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Inside the fight against disinformation

12 News talked with a person who did the job while talking to experts about what is at stake.

PHOENIX —

With Election Day inching closer, voters can expect a whole lot of disinformation coming their way online

In recent months, social media giants have taken steps to try and stop the spread. However, much of what is blocked comes down to those moderating the more than 200 million U.S. Facebook accounts. 

“It’s a tiring, exhausting, and thankless job at the same time,” Allison Trebacz said. "It’s exhausting, (because) you to roll from one topic to the next."

Trebacz worked as a contractor monitoring Facebook posts for a year, leaving her position after around a year. She said she had to go through hundreds of posts a day. 

Those like her would use guidelines to decide what was unacceptable. The problem is there were situations that fell in the gray area.

“It’s almost impossible to get hundreds of hundreds of moderators on to the same page when it comes to misinformation,” Trebacz said.

Making the issue more complex is tthat hese moderators aren’t experts. However, they have to make choices to combat what is at times a global misinformation campaign.

“The majority of misinformation and disinformation out there is rooted somewhat in truth,” said Wayne Unger, a disinformation researcher with Arizona State University's Luminosity lab. 

VERSIÓN EN ESPAÑOL: Dentro de la lucha en contra de la desinformación

Experts said this is about the time where more and more false or misleading claims, and even threats, will surface in our timelines, feeds and email inboxes in an attempt to influence voters.

“The thoughts and perceptions that people have shaped who they vote for and what they vote for,” said Unger.                 

Unger and his team have studied disinformation connected to foreign interference in elections. 

Unger said people should be on high alert for false and misleading information online.  

“Be very cognizant of the information that is going to come out before Election Day. The reason why it is very important to be cognizant is if we look at the playbooks of disinformers, specifically the Russia playbook from 2016, we see an information operation explode right before the election,” Unger said.  

Unger said things have improved recently, especially as social media giants have worked to combat disinformation on COVID-19.

"Lit a fire under people’s behind," Unger said. 

However, the system still has holes. Both Unger and Trebacz said there will always be gaps in the system. 

“Everyone is creative and everyone finds new ways to spread this kind of stuff,” Trebacz said.

Wayne says foreign powers are using a combination of old strategies, and new ones to help influence the election. Unger pointed to countries using freelance writers, and misleading domain names to spread false information.

Unger said how Wall Street judges social media needs to change. Rewarding social media giants for new users gained can lead to more fake profiles. 

Trebacz said more actual experts helping those monitoring posts will help stop disinformation before it spreads. 

At the center of it all is trust in our country and what we are seeing. 

"When misinformation is perpetuated, then it erodes that independent," Unger said. “In order to erode the fundamental concept that keeps America running, and so that’s what Iran is doing, Russia is doing and in part, even China is doing.”

"You lose faith in all our systems," Trebacz said.

Here’s some more advice from our experts                                          

  • Look for a strong emotional response. That might be exactly what the account that posted it wants.   

  • Double-check information. If there is just one account sharing that information there is a good chance it is inaccurate in some way or completing made up.   

  • Check the source. Try to share information from sources that are reputable. It is also a good sign if more than one source is reporting similar information.  

  • Avoid social media if you can. Social media makes it easy to spread false and misleading information.  

  • Don’t take the clickbait. Most reputable sources will NOT ask you to retweet and share content in the headline. If a headline has all caps and a lot of exclamation marks, it is probably clickbait.