All things considered, we’ll be completely honest – no one can realistically ask five questions for every bit of information. There are even experts who assume that the main significance of disinformation doesn’t lie in manipulation itself, but in the fact that it creates a certain environment for us or strips from us the idea that we can rely on anything. This is an idea that comes from Thomas Jefferson.
Therefore, it’s more about knowing how to ask the right questions.
Who? The first question asks about the originator of the information. Has it been signed? Can we verify who the given name or acronym belongs to? If we say something, we should also be willing to stand behind it. This doesn’t mean that we can’t be wrong or change our opinion. The possibility to find out who is the creator of the information is important, but it’s often very difficult in practice. Although it’s not ideal, it is favorable to create a circle of authorities (i.e. individuals or media) around us that we consider to be trustworthy and, based upon them, try to perceive individual problems in the world. Disinformation servers often used editorial shortcuts and the names of their editors cannot be verified. Generally speaking, a “famous name” carries with it a certain ethos or story – we know why Klaus, Halík or Sokol say the things they’re saying; they are using their names to vouch for their statements and, at the same time, these messages and media appearances create our image of who they are.
What? The first thing we usually focus on is the content of the message. But, this should be looked at in two ways. The first is the initial stimulus, i.e. what we would take away from the information if we didn’t study it in more detail. The second question is what the text says in reality – can we find something there by reading between the lines? Is it important for the author of the message to slip something in that we wouldn’t normally notice? Maybe feelings of division, conspiracy, fear, etc.? Examples: RFID Chip May Be Tied to the New Coronavirus Vaccine from CBN.
Whom? With information, now only what is important, but also whom a text is intended for. It can often contain “us and them” divisions (the good and the bad, Christians and Muslims, intelligentsia vs Miloš Zeman voters, liberals vs conservatives, etc. – texts like this always link their message to an affiliation to a group created in this manner). Who is “us”? For example, members of a certain group, voters for a party, or supporters of certain values want to hear a certain thing, and the author of the message gives that to them. A typical example might be the fan webpage of a hockey team, where all the events and information are mirrored through the club’s perspective, not via reserve and detachment.
Have a look: Where was the image published? Who are the people the author is talking about, and how do they relate to Miloš Zeman? Is the caption written neutrally or expressively? Source: Facebook profil Přátelé Miloše Zemana. Screenshot: KISK
If the answers to these previous questions have set off alarms in your head, you’re not alone. The article was spread by a hoax, which has been refuted by Manipulátoři.cz in this article. Screenshot: KISK.
When? When was the given message created? We often find that certain manipulative or false messages (and images) circulate for years on the internet. They often pretend to be new or to stem from personal experience, but in fact they are older messages that have been recycled. Checking the date and place of the message’s creation is useful. For images, you can use a search through a site like TinEye.
How? Formal elements also form the parts of a message. Is the author using expressive language? Does the message have an emotional tone? If yes, then he or she evidently wants to increase the pressure for acceptance, evoke activity and raise urgency. Similarly problematic signs are all capital letters or numerous exclamation marks. A text in which one side of an argument is systematically defamed or one which contains argumentative fallacies is not a good source for viewing the world. Examples: SHOCK REPORT: This Week CDC Quietly Updated COVID-19 Numbers – Only 9,210 Americans Died From COVID-19 Alone – Rest Had Different Other Serious Illnesses from The gateway pundit. We should also take notice of the exceptional length of the articles’ headlines.
Why? This question is crucial in disinformation campaigns. Why does someone want us to look at this message? Why are they writing this way or that about x or y? It’s good to realize that information is part of complex concepts of various campaigns, which can have both an economic and political background. Searching for the reasons why someone has released certain information (and why they’ve done so at the given moment) is an important element in evaluating information. But, even here, we should proceed with caution so as not to succumb to paranoid hopelessness. For example, Alvarová assumes that the goal of Miloš Zeman’s infamous vulgar speech for Czech Radio was to take attention away from the fact that he had flown from China on a private plane belonging to PPF.
Here we would like to point out that there are actually lists of conspiracy theory disinformation websites (List of fake news websites), on which the amount of relevant sources is negligibly small. For example, aforementioned AC24, Protiproud, Sputnik or Parlamentní listy (in English e.i. Before It's News, Breaking-cnn,...) can’t be read with the assumption that the information being transmitted is actually true. This of course doesn’t mean that serious media outlets such as Czech Radio, the Czech Press Agency or Aktuálně (or CNN, BBC, The New York Times) are never wrong. In such cases, however, this is usually an unintentional mistake, while disinformation servers intentionally work with lies.
There are also services that try to fight false information via systematic analytical work. Such websites include Demagog, which verifies statements made by politicians, or Manipulátoři and FactCheck.org in English, which tries to monitor selected media reports and offer a view that is as unbiased as possible. Although even these services aren’t faultless, they are still extremely useful for basic activity within the media environment.