“If a story feels so perfect for your personal or political viewpoints it is probably because someone is directly targeting you with that message.” - Alex Kasprak Click To Tweet
In this day and age, we are experiencing knowledge overload. There is information everywhere on the internet and social media. Add in the changes and hoaxes we are seeing pop up with the Coronavirus and it is harder than ever to decipher the truth. How do we research and check out this overload of information? In this episode, Alex and I talk about many strategies you can use to be more aware and make the best decisions for yourself and your family.
Snopes.com is a great resource for fact-checking information you receive. Snopes.com does the research, cites its sources, and encourages you to do your own research. Alex shares the history of Snopes.com and how the mission and company have grown into the information giant it is today.
Alex Kasprak is a science writer and investigative journalist at Snopes. Before joining Snopes, he wrote about science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and at BuzzFeed. His work has been featured in The Atlantic, Motherboard, New Scientist, and other venues. These days, his work generally centers around scientific misinformation and long-term investigative projects.
Alex’s scientific background is in geological sciences. He has a master’s degree from Brown University, where his work focused on reconstructing environmental changes during a major mass extinction event by extracting molecular clues trapped in 200 million-year-old rocks. This research was published in the journal Geology in April 2015.
In addition, Alex has a master's degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University. An adapted version of his Hopkins thesis essay was published online at The Atlantic under the title “The Desert Rock That Feeds the World” in November 2016.
When misinformation obscures the truth and readers don’t know what to trust, Snopes.com’s fact-checking and original, investigative reporting lights the way to evidence-based and contextualized analysis. We always document our sources so readers are empowered to do independent research and make up their own minds.“If somebody hears something that is troubling to them, there is a positive instinct to tell other people you care about.” - Alex Kasprak Click To Tweet
- [01:25] – Snopes has been around since 1994. It started as part of the Usenet Group dedicated to urban legends.
- [01:39] – David Mikkelson and his wife Barbara spun it off into Snopes.com.
- [02:04] – Now Snopes deals with social media misinformation, political stuff, and also investigative work. The mission and the size of the staff have grown over time.
- [03:46] – Social media allows information to travel much faster than it used to through emails and other things. The tactics are always changing how misinformation gets around.
- [04:40] – The most popular and most shared hoax on Snopes is the claim that posting something on your Facebook wall will legally prevent Facebook from using your material.
- [06:39] – The underlying theme to most any conspiracy based hoax is that the government doesn’t want us to know this and is hiding it from us.
- [08:52] – They often claim that the people debunking the myths are in cahoots with the people that are propagating the truth.
- [09:22] – Hoaxes are designed to trick someone and are generally viral.
- [09:53] – If a story feels too perfect for your personal or political viewpoints it is probably because someone is directly targeting you with that message.
- [10:25] – The first thing to ask is does this seem too good to be true.
- [11:20] – You can double-check most visual hoaxes by doing a reverse image search.
- [13:49] – Different hoaxes target different demographics.
- [13:53] – In general studies have suggested that older Americans are much more susceptible to online fake news than younger generations.
- [15:46] – Political misinformation is typically targeted at making the other side look bad or your side look good. It doesn’t have a strong demographic component.
- [17:46] – The motives for hoaxes can range anywhere from trying to be funny to financial motives.
- [18:41] – Financial motives are the most common motivator for intentional misinformation.
- [19:21] – Genuine innocent spreader heard something from somebody they thought was reliable and they shared it. It was wrong, but it went viral.
- [22:08] – One outlandish hoax about the Coronavirus is the notion that holding your breath for 10 seconds can diagnose it. This is the most ridiculous scientific claim Alex has heard. It defies logic that that would be a scientific test.
- [23:02] – Be careful of self-check and cure claims surrounding the Coronavirus. Another claim that sipping water every 15 minutes can cure the Coronavirus. Hydration is important, but you can not wash the virus down into your digestive tract to be destroyed.
- [25:41] – When there are medical claims we have to be really careful not to follow the advice of people that are not physicians, doctors or people that don’t know our existing medical conditions and situations. Don’t take random advice.
- [27:01] – Make sure to only read reputable sources like trusted news sources and governmental agencies.
