New Jersey unveiled a new “disinformation portal” last week, hoping to help citizens fend off a torrent of lies and deepfake videos that officials say are increasing “exponentially.”
The website offers tips for spotting misleading information and links to fact-checking resources from the State Department, FBI, and other sources.
The problem has escalated noticeably in recent weeks as perpetrators attempt to promote Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, said Laurie Doran, director of the State Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness, in an interview.
“Disinformation has been around forever. It comes in many forms. Right now we’re in the age of the internet and it’s growing exponentially,” said Doran, whose office runs the njhomelandsecurity.gov/disinformation portal.
A widely circulated fake video last month showed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appearing to tell citizens to surrender to Russia. The video even appeared on a major Ukrainian news network that had been hacked.
The tactic is being used by bad actors to incite panic, stoke distrust of government and stoke divisions, the Office of Homeland Security warns. Agencies do not have the means or resources to track or fully dispel the attack on their own. They therefore hope to educate the public on how to separate accurate reports from false or questionable ones.
Corrupted content not only grows rapidly; it’s also getting more sophisticated, Doran said. High profile groups and individuals use fake news, messages, images and videos to promote national or corporate interests and to fuel war, as seen in Ukraine.
Deepfakes are images, videos, or audio recordings that are manipulated to show people they are saying or doing things they didn’t actually say or do. Politicians, celebrities and CEOs have been the targets of such videos, and advances in technology are making them more realistic than ever.
Sometimes the content comes in the form of pranks or entertainment. But it has also been used to extort people and promote a political or military agenda.
Here’s how to spot an edited video, according to the state agency:
- Look for the subject’s unnatural eye movements, facial expressions, body movements, coloring, or posture.
- Slow down a video to identify if there are any inconsistencies such as poor lip sync or frames that are out of alignment.
Red flags online
People or groups who spread disinformation do so with the intent to deceive, while misinformation refers to media outlets and publications that are shared without knowing that the material is false. Both can cause harm and distort public opinion, Doran said. Fake news played a role in the COVID-19 crisis and the 2020 elections, she added.
Much of this misleading content comes from China, Russia, and Iran, as well as foreign extremist groups. All are trying to take advantage of international crises and high-profile incidents to sow discord in the United States, Doran said.
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According to the agency, red flags for social media accounts include:
- Personal information or username containing numbers, hashtags or emojis
- A high level of postings (over 100 per day) and messages posted throughout the day and night
- Using multiple languages or using a default profile picture
- Track Suspicious Accounts
- Misspellings, newly created accounts, and links to unknown websites
The agency’s advice to media consumers: Consider the source or creator of the information and ask yourself what their motivations may be. Consumers need to check their own biases and determine if their beliefs affect their view of information. Identify the original sources of a post or story to verify its accuracy.
Can we stop the spiral?
Some people may share fake content because they want to believe what they have seen, often because it supports their own personal biases or views. The state agency is promoting its disinformation findings and tools in hopes that people will think twice before posting or sharing.
“We can’t control people’s biases or what they want to think,” Doran said. “We can’t force people to search. But we try to provide a resource and advice on how to go and check things out and see if they’re getting the most accurate information. Ultimately , this is a public service to help people who have a question mark or two about the news.”
With no end in sight to the problem, some advocacy groups and lawmakers focus on helping people from an early age learn how to find reliable information online and spot what’s fake.
In New Jersey, state lawmakers are considering a bill that calls for K-12 courses on how to critically evaluate information. A new curriculum would teach students to recognize primary and secondary information and to distinguish between facts, viewpoints and opinions.
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Introduced in January, Bill S-588 was referred to the Senate Education Committee.
Olga Polites, chapter leader for Media Literacy Now, a national organization advocating for the bill, said state social studies standards include media literacy, but the topic is not widely taught due to lack of curriculum and teacher training.
The lessons would reinforce new civics instruction — mandatory in middle schools since September — that focuses on the rights and responsibilities of citizens, said Polites, an English teacher at the Lenape Regional High School District. The hope, Polites said, is that the skills carry over into adulthood.
“Civic education is endgame, but you won’t have the tools to do it unless you learn these various skills,” Polites said.
Additional resources for spotting fake news and videos:
Freedom Forum Institute – Quick guide to spotting fake news
International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions – How to Spot Fake News
Norton – How to Spot Deepfake Videos
Hannan Adely is a diversity journalist covering Arab and Muslim communities for NorthJersey.com, where she focuses on social issues, politics, prejudice and civil rights. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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