Last week's tweet by President Donald Trump about a Buffalo activist, injured after being pushed and falling in Niagara Square, is just one example of a long-running history of media misinformation. A University at Buffalo expert on media effects, persuasion and misinformation discussed the ongoing trend of spreading false narratives, and offers pointers for better judgment while warning that misinformation will only escalate with a tense presidential election coming.
Trump, one week ago, used his Twitter account to forward unsubstantiated claims that activist Martin Gugino could be an "Antifa provocateur," exaggerated his fall during his encounter with police during a downtown Buffalo protest June 4, and may have been attempting to scan police equipment. The encounter, captured on video by WBFO, has been seen by millions worldwide.
Gugino, as of late Friday, remained hospitalized with what his attorney confirmed was a fractured skull. He had been moved out of intensive care into a rehabilitation floor. Two Buffalo police officers were suspended following the incident and are charged with second-degree assault.
The conspiracy theories questioning Gugino's motives and credibility were published online by a conservative blog and broadcast by One America News Network, a right-leaning cable network which Trump mentioned in his tweet.
"Misinformation had been a problem, and especially political misinformation has been a problem, for the United States since the early days of the nation," said Yotam Ophir, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo who specializes in media effects, persuasion and misinformation in the realms of health, science and politics. "It often time came from the media. But more recently, of course, it was exacerbated and became much worse due to the internet and, these days, social media."
The problem with the internet, Ophir explained further, is that anything now has the potential to go viral. This is especially the case when a questionable piece of information originating from a little-known and unreliable source gets picked up and shared on the social platforms of a person of high influence.
No political position is immune from questionable information and as Ophir points out, people are more willing to spread it when it floats an opinion congruent with their point of view. Such information may also be given added life by established and respected media outlets that, while trying to address it, acknowledges it in detail.
"You can still counteract it, you can still try to retract the argument, but you need to do it smart. You need to first try not to repeat the misinformation, if possible," Ophir said. "You can say there is a rumor going around, here are the facts, without repeating the misinformation itself."
One concern is when reliable sources don't have complete information. This was the case at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were eager to receive answers but, Ophir notes, even the Centers for Disease Control didn't necessarily have a complete set of factual information. Some people, he added, became more likely to turn to less credible sources.
Michael Cherenson, an executive vice president with New Jersey-based SCG Advertising and Public Relations, published an online "blueprint" last month for addressing questionable information. He breaks down such information into three categories. "Mis-information," he writes, is false information that is not created with negative intent. "Dis-information," he continues, is false information that was put together with the intention of harming an individual or group. Finally, "mal-information" as he defines it is information that is based on reality but is used to harm an individual or group.
Who is behind the efforts to generate and spread misleading information? Ophir says it's known that Russians were behind a lot of it in 2016. But many conspiracy theorists, he suggests, don't necessarily mean to cause harm.
"You have people who are just conspiracy thinkers. These people actually believe that their stories are right in many cases," he said. "They know that the mainstream doesn't believe they're right but they believe that they have some insight that we don't. So they spread these conspiracies online, not because they want to mislead people, but because they think they've got a scoop that nobody else has."
And then, Ophir added, there are some who spread misleading information either because they find it interesting or they just don't pay close enough attention.
With a presidential election coming up, Ophir warns the spread of questionable or inaccurate information will escalate. According to the assistant professor, while established mass media outlets have the responsibility and resources to check facts and often have a gatekeeping and filtering process, those at home don't have the same experience or savvy.
So, WBFO asked Ophir, how does one at home develop the skills to avoid being a part of the problem?
"My best advice will be to first check the source. Try to track the original source," he said. "One of the problems these days is that people publish something on on Facebook or Twitter saying 'the New York Times just said that the protester was from Antifa,' but they don't add a link to the New York Times article. And then you can kind of hijack the New York Times' credibility and add it to unsubstantiated claims. So, I think the most important thing is, first of all, try to get to reliable and primary sources.
"Primary sources means (for example), if someone argues that Joe Biden said something, find your original quote of Joe Biden, go to Joe Biden's own Twitter account and see if he actually said it. That's one thing that people can do."
He also urges people to "balance their diets" in terms of news consumption. Liberals, Ophir said, should not rely only on MSNBC but should also spend some time checking what CNN and Fox News said about the same issue. Conservatives, he added, should not limit their news intake to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and should also be checking out media sources they deem more liberal.
"Try to cross sources as much as you can," he said. "Try to make sure that you reach the original message, and you're not propagating some hearsay or rumors that people spread."
He offers further warnings about videos and social media. What might look like a valid video from a recent event might not include all the details and context of the story. And some of it might be from an unrelated event.
"Sometimes, during the pandemic and during social protests, we see videos that are taken from a few years ago, taken out of context and being presented as if they're contemporary examples," Ophir said. "We need to be critical even with what we see."
Ophir also reminds people that many of the individuals you may come across on social media platforms could still be "bots" or foreign agents posing as one's fellow Americans.
"We need to be critical, even for things we can see with our own eyes," he said. "We need to relearn not to trust everything, which is really hard because for as long as human beings were on this planet, if we see something we just believe it. But these days with deepfakes and with all these intentional disinformation campaigns, you just have to be critical. Even for stuff that you see, even for videos, even for images, even for direct quotes, anything like that."