- [29:23] – In times of uncertainty we have to just take a step back, not share much, and accept the uncertainty and realize that if someone is reporting something with certainty at that time they are probably misinformed.
- [30:01] With COVID-19 we are living in that uncertainty and doubt right now. Take a deep breath and don’t react out of haste.
- [30:48] In crisis situations it is best to just not share information. Even a good intention to share information that comes without a named source doesn’t need to be shared and can often make the situation worse.
- [31:20] Snopes.com is a credible news organization that you can check for information.
- [32:44] Snopes suggests you take the argument they have presented and check it out for yourself.
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I know that Snopes has a long history. It seems to be one of the few sites that I have used for over 20 years. I think you guys have been around for 25 years now or so. I remember using it back in the early days of the internet when people were sending out email chains saying, “Hey, if you respond to this, you'll get that. Don't forget to pass this on to 10 of your friends.” Back before social media.
Since the launch of social media, I'm definitely seeing a lot of those hoaxes and things going on where it says, “Hey, if you like, comment, or share this, Bill Gates is going to give you $10,000.” That's an awful lot of people. Can you give me some background of Snopes and its origin story?
Snopes has been around for a long time. We say our founding dates are either 1994 or 1995, depending on how you look at it. In 1994, it was part of the Usenet group dedicated to urban legends, and Snopes was David Mikkelson’s username on that. He started off with his wife into snopes.com.
In the original days, you could say that it was definitely a folklore/urban legend-based website. Those weird things everyone hears, but nobody has really dug into to get to the bottom. That was how it got a start. It's been chugging along ever since.
Lately, the mission has become a little bit broader. We deal a lot with social media misinformation, politics, and stuff. We also began investigative work as well. Looking into the largest-scale activities that promote and share this information. The mission and the size of the staff have grown over time. Right now, it's an exciting and tiring place to work, that’s for sure.
I should mention that when we're recording this, it's March 20th. We're in the midst of the growth of the coronavirus/COVID-19 in the US and around the world. We'll talk a little bit about that later on, and I'm sure there's a lot of misinformation going on around that. A lot of hoaxes, a lot of fear, a lot of uncertainty, a lot of doubt, which really is a breeding ground for hoaxes and misinformation. Have you guys seen a large boom in the usage of your site with social media coming into fruition—Facebook and Twitter?
Yes. I was first tied to Snopes in October 2016 right before the 2016 election, and that was a remarkable time to join Snopes because sometime right after that election, fake news became the signage buzzword. Fact-checking became a front-and-center issue. What we've seen is an increased politicization of the fact-checking process even when it's not political stuff that we're working on.
I think social media, without question, enables travel quantifiably faster than it used to through emails and other things. It's new tactics. The tactics are always changing in terms of how misinformation gets around.
In a sense, I'm sure social media drove a noticeable change before I joined the company. But I will say that the way social media is used now in our current political climate absolutely altered the way we approach our work.
It has to be a very interesting business to be in, dealing with fake news before it was labeled fake news. What are some of the biggest, all-time most popular hoaxes on Snopes?
Well, without question, the most popular, most viewed, most shared is the claim that posting something on your Facebook wall will legally prevent Facebook from using your material. It's been going on since the early 2010s. But people are still always visiting the page, even whenever it's a slow news week, that's typically […], what’s getting a lot of views still.
That's one that I've surprisingly seen. A lot of people I know post on Facebook and it even ends up on Instagram and Twitter.
This has been a story for as long as social media has been around and probably not that long, but it's been around for years. To think that it keeps resurfacing over and over again is kind of funny to me.
Yeah, it's a constant source of bemusement for us as well. Another one that I wouldn't say is an all-time popular fact-checked by any means, but one that is similarly always in the background, always being shared is this claim that cosmic rays are going to pass through earth and cause widespread destruction tonight.
They always say tonight and it's like what are we supposed to do? It's based on a completely made-up version of what science is, and I debunked it. It was a very fairly straightforward debunk from a scientific standpoint. It’s one of the most shared things I've ever written and it's just because mostly in India it goes viral on WhatsApp, pretty much at least once a month in some sense. Yeah, that's another weird one.
