By Crystal Simmons

 If a lottery winner offered $5,000 to send a tweet, most social media users would jump at the chance. In fact, tens of thousands of Twitter users did just that last year — retweeting the message and then awaiting their cash. The message, of course, soon became one of the most viral tweets of 2018.

The only problem was, the offer was completely false.

 As social media scams become more refined, it’s not always easy to differentiate fact from fiction. Although some posts may appear harmless, others have the power to affect elections, incite violence, and spread panic. These false posts, photos, and news articles tend to spread faster and deeper across the internet than reputable sources. A 2018 study in Science magazine showed false information tends to ignite strong feelings of fear, disgust, and surprise and that Twitter users were 70% more likely to share this false information.

The spread of misinformation has become so prevalent that schools, libraries, and universities have adopted internet literacy courses in droves. For at least a decade, teachers at Klein ISD have taught digital citizenship, said Klein ISD Library Services Program Coordinator Nicole Shepard.

“We teach students digital skills before they ever get started online,” she said. “We know that social media exists, so we equip students with the digital skills they need to stay safe.”

Although many adults lack the same digital training, Shepard believes it’s never too late to develop new skills. She advises internet users to do their research before sharing a social media post. Satirical sources, such as the New Yorker’s Borowitz Report or The Onion, can be a source of misinformation when shared as fact.

“Make sure you go to the ‘About’ page when you visit a website,” she said. “Most of the time, you can learn the website’s purpose and the type of news shared. For trustworthy news, look for unbiased sources.”

Even researching information doesn’t guarantee unbiased results, she said. Algorithms, which are digital instructions that tell databases how to sort data, select search results based on a user’s search history, location, and social media habits.

“We can both look up the same things, but, based on my search habits, my results may be completely different from yours,” she said. “Algorithms pick up on our search habits.”

Shepard encourages others to use the free online news database available through the Harris County Public Library for reliable, unbiased sources. Other ways to fight back