. We can question what we might otherwise take for granted. It may be the best defense we have.
My suggestions are imperfect and certainly not infallible, but they’re a decent start. If you have any others, please add them in a reply below. Then share this list with anyone you think it may help.