Is it that there's this thought that it’s something the government doesn't want us to know and that they're hiding it from us? Does that count as one of those components that recurs in these hoaxes?
That is the underlying theme to any sort of conspiracy-based hoax, and it's also implied. Yeah, you're right. In much of this information, the idea that there is a truth that's out there, but you, a lowly member of the public, don't deserve to hear it. But luckily, your friend’s uncle’s brother’s girlfriend’s sister has a friend, and they've got the real deets. Sign up for my email and you’ll be able to get that. That's one of the problems we face. I was originally hired as Snopes’ science writer. I'm a science writer and an investigator, but that's a massive component of scientific misinformation and health misinformation as well.
It's one of the most challenging aspects to deal with. If you want to debunk something and really reach the people that don't believe it, it's hard to say things like the CDC or the FDA because they're part of the deep state, allegedly. You can sell so much crap on the internet by claiming that it's something the FTC is hiding. Maybe that's how Alex Jones funds his website.
There's recent news that he was claiming to have a COVID-19 cure. Just the other day, the government was coming after him saying, “You're going to kill people if you keep doing this. Be quiet.” Of course, I suppose lots of people see that as proof.
It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's a whole lot of thought that I think has become more potent now that we have social media just because you can share rumors more quickly. Also, Snopes itself gets occasionally labeled as part of the deep state, which is confusing because sometimes we're also labeled as two people in a basement with a cat.
You’ve got to pick one or the other. But people will claim we're a CIA operation. We're just there to promote the government line. Obviously, that's not true as well, but this is a method to push stuff online.
Just claim that the people that are debunking it are in cahoots with the people that are propagating the hoax or the “truth.” What are some of the common components that you see, the themes that you see over and over in hoaxes and urban legends?
It really does depend if you're talking about a hoax, urban legend, or a political claim.
Let's go through each of them. Let's start with the hoaxes.
Hoaxes are designed, oftentimes in this day and age, to trick somebody to be like, “Oh, you fell for this kind of thing.” Hoaxes I would say generally are viral and generally involve a claim that involves a certain amount of schadenfreude against somebody else that allows it to attract a certain specific audience that might check. Hoaxes are broader. They're a little harder to define in a universal term.
I think the easiest to define is the political misinformation. It’s easiest to identify because it's a thing where if a story feels so perfect for your personal viewpoint, your personal political beliefs, your personal worldview about whatever it is. If it’s something that speaks directly to that, that just verifies that worldview you have. It’s probably because somebody is directly targeting you with that message because they know you share on social media, which allows people to target stuff more effectively now. I always say the first thing in recognizing this situation is does this seem too good to be true in any sense?
When it overly resonates with you?
It overly resonates like, you name it. If you don't like President Trump, […] people will believe it already. Oftentimes I'll debunk things and people like, “All right. Yeah. But you know there's still probably something there, it's fine.” But factually, you didn't say anything that was true.
Urban legends, I deal less with. Urban legends and hoaxes—a colleague of mine and he's in that area. He does a lot of memes and visual stuff. Visual hoaxes are a dime a dozen on the internet.
With the development of Photoshop and effects, you can make a pretty good spacecraft.
You can do all sorts of fun stuff with Photoshop, and it's normally pretty easy to figure out. You can reverse image search where you see if there are images being shared relevant to a certain current event, but it’s actually from five years ago. Mismatches like that, that’s another great way to spot visual hoaxes like that.
Also if there's a shark in the water during a hurricane, somebody is, like, in a place where you wouldn't expect it, like a highway, subway tunnel, that's great. It's the most popular thing to share after a hurricane every single time. These sharks are roaming the streets, but that's always going to be fake to help you out there.
When it comes to the visual hoaxes, there's a YouTube channel—I don't know if it's still producing content—but it was Captain Disillusion. He actually goes back because he's done so many effects from his career, that he's able to say, “I see this explosion in this video and it just happens to match this stock explosion exactly.” It doesn't matter what else is true in the video or not true, if you can tie back one component of it to stock imagery, or a stock graphic, or stock video then you really have to question everything.
