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HomeMisinformation and Media Literacy
Recognizing and Countering
Mis- and Disinformation
"Freedom will be a short-lived possession unless the people are informed." 
-Thomas Jefferson, 1805
The Founders saw well-informed citizens as essential to the success of democracy, and took steps to ensure free speech, and a free press.  They believed that these freedoms, together with public education, would allow American citizens to settle debates based on a shared set of facts.

Our public debate never quite met that ideal.  Conspiracy theories, hate speech, and  disinformation have always circulated. 

Today, the internet and cable television have allowed an explosion of media sources, and new opportunities for misinformation to spread.  How do we recognize and resist misinformation in today's splintered media environment?

Misinformation vs. Disinformation 

Misinformation is false or misleading information.  Sometimes, it is simply incorrect, and the facts are wrong. However, often it’s more subtle than that, for instance when it leaves out context or uses emotional language or hate speech.

Misinformation can be spread on social media, traditional media, or by word of mouth. It can be the result of honest mistakes or misunderstandings, but it can also be intentional.

Disinformation is misinformation that is deliberately meant to mislead.  

The same meme, news story or article can be misinformation in one case, and disinformation in another, depending on the intentions and beliefs of the sender.  

Responding Across the Community
We are all affected by misinformation, and all participate in it.  With information and misinformation spreading in so many different ways, no set of laws, policies, or editors can provide a quick fix.  The solution needs to involve community members in:
  • building our own resistance to misinformation
  • slowing its spread 
  • providing trustworthy information within our communities
  • having civil conversations "across the aisle."
Each of us has a role in resisting misinformation.  Find out how you can do your part in personal conversations and by participating in the Civic Listening Corp.

Strategies for Disinformation

This LWVPGH 1-minute video show actions YOU can take to counter disinformation!

Recognizing Mis- and Disinformation
Misinformation Tactics
Recognizing common tools of misinformation is the first step in stopping its spreadThe information in a story or meme doesn't always have to be false to be harmful.  Missing context, emotional language, and hate speech can all make information misleading and divisive. 

Each of the following 6 boxes lists a tactic of spreading misinformation with an example. Most of the examples are adapted from the presentation "Building Resilience to Mis- and Disinformation," developed by LWVUS and the Algorithmic Transparency Institute.  You can view the entire presentation below .
The  Posts Below Are Examples of False, Misleading or Harmful Content

Missing Context

Social media post that reads - Illegal aliens are far more likely to commit federal crimes based on statistics. They are 7% of the population, yet they commit…” all these types of crimes at alarming rates including, according to this statement, 22% of murders
In this example, careful wording and cherry-picked data lead the reader to a false conclusion, although the data presented is actually accurate.

Can you spot the problem?  Click on the title bar to see the explanation.

Accordion Widget
Missing Context
Missing Context

The key phrase that makes this statement misleading is “federal crimes.”  Federal crimes make up a very low percentage of crimes nationwide. For instance, there are around 20,000 murders in the US each year, but under 100 federal murder convictions. So, 22% of federal murder convictions represents fewer than 20 people.


 Overall, non-citizens make up a much smaller proportion of all criminal prosecutions, but that context is left out.  As a result, statements like this can be both true, and exceptionally misleading in ways that completely distort the conversation.

Faulty Logic

This message argues that if you accept the validity of mail-in voting, the same logic should lead you to accept homemade, mail-in, vaccination records.

Can you spot the problem?  Click on the title bar to see the explanation.

Accordion Widget
Faulty Logic
Faulty Logic

Faulty logic is common in misleading messages.  In this case, we see a meme that uses a false equivalence argument to question mail-in voting. It suggests that mail-in voting is the same as mailing a self-certification that you have been vaccinated. But are they really the same? When you vote by mail, you send in your actual ballot, not just a claim that you have voted.  It's not really logical to compare the two, but this message uses distrust in one process to challenge the other.


Other types of common logical fallacies such as a red herring or a straw man argument misdirect your attention away from a real problem to an invented one. There are lots of other logical fallacies that show up in our discussions every day. Recognizing them requires breaking down and evaluating the arguments you see. Take a step back and consider whether the argument makes logical sense.

