Fake News Forensic; How I traced a piece of misinformation to its origin

By Lochlainn Heley

In our roughly three decades of living with the internet, millennials and Gen-Z have had to rapidly develop strategies and tools to navigate various traps online. Scams and malware have always been a danger, but in the past decade misinformation has developed pervasive ways to seep into our trusted sources—even academia. If Gen-Z and Millennials are to feel empowered using the internet, then it is time for us to know what misinformation looks like and how to track it.

This may be a difficult concept considering our reliance on third party fact checkers. They’re either AI programs or staffed companies outsourced by social platforms and news publishers to efficiently judge information. Their design means it is difficult to sort information as exclusively true or false. Scientific information that is still being developed is represented as being immutable, and subjective information is deemed as false.

The way we individually judge media and information is by assessing its context (described as media literacy). When misinformation dupes us, it’s because it’s constructed as a syllogism that plays with our processes of analysing. Hank Green detailed exactly this problem in a recent video tracking a piece of misinformation. Several papers studying micro plastics claimed that people now consume, on average, 5gs of plastic (this has been confirmed untrue). Green attributed this to no one checking this one background statistic.

“Are You Eating a Credit Card Every Week?”. Video by Hank Green, Vlogbrothers, June 18 2022.

‘Our own very normal biases, and realities of what it takes to capture people’s attention, makes sense-making a monster of a challenge.’

– Hank Green

None of this should have to be so fraught. We need a new form of media literacy so we can be confident enough to interrogate syllogistic phrases, and track where they came from. This way, we can make the best call when judging a piece of information on the internet.

So, I put my money where my mouth is and attempted to track some misinformation.

My piece of misinformation: “90% of plankton has disappeared from the ocean”.

STEP#1 Extract the claim

For this test, I started with a random article on the topic. The website was not widely known, but I had no reason to distrust it.

Climate: Scientists Stunned to Find Atlantic Plankton 90% Gone; Marine Life, our Oxygen Imperiled

– Juan Cole

On its own ‘90% of Atlantic plankton has vanished’ sounds like a piece of misinformation. It’s eye-catching and phrased like a truth, but it isn’t referenced properly.

Since the article refers to ‘a new study’ by The Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES), I decided to search for older posts that contain it.

STEP#2 Search for the source

Those of us who regularly research on the internet would probably stick with google for research. When used generally, google is absolutely useful. However, since my goal was finding the original post that started this cascade, a google search might not cut to mustard. If this were a bigger event in the media, using google could become a labyrinth to navigate.

Since this information is framed as academic, I decided to search Twitter for answers using an archive sheet called TAGS: a back search program that collects the tweets of many searches immediately.

“Plankton in the Atlantic Ocean is 90% gone”. Tweet by User Seasspiracy. July 20 2022.

I searched for tweets using ‘Plankton’ and ‘90%’.

STEP#3 Map the data to determine the source

Thankfully, the data sample was a small one, so the only irrelevant tweets were promotions for a web-science community and two SpongeBob memes.

I mapped the tweets by their age and found that the oldest tweets repeatedly referenced an article by the Sunday Post:

‘Our empty oceans: Scots team’s research reveals loss of plankton in equatorial Atlantic provoking fears of potentially catastrophic loss of life’

STEP#4 Compare the information

After comparing the Sunday Post’sstatement to the original research, I saw that it is not accurately representing the data. The first sign was that the ‘90% loss of plankton’ was referencing Atlantic plankton at the equator. While still devastating, the scale is misrepresented, possibly to be more alarming. The second came after closely reading the context of the statistic. Similar to the misinformation described in Hank Green’s video, it is a statistic that isn’t the subject of peer-review in this paper.

The information was false.

Internet Literate User: 1

Misinformation: 0

Doing this required a fair amount of labour, but if we want to continue to use the internet, it is time to recognise that evaluating information is imperative work. By becoming more media literate we can better shield each other from the spread of misinformation

Lochlainn Heley is a Melbourne based writer of culture, science fiction, fantasy and technology.

FEATURE IMAGE: “Fake News” by wuestenigel is licensed under CC BY 2.0