There was a big controversy yesterday about One America News Network, which is a conservative cable news program. One of their reporters made all these claims that were essentially attributed to an anonymous deep state source. It was just somebody on Twitter sending her messages.
One of the funniest things is if you look at the news segment on TV that first presented those claims, they actually used a picture from 2001: A Space Odyssey of the captain of the ship to be a stand-in for this deep-state source, or whatever. It doesn't feel like that's something in reality, but stock imagery, things like that clearly aren’t associated with all of that…good clues.
Is there a particular demographic that you see targeted with hoaxes and whatnot? Or is it just different hoaxes targeting different demographics?
I think different hoaxes target different demographics. In general, studies have suggested that older humans are much more susceptible to online fake news than younger generations.
I've heard that and just during our conversation, I started to go, “Well gee, I didn't fact-check that story. Is that real science? Or is that not?”
There are lots of studies in fact-check and unfortunately, not a lot of them agree, but that’s a pretty solid finding.
It's interesting to see that. Some of the investigative work we've done has been catching foreign actors who pretend to be patriotic Americans for the purpose of building an audience, selling stuff, collecting email addresses. I think the most obvious version of directly targeting older Americans in that case was this network of pages based out of Ukraine.
They were just sharing the most nostalgic pleasant memes from the 1950s. Pictures of some old mustang being, “Oh, this is how it used to be in the good old days.” Content like that, memes that occasionally link outside to somewhere else or down the line political content once you’ve built enough audience. We don't necessarily know what the end game is, it's either financial or political, though.
These memes are perfect examples of clear targeting of one specific audience. We've seen that in other cases as well. There is a whole brand of political misinformation that is typically targeted towards making the other side look bad or making yourself look good. I don't think that necessarily has a strong demographic component just because depending on what social media platform we all are on, you’re going to find that kind of thing anywhere.
That seems to be part of human nature that the further left or the further right you are, the more accusations are hurled at the other side. Or, “My side can't possibly be wrong because they're my side.”
Exactly, yeah. It's really intentional thinking. It's fascinating and frustrating to watch sometimes, but it's true.
I'm curious, because you've done some investigative reporting, what do you find are the motivations for some of these hoaxes? I can think back to one. I don't necessarily call it a hoax, but maybe it's a good illustration of a motivation for the guy who launched the Storm Area 51 group. I heard interviews with him and he was like, “It was just a practical joke.” At some point, he was like, “I didn't think anyone would take me seriously,” and then a very large number of people signed up, or said they were going to go, and much fewer showed up in reality.
You can see there are certain ones where, “I just wanted to see if people would fall for it. I just wanted to do something funny.” Maybe not even intending it as a hoax, but just wanted it to be funny. What are some of the other motivations for these things you see?
That’s an interesting point you raised. First, the notion that allows “just kidding.” I think there are legitimate people who like to make jokes, probably the Area 51 seemed pretty obviously tongue-in-cheek when it was first posted. But the defense like, “I was just kidding,” it wasn't even using satire websites to promote misinformation. This is a huge problem with this because people would just be like, “How dare you fact-check my obvious humor?”
General tomfoolery is definitely a motivating factor. It always has been. Financial is generally another big one, and there are many ways that misinformation can facilitate financial means. Oftentimes, just to add an impression. You write something crazy, it goes viral for a day, you got a minor cash cow just out of that one brief thing.
Unfortunately, whatever was written there is going to stay on the internet. In some way it will be shared around. You have to trace that money. Five years later, I have to figure out that kind of thing.
Financial is definitely a big one. I would say frankly probably the most common motivator for intentional misinformation. And then political, obviously, is a whole other breed that comes in and those motivations are generally pretty clear. Then I would add the genuine innocent spreader of misinformation. Somebody genuinely heard something from somebody they thought was reliable and they shared it, and it was wrong and it went viral.
Sometimes, it's hard to tell the level of intent behind somebody who’s sharing this information. There's a viral post about COVID-19. It has the nickname “The Uncle with the Master's Degree post.” It begins with, “Hey, my uncle with a master's degree in Canada has all these tips for preventing the spread of COVID-19.” Most of it was originally super wrong, but it’s gotten, I think, probably at least over half a million shares at this point and it was featured all over the world.