Hate and Dog Whistles

Image shows a bearded, white man with long hair.  He is chewing on a piece of grass and leaning against a pickup truck.  The text reads: A fifth grader from Alabama and a fifth grader from Maine get in a fight.  Who Wins?  The fifth grader from Alabama, because he's 18.
This meme is framed as "just a joke," and doesn't use offensive language or  make any factual claims that anyone would take seriously.

So, how does this contribute to misinformation? 

Accordion Widget
Hate and Dog Whistles
Hate and Dog Whistles

Messages like this are designed to reinforce our divisions based on stereotypes of another group's intelligence or character. They make it almost impossible to have an issue-based discussion.


In a way, they are versions of the "ad hominem" and "straw man" arguments - both forms of faulty logic. In an ad hominem argument, you attack the person you're arguing with instead of addressing their argument. And "straw man" sets up a flimsy or ridiculous version of an opponent's argument and then knocks it down.

Hate and stereotyping add to misinformation by mocking targeted groups, and then dismissing or misrepresenting their positions.

Conspiracy Theories

Social media post that reads, Use your own pen when you go in and vote on August 3 in Arizona.  Bring a black or blue pen with you. DO NOT use the felt tip pen they will try to give you.  Share this!!  Arizonans need to read this!!
This message sounds like a friendly tip to  voters to use their own blue or black pen, rather than the pens available at the polls. Many people may pass along a message like this thinking "better safe than sorry." 
How is this misinformation harmful? 

Accordion Widget
Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy theories are harmful because they break down trust in our usual information sources - often to clear a path for misinformation to spread easily. When you run across signs of conspiracy theories, be skeptical and evaluate the ideas carefully.


Conspiracy theories often:

  • Mention certain politicians, organizations, or wealthy people
  • suggest that there is hidden information that "they don't want you to know"
  • imply sinister motives, like cheating, greed or power, for keeping the information secret
  • thrive when there is not clear information available to explain a situation

When we think about conspiracy theories, we usually imagine the complicated theories that sound obviously crazy to us, but some - like the one in our example - are simpler and more believable, and circulate all the time.

"Bots" and Fake Accounts

screenshot of a fake twitter account. The post reads 'My name is Erica (she/her).  I'm a Proud Democrat, fully vaccinated and boosted, still wear 2 masks when I go out and support Ukraine...
The person behind this account is widely believed to be fake, but why does it matter?  She's just sharing her own personal information and opinions. 

"Bots" and fake accounts both use fake identities to make posts on social media.How does this contribute to misinformation?  Click on the title bars to see the explanation.


Accordion Widget

 Bots, as the name implies, are automated.  Usually they are chatbots, programmed to make comments on someone else's posts. They can be programmed to attack or support posts with certain types of content, and to stir up arguments and engagement in the comments.

Bots leave the false impression that many real people are interacting with the original post - a tactic called "astroturfing". Bot accounts are fairly easy to detect and remove, but they are also very cheap and easy to create, making them an ongoing problem.

Accordion Widget
Fake Accounts
Fake Accounts
Fake accounts are a little more complicated. They build a more elaborate, false identity to post original content and gain a social media presence of their own. Often, there are real people managing the account and creating content. These accounts can identify themselves with a cause or political group, and try to cause trouble for the group by creating in-fighting, or by posting content that is "off-message," or opens the group to criticism or mockery.

Targeted Messages
woman on phone
In 2022 two men pleaded guilty to using an auto-dialing service to send 85,000 phone calls to mostly Black communities during the 2020 election.  The messages made the false claim that information on a voter's mail-in ballot could be used to to arrest the voter, or force the voter to get vaccinated.  

Historically disadvantaged and minority communities are often targeted with disinformation.  These robocalls used two common tactics of targeted disinformation:  choice of media, and tailored content. 

Click on the Title Bars to learn how these tactics work.

Accordion Widget
Choice of Media
Choice of Media

Different communities use different news sources, languages, and communication apps and methods.  For instance: 

  • Immigrant communities are more than twice as likely to use messaging apps like WhatsApp or Signal than non-Hispanic white communities. 
  • Immigrants often get their news from local or international sources that use their first language.
  • Communities of color are often concentrated in certain neighborhoods, making it easy to target them with messaging by phone or  mail.

