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How to spot misinformation during political turmoil

Fani Willis speaks during a news conference.
John Bazemore
FILE - Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in the Fulton County Government Center during a news conference, Monday, Aug. 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Donald Trump and several allies have been indicted in Georgia over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state.

Ever since former President Trump was indicted by a grand jury in Georgia, Trump, his supporters, and even his critics have spread misinformation about the prosecutor on the case – Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis.

It’s one example of what people can expect as Trump deals with four separate criminal cases and runs for president at the same time. Experts say politically polarizing events like this are often used to spread misinformation.

The day after his indictment, Trump posted on Truth Social – his social media platform – calling Willis an “out of control and very corrupt District Attorney.”

In a campaign speech days later, Trump accused Willis of having an affair with a former client she represented as a defense attorney, but provided no information to support his claims.

He misrepresented a Rolling Stone article that recounted Willis’ past work as a defense attorney representing YSL Mondo, co-founder of Atlanta record label Young Stoner Life (YSL), in an aggravated assault case in 2019. During an interview, YSL Mondo never referred to their relationship as romantic, and described conversations with Willis as “auntie-to-nephew, mother-to-son type of talks.”

The story went viral on Facebook, X (formerly known as Twitter), and Truth Social, where posts racked up hundreds of thousands of clicks.

In one case, a post on X from a user named “Popular Liberal,” saying Willis was going to charge Trump if he didn’t provide evidence, was viewed over 200-thousand times. But there was no evidence to back it up.

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How can people sort what’s real from what isn’t?

Finding reliable information can be tough, especially during fast-moving, highly-politicized events.

Matthew Jordan, director of Penn State’s News Literacy Initiative, said statements like Trump’s – he called the charges a “politically motivated witch hunt” – are meant to elicit an emotional response, regardless of what’s in the legal filings.

“If it’s got too much hyperbole, if you have somebody making claims that this is the most awful thing or the most wonderful thing you’ve ever seen, you’re probably watching infotainment,” he said. “You will not get truth quickly on social media, if at all.”

Jordan said that kind of information will keep flowing on social media.

“Even if you’re spending a lot of time debunking every outrageous thing Trump said, you’re amplifying those, right? You’re going to see everybody kind of taking those screen captures of the outrageous things that Trump is going to continue to say on Truth Social, and they’re going to report them,” he said.

Jordan said people should be mindful of politicians who use “incredibly lucrative” politically polarizing events to raise campaign funds.

“Getting people all riled up with whatever factoid you can take out of context and then hitting them with a text message fundraising, you’ll see that both on the left and on the right,” he said.

How can people tell which news outlets to trust?

People distrust legacy media more than ever, according to research from the University of Pittsburgh’s Disinformation Lab.

Laura Putnam, who researches disinformation at the school, said Trump supporters and Republican voters show the most distrust in the federal government.

“They’re also less trustful of their own local and county governments, and they’re less trustful of the people around them. So those are really worrying,” she said. “It’s not healthy to live in a society in which you feel extremely distrusting.”

Right-wing media outlet Breitbart News criticized the Fulton County district attorney because the alleged crimes occurred outside Georgia – but the indictment only said the actions were part of a larger criminal effort, which violated the law in the state.

Putnam said partisan sources like Breitbart lack any sort of fact-checking infrastructure, and make people lose trust in experts.

“The point is not to say experts have never made mistakes about anything or experts have total perfect knowledge,” she said. “But rather, knowledge-generating institutions have systems in place that over time, accurate, reliable knowledge emerges.”

Putnam said people should still trust the consensus of experts in their communities, and be skeptical of those who say otherwise.

“Look out at that broader panorama of: What are the basic views? What are mainstream newspapers saying, mainstream television reporting? What interpretations are they offering on the basis of the consensus opinion among experts?” she said. “And if someone is telling you, ‘Oh, but, you know, do your own research,’ that could be a red flag.”

Jordan urged people to be patient during politically sensitive moments, and to seek out “boring, fact-based news.”

“I know that it’s a hard sell, but in some ways, it needs to be a little bit boring,” he said. “The news doesn’t want you to be patient, but that’s something that we as citizens, we just need to kind of let the system do its work.”

Both Jordan and Putnam said people should read the full indictment and pay most attention to fact-based reporting from outlets with publicly available corrections policies and editorial guidelines.

Read more from our partners, WITF.