Navigating infographics and misinformation: a guide to engaging with politics on the Internet

Issey Stevens 3 June 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image by Armaan Latif

Social media has enabled our generation to engage with politics in a whole new manner. Throughout the pandemic, I have noticed more and more that people are posting their own political opinions to their Instagram stories; sharing infographics, articles and links to donate. Based on the online activity of friends, peers and influencers, it can be said that our generation is dedicated to speaking out against injustice. Social media has exposed most of us to different modes of thinking and perspectives that have made us revaluate our own values, assumptions and habits.

The problem arises, however when the information we are seeing and spreading is false and/or harmful. The old adage rings ever true in an age of misinformation and pop politics: don't believe everything you read on the Internet. This fear of accidentally spreading misinformation may deter young people from engaging with politics so here’s a guide to help you better engage with and participate in political discourse online.

The first thing you need to do is to read beyond the headline. Check what the caption to the post says and click any links attached. Often headlines will be the most sensational part of the article but it is important that you continue to read the information they are using to support the headline. Ask yourself why they chose this picture or headline for this post. What emotions has it evoked within you and what was their intended goal?

Once you’ve read the full post, consider whether what you’ve read sounds too good or too bad to be true. Often when something sounds extreme it is because the truth has been embellished for clicks and shares. One of the best ways that you can avoid spreading this is to double-check sources and whether this same information is corroborated by reliable sources or publications.

It’s always worth doing some background research on the individuals and organisations that share information. Are they involved with or affiliated with a certain political group or organisation that may be a conflict of interest and bias them? Statistics should also not be taken at face value, as statistics and hard facts gain their meaning from the stories they are made to tell. It’s therefore worth checking if the data is collected by an organisation with a clear interest—would you trust Shell’s statistics on carbon emissions?

When we encounter political content on social media we all have some sort of an emotional response, even if that response is disinterest. If you feel an instant strong emotional reaction it may be best to save the post and come back to it once your heart rate has slowed down. We all fall prey to confirmation bias, which means that we are subconsciously more likely to spread something that we agree with even if it isn’t necessarily true. The first step is acknowledging that it is not just other people that experience confirmation bias, you yourself experience it, too. In order to better engage with politics online, we must not only be able to interrogate sources but also our own biases, ignorance and limitations.

The problem with interrogating and "fact-checking" others online is that it can often be seen as an insult— don’t you trust your friend to have shared a reliable source? Are you invalidating an individual or group’s experiences and perspectives? If you are fact-checking someone, they are likely to be defensive, as it is often the case that individuals share information or stories that had a strong emotional impact on them. It sucks to be wrong, especially about issues we care about. The only way to cushion the tremendous blow to one's ego that is being told you're wrong is to start out on the right foot with politeness. Of course, you may yourself be the one in the wrong. So always approach others with openness and avoid condescending language; you're more likely to get through to someone that way.

Social media companies are trying to do their part, though not well. For example, Instagram has started to put false information warnings on posts. You should read why this has been flagged as false information as it may be one aspect of the article and not the whole thing. If you ever find that one of your posts has this warning, as I have done, don’t feel discouraged from posting political information again, but instead fact-check the information you post more rigorously.

It’s also important to recognise that, of course, most political issues cannot be solved on social media, in which case there will often be organised groups that you can join and also traditional ways such as writing to your MP.

A lot of the tips I’ve given here require a lot of time and attention, which is not always possible in a fast-paced world and media cycle. If we were to fact-check every piece of information we are bombarded with, we would have time to do little else. As individuals, we can’t put an end to the spread of dis- and misinformation, but we can change the way we approach political content.

We have to maintain a healthy degree of scepticism about everything and everyone that asks for our attention online. We should treat the political content that we come across as just one piece of the puzzle, rather than expecting to know the full narrative from the snapshots we get on social media. We can and should continue to engage with politics online. If done responsibly, it makes us more well-rounded, empathetic individuals attune to the complexities of our world