Accordion Widget
Tailored Content
Tailored Content

 Advertising and messaging uses appeals to religious or social/political values that are common (although not universal) in the community.   For example:

  • Messaging aimed at the Cuban-American community might emphasize an opponent's (supposed) ties to socialism. 
  • Messaging aimed at the Mexican-American community might accuse an opponent of being anti-Catholic.
  • Groups who have historically experienced discrimination are targeted with false claims that polls or voting records are monitored by the police or other government agencies.

Resources for Recognizing Misinformation lists 5 factors to consider when checking a claim , and gives detailed information on how to evaluate each factor.
Tactics of Disinformation. -- This booklet from the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) details tactics used by foreign actors to spread disinformation in the US.
Inoculation Science has videos and interactive games that help explain tactics of disinformation.  Inoculation Science is a project of the University of Cambridge and the University of Bristol.

Fact and Bias-Checking Tools


               a red X and a yellow checkmark
Fact-checking websites are valuable resources for anyone looking for accurate information about a suspicious news report or viral post.  The websites listed below are good places to check when you think you have run across misinformation and before you share information.

However, responding to misinformation with just a fact check, or a news article is not usually effective or persuasive, whether on line or in person.  Instead of reporting the results of the fact-checking site, use the original sources and backup information cited in the article or report to move your discussion forward.

Example:  Photo circulates showing politician posing with an offensive sign.
Ineffective Response:

A:  "Snopes says that's not true."
B:  "Well, Snopes is biased."
More Effective Response:

A:  "That photo has been doctored.  You can see the original here."
B:  "Oh, let me see that."

Media Bias Charts

             odometer light purple

Media Bias Charts rank news sources for both accuracy and political bias.  While their definitions of bias and accuracy are subjective, the best of these sites are very transparent about their process, and keep a public database of the articles that were used in the rankings.  These charts are very thought-provoking, but are they useful in countering disinformation?  Well, Yes, and No.


  • When you run across information from a source you don't recognize, a Media Bias Chart can help you get a rough idea of what you're looking at and how reliable it is.  
  • Viewing your own favorite sources on a Media Bias Chart may surprise you, and can help you consider the bias of your own media diet.
  • Using a Media Bias rankings is practically useless in an argument - even less convincing than using a fact-checking site.  

Lateral Reading

                    Graphic of two newspapers

Lateral Reading means using multiple news sources side-by-side to verify information.  It allows you to take advantage of the research done by professional journalists who may have been present at the event, and who are able to interview key players and experts.

Check content using several mainstream sources that do original reporting.

  • Seek news sources that have an accountability mechanism like an editorial board, and that publish corrections to their reporting when necessary.
  • Use fact-checking sites, and their list of original sources for the topic.
  • Follow up with any links to original document sources, such as an event video (with multiple recorders/reporters), transcripts, court documents, police blotters, etc...

The Bottom Line:   These tools allow you to educate yourself, but are not effective ways to convince someone else. 
Fact-checking sites   - News Literacy Project, a nonprofit, educational organization  Reuters News -- Annenberg Public Policy Center, at the University of Pennsylvania --  Independent publication of the Snopes Media Group - The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit journalism school
Media Bias Charts
Interactive Media Bias Chart  at Ad Fontes Media.  A static chart and other resources are also available.
All Sides Media Bias Chart  Side-by-side reporting on selected news stories, and other resources are also available at this site.

Downloadable Resources
5 Steps to Vetting a News Source 
infographic from News Literacy Project
Fact or Fiction?  infographic from LWVPGH

What Makes Misinformation Work?
What Motivates Misinformation?

People spread misinformation for a variety of reasons:  

  • Political Agenda - some misinformation is meant to support a political viewpoint or candidate, or divide and discredit political opposition by spreading false or misleading messages.
  • Profitadvertisers, fundraisers and data-miners may use misinformation to make money.
  • Pranks - some misinformation is created as a prank or simply for attention.

No matter whether the goal is politics, profit or pranks, all share the motivation to spread their messages as widely as possible.  Our clicks, comments, and reactions help them to succeed.  


Motivations of Disinformers

LWVPGH 1-minute video on what motivates spreaders of misinformation and disinformation.