The BBC interviewed him recently. I guess he's thinking he didn't do anything wrong—he was just trying to spread the good word. You can see that as valid, but on the other hand, this same person used to spread a lot of political misinformation regarding the whole Brexit thing. He's a pro-Brexit, Anti-Islam activist. His misinformation is aligned to other scientific papers. I truly don't know if you think it's part of the solution or he was just excited to have half a million people share his post.
I suppose one of those other motivations is some people just want to be, in some weird way, famous. They want to be noteworthy. They want to be in the news. They don't really care what it is or why it is.
You're part of the story.
Yeah, they want to be part of the story so they're injecting themselves into the story by creating a story.
Speaking of coronavirus…A good example is my wife had someone forward her a voicemail message—I think it was probably three weeks ago—that was like, “Hey, I know someone in the government and Trump is planning on enacting Martial Law in the next 48 hours, so go out and stock up on stuff,” and this was three weeks ago when we were not doing anything in the US at that time other than, “Hey, make sure you are washing your hands or watch the news.”
But now, when states are going into lockdown and doing orders of stay-at-home, those things could be true right now.
Let's talk about some of the more outlandish hoaxes that you've seen about coronavirus.
The most outlandish one. I've been doing a lot of the specific science claims, health claims. It's a tough one. I would say the notion that holding your breath for 10 seconds can diagnose COVID-19 is probably the most ridiculous scientific claim that I've run into.
A Fox News personality said that on air recently, but it defies logic to think that would be a diagnostic test. And it also pushes this notion that it’s a clean bill of health diagnostically means risking a broader society epidemiologically. That one is ridiculous.
For reasons like the mechanisms that they claim, saying, “If it’s hard to hold your breath, you’ve probably got this condition,” but it turns out that condition is caused by cough and even if you're coughing so much you'd probably already know you had something. You don't need to hold your breath to prove that. That was a weird one.
There's a lot of this self-check-and-cure things. Sipping water every 15 minutes prevents coronavirus infection. Yes, hydration is important to maintain a healthy immune system and all that, but this specific claim was you'd be washing the virus that's in your mouth down into your digestive tract where it will be destroyed. That would be destroyed in your digestive tract, but if you’ve already got it in your throat and you're breathing for a period of 15 minutes, there's no way that's saving you from a respiratory infection.
Sometimes there are things that may sound like, “Oh, but it makes sense to me. That's a great idea.” Those typically go viral.
And I assume that sometimes even dangerous ones that happen.
I would argue those are dangerous to a certain extent. The uncle with the master's degree post that I talked about earlier, I think for the most part wasn't all that dangerous except for another claim of a diagnostic test. The solution was basically if you had a wet cough, you're fine, you don't need to check it out. Wet cough is a more rare side effect of disease, but it is a symptom of it. You can look at the CDC website. You can get World Health information, they summarized all of the symptoms everyone's reporting, like cough is on there. If you’ve got some cough and you’re going around thinking you’re fine, that's incredibly dangerous.
A lot of my colleagues get a lot of their coronavirus hoaxes debunked so I can't speak for those quite as much. There's also the COVID stuff mixed in with political stuff. Claims of profiteering from COVID-19 testing, that kind of thing has also been a big feature of some of the claims going around.
I did see a call to response video. There's a physician that I watch on YouTube occasionally. He talks about people that have done some risky behavior, some behavior that has happened in their lives and here's what happened when they got to the ER. I saw a recent video from him about someone who drank isopropyl alcohol in an attempt to say, “Hey, this will cure me. This will make me free from COVID-19 because I was out with a bunch of people so now let me do this.”
I didn't watch the end. I don't know if the guy died. When there's medical claims, you really, really have to be careful about following advice from people that aren't physicians, that aren't doctors, that aren't specifically directing us who know our existing health conditions and know about us. Just take it as random advice.
There's another one, I didn't do this one. She debunked the idea that if you just blow really hot air into your mouth for an extended period of time, it will kill it, which is not true. It's probably going to burn your throat or something. It's just not a reasonable scientific argument they are making. That's one of my beats that I’m on. Obviously that type of thing will exist after COVID-19 perhaps.