Why is It So Effective?

Misinformation Takes Advantage of Human Nature

  • Motivated reasoning - we are more likely to accept information that reinforces what we already want or believe. For example, when a referee makes a disputed call at a football game, fans lean strongly toward the position that benefits their own team, even though they all saw the same evidence.
  • Emotional Appeals - messages that make appeals to fear, anger, disgust, or excitement can override our rational responses.
  • Satisfying Answers - Many important questions don't have known answers.  Diseases or disabilities with no known cause, unsolved crimes, or unusual natural phenomena naturally cause us to look for an explanation.   Conspiracy theories fill our need for a big-picture answer that seems to fit the seriousness of the question.  
  • Identity or Purpose -  Misinformation that divides people into a clear "us vs. them" and turns a list of policy or factual disagreements into a battle of "good vs. evil" motivates people to act, vote, and donate.  People value the sense of belonging and purpose that comes with a group identity and cause.  

photo of teenage girl with a drawing of a brain behind her.  Mathematical symbols are on the left side and bursts of color on the right.

Artificial Intelligence & Disinformation

"Deep Fake" vs "Cheap Fake"

Deep Fakes:  
Rapid advances in artificial intelligence technology now make it possible to generate realistic photo, video and audios that appear to "document" disinformation. But “deep fake” AI does not really change the nature of the game much.  Widely available photo, video and 
audio editing software have long made it possible to create similar, and often better, "cheap fake" documentary content.

The power of disinformation is rooted in human psychology, which means that AI troll-bots on social media, or public figures simply repeating false claims are able to spread lies easily without the help of deep fake content.  Whether AI-generated or not, we can use what we know about human nature (above), and the strategies that follow (below) to counteract disinformation.

AI-generated, blurry, photo of Loch Ness monster

Loss of Public Trust
Two friends chat about AI.
Growing awareness of  AI in the media environment can have both positive and negative effects.

The negative effect is a growing lack of trust in media, news sources, public figures and institutions.  Eventually, this leads to the loss of a shared, factual basis for political discussion.  
Once there is a sense that you can’t trust anyone, or there’s no way to tell what’s true or false, it no longer feels possible to make meaningful choices or engage in the shared democratic process.

The positive effect is growing scepticism of news found on social media, and awareness of the need to fact-check suspicious content.   

The Bottom Line:  To counter the harmful effects of AI-generated disinformation, we need to 
avoid reinforcing the sense that it’s impossible to find the truth.  Instead, we need to emphasize and model ways to verify factual information.

View the recording of our April 2024 presentation on "AI and Disinformation" here:   AI and Disinformation Presentation 

What Can You Do About Misinformation?

Rule # 1 - Do NOT Respond

     photo of hands on a smartphone with emoji graphics. the photo is crossed out with a red 'ban' symbol

When we see or hear misinformation our first instinct is to argue and present correct information.  This is almost always a bad idea, especially online.  Why?

  • Every time you post a comment, or "like" another person's comment, or click the "angry" emoji, you are helping to spread the original post to more and more viewers.   Responses on social media are exactly what bad actors need to achieve their goals. 
  • When you debate online you are usually debating with strangers and chatbots and you are not likely to persuade them.   
  • In-person discussions can also backfire, especially if they turn into arguments, accusations and anger.  It takes preparation, empathy and mutual respect to change someone's mind about misinformation. 

There are tips and resources for having civil discussions below. 


Beware the Bots

This 1:30 minute LWVPGH video informs users to "beware of malicious bots" in their social media networks.

Rule # 2

Choose your battles wisely

Sometimes it makes sense to respond to disinformation when:

  • You are able to have a private conversation, online or off
  • You have an existing relationship with the person in real life
  • You have information that will fill a knowledge gap
  • You are prepared to be non-confrontational

When in doubt, go with Rule # 1 and Do Not Respond.

Participate in Misinformation Monitoring
Report Misinformation
Instead of responding to misinformation online, you can report the misinformation to these media monitoring groups: - a project of the Common Cause Education Fund

Email your tip to or text the Tipline at +1 (859) 374-8741
Join the Civic Listening Corps
If you want to get more involved, join the  Civic Listening Corps (CLC).  CLC is a volunteer network of individuals trained to monitor for, critically evaluate, and report misinformation on diverse topics central to our civic life: voting, elections, public health, civil rights, and other important issues. Volunteers receive training, and then can sign up for shifts to monitor regular time slots or key events.  The CLC provides volunteers with ongoing support, feedback and guidance.

The information collected is analyzed and reported to partnering media outlets, public officials, and organizations like LWVUS who then can use the data to shape their messaging.  

Sign Up for a Training Session! You can be part of the solution!

Strategies for Countering Misinformation

The best "response" is preparation
It is hard to debunk misinformation once it begins to spread.  It is much more effective to "pre-bunk." This means looking for knowledge gaps and providing accurate and detailed information ahead of time.  

Pre-bunking is a good strategy for trusted groups and organizations who can spread factual information widely and act as a community resources.  Individuals can help this effort by participating in social media monitoring to help identify the knowledge gaps that are being targeted with misinformation. 

Pre-bunking at LWVPGH
When election rules changed in 2020, the LWV of Greater Pittsburgh (LWVPGH) recognized an important information gap and worked to pre-bunk rumors about mail-in voting and the new paper ballots.

LWVPGH's resources included an infographic about  "The Life and Times of a PA Mail-in Ballot", and a video, "The Journey of an Official Election Ballot," which showed the details of the vote-counting process in Allegheny County.   The goal was to help voters recognize and evaluate the misinformation that they might hear about the security of the mail-in ballot.

Journey of an Official Ballot VIDEO

Follow the "Behind the Scenes" before, during, and after journey of your PA ballot.


Responding to Existing Misinformation
Sometimes its not possible to get out ahead of misinformation.  It may be necessary to debunk certain misinformation when:
  • it is already widespread in the community.  At this point, addressing it no longer helps it spread.
  • there is a clear information gap that you are able to fill
  • the misinformation is preventing you from accomplishing your goals
Debunking and Pre-bunking Resources

The Debunking Handbook  -- George Mason University  - This document is available in multiple languages
Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation - from the Office of the US Surgeon General


Personal Conversations
Fostering Civil Conversations
about tough topics

The most important way to prepare for a discussion about misinformation is to reframe the discussion and adjust your own goals.   
DO aim to:
  • Find common ground
  • Maintain trust and respect
  • Understand your friend's view and feelings
  • Explain your own view and feelings
  • Gain new information 
DO NOT aim to:
  • Agree on every point of fact
  • Corner your friend with "gotcha" questions
  • "Win" or have your friend admit defeat

Remember, it's a conversation, not a contest.  If you understand each other better at the end, you both "win"!

Tools and Tips

It takes practice to have the kind of conversations that promote mutual understanding and bridge-building.  Several organizations offer online or in-person courses that offer valuable examples and practice in these skills.  Some of the best links are listed below.  All agree on a few main strategies for shaping the discussion:

  • Ask open questions about the other person's views
  • Listen to the answer, and ask clarifying questions
  • Tell stories of your personal experience where appropriate
  • Express your respect for the values underlying their views:  fairness, generosity, justice...
  • Express your thoughts in terms of your own feelings and values
  • Steer the conversation back to common ground
photo of two women talking with a serious expression
Resources for "Talking Across the Aisle"

Braver Angels - provides training workshops on civil discourse, including the self-guided e-course, Skills for Bridging the Divide, with many practical examples.
National Institute For Civil Discourse (NICD) - has several projects with civil discourse resources, including Living Room Conversations.  Learn how to join or host a topical conversation.
Bridging Differences Playbook - from the Greater Good Science Center

Bringing Conversations Back to Common Ground - examples of phrases that can help keep a conversation "on the rails"
Tips for "Living Room Conversations" -  a short graphic for social media 
Effective Responses for Organizations 
Responding through a Nonprofit or Organization
Established community organizations, media outlets, and non-profits have a wider audience than individuals , and are in a better position to provide a coordinated response to misinformation. To increase your impact, consider joining an organization that is working to counter misinformation.   Join LWVPGH!