Let's cycle back to these things in general. First let's talk about where people should go to confirm these things? If they think it's a hoax, if they're not sure it's a hoax, how should the layman whose not an investigative journalist try to figure out a way through this thing?
I think there are a couple of strategies you can take. The simplest is just to only read reputable sources. The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, LA Times do great reporting, but they actually have strong science lists, they have strong medical lists. Government agencies that are concerned with the public interest provide generally up-to-date information about anything. In general, trusted news sources, trusted governmental agencies that provide data that show the work are good.
Another approach if you want to be a little bit more active is let's say you've been sent an article from a news website you haven't heard of. It has some claims that are concerning to you. The first thing you should do is see if the headline matches anything that's actually said on the text of the article. If there's a mismatch there, you just have to disregard the headline. You want to make sure that article that you don't know where it came from cites an expert, or another outlet. It’s called lateral reading. Open another tab, see who that guy is and see if this guy is selling some crazy supplement on a weird website or if he is an established professional of an institute that you can vet.
Same goes with an outlet. You can trace it without going hardcore investigative. You can just assess who the sources are in a random bit of text and see if there's any funny business, in a sense. Sometimes news moves so rapidly and there's this period of uncertainty during national tragedy, shootings, epidemics, that sort of thing where there is not a lot of information out there, period. There's a lot of claims that haven’t been addressed with anyone. That’s where we’re still at with COVID-19. That's challenging because there's a vacuum of information and that’s where a lot of people can […]. In those situations, I think you just have to take a step back, not share much, and accept the uncertainty and realize that if somebody is reporting something with uncertainty, then they're probably full of crap or misinformed.
Maybe with COVID-19, we're living in that window of uncertainty, fast-moving emotions, fear of the uncertainty, and doubt. We are living in that. I was thinking that whenever I see people posting stuff, it's like take a deep breath. If it's true, it will come out as true. If it's not true, it will come out as not true. Be careful not to react out of haste to every little thing that's keying on our emotions. That's a really hard thing to do when we're in the midst of a crisis.
It's true, and it's also human nature to try and want to help other people. If somebody hears something that's troubling them, I think there's a very positive instinct to tell people that you care about that. In the age of the internet, telling people you care about something means telling a couple of million of people that thing in the end.
I think, especially in this vacuum of circumstances, just don't. People need to realize that even in good intention, sharing information that comes without a name or source, that's vague. You don't need to share that. If anything, you are making things worse, not better. I think that's a human nature problem. It’s not a problem easily solved with technology.
Of course, people can always go to Snopes.com and look there.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my own employer, Snopes.com. One of the aforementioned, credible news organizations that you can go to.
I really like that your goal is to try to provide truth and clarity as opposed to, “We have a viewpoint that we believe in and we have an agenda.” The agenda really is what is true. The history of the site shows that's what the agenda has been.
We like to figure out what the uncertainty is, figure out what is new and lead the reader through our work, the work that we did to demonstrate it. Unfortunately, a lot of times, people open Snopes and just see the rating and go with that. But what we do in our writing—and I think it's over-explained compared to other newspapers—is we go through the source origin of the claim, then we go through our process of addressing different aspects of that. We say we talked to this person, we went to this website. It's all laid out. We say don't take our word for it, take the idea that we presented and check for yourself, essentially.
I think that's really good advice and I appreciate the people that have always had that attribute of, “I've done the work. Here's the work that I did, but go check it for yourself.” To me, anytime someone is holding up a sign saying, “Trust me. Trust me. Trust me.” Why are you working so hard to get me to trust you? That always rings a warning sign in my head. What is it you're trying to get me not to see? Why do you think I wouldn't trust you?
Yeah, is there a lot of talk going around about your untrustworthiness, and if so, I want to hear about that first.
Alex, if people want to follow Snopes, I assume you guys are on social media with the latest stories. What are the accounts that we should be following?
Snopes.com on the internet. We have Snopes on Facebook. We also have a group you can join to submit information you want debunked. It’s a group, they're both named Snopes and Snopes Group. We’ve got a Twitter account that is @Snopes and we have an Instagram account, it's @snopesdotcom.