Responding in All Communities

Efforts to counter disinformation are concentrated on mainstream new sources and social media, and miss the targeted disinformation that spreads in some communities.  Strategies to push back against targeted disinformation include:

  • Partnering with these communities to monitor and report disinformation
  • Engaging communities in creating and spreading pre-bunking and debunking messaging 
  • Producing accurate resources in multiple languages
  • Delivering adequate resources using the community's preferred media ( WhatsApp, mail, phone)
Recommendations for Civic Organizations 

These studies from the Brennan Center provide recommendations for organizations seeking to address disinformation.
3 Lessons on Misinformation on Social Media
Information Gaps and Misinformation in the 2022 Elections
Latino Voters at High Risk for Misinformation

The First Amendment & Censorship
The First Amendment

At the most basic level, the First Amendment protects our speech from interference and punishment from the government. It doesn’t protect our speech from interference, punishment, or censorship from Twitter(X) or from Facebook, or in most cases, from a private employer.  When we’re talking about protected speech, we’re talking about protection from government interference, not protection from anyone else who may disapprove of or want to penalize you for your speech.  For instance, you can be fired, or lose membership in a club, or be expelled from a business for types of speech that are protected by the First Amendment.

There are a few types of speech that the government can regulate without violating the First Amendment:

  • Defamation is unprotected speech.  Defamation is knowingly giving false information that harms someone's reputation.  Libel is written defamation.  Slander is spoken defamation.
  • Incitement to violence is a type of unprotected speech.  Speech has to meet a very strict and narrow definition to be considered "incitement to violence."  The speaker has to be in a leadership position, and intentionally cause a crowd to use specific and immediate violence against others. It is very difficult to prove that speech fits this narrow definition.
  • Harassment is a category of unprotected speech. Harassment is speech that substantially interferes with another person's civil rights or ability to pursue their work, education or daily activities.  It usually takes the form of trying to intimidate or drive away someone based on their gender, ethnic or racial identity.  The intent and degree of the disruption in the target's life are key to the definition of harassment.  Most speech about another person's identity, no matter how offensive, insulting, or false, is protected by the First Amendment. 

Censorship and Disinformation

account suspended phone - canva

The First Amendment and Social Media

While the goal of the First Amendment  -- allowing for free and open exchange of ideas and opinions -- is a valid consideration for Social Media companies, ultimately, it is up to these private companies to create and enforce their own speech policies.

  • As privately owned businesses, social media companies do not have to allow all forms of speech permitted by the First Amendment, and may make rules to suit their own needs, whether that is maintaining a "family-friendly" environment, promoting information that reflects their beliefs and values, increasing engagement, or attracting advertisers.   These needs are often in conflict.  For instance, controversial content may increase user engagement, but cause advertisers to leave the platform.
  • Different private companies enforce different policies, which is why the same controversial message may be allowed on one social media platform but not allowed on another.  These policies are part of the terms of service that users "read" and sign when they join the platform.  

Resources from LWVPGH & LWVUS
Share on social media or in your classroom.

Short Videos

See our Videos  page for more resources. 


Motivations of Disinformers

LWVPGH 1-minute video on what motivates spreaders of misinformation and disinformation.


Strategies for Disinformation

This LWVPGH 1-minute video show actions YOU can take to counter disinformation!

Beware the Bots

This 1:30 minute LWVPGH video informs users to "beware of malicious bots" in their social media networks.

Printables and Graphics

Check out our  Explainers & Graphics page for more resources. 
New content is added regularly.
election disinfo dos and don'ts - Engish

Election Disinfo Do's and Don'ts
Election Disinfo Dos and Donts - Spanish

Qué Si Y Qué No - Desinformación Electoral


Find more in this series on our Explainers & Graphics page.

View the presentation, "Building Resilience to Mis- and Disinformation"

Presented and recorded March 28, 2023 by LWVPGH

This presentation is a collaboration between LWVUS and the Algorithmic Transparency Institute (ATI) and aims to train members to recognize mis- and disinformation and help slow its spread. A slide deck, with speaker's notes is also available below.


LWV US Mis- Disinformation Slide Deck

View the presentation, "AI and Misinformation"

Presented and recorded April 16, 2024 by LWVPGH and LWVPA

This presentation is a collaboration between LWVPA and LWVPGH.   A slide deck, with speaker's notes is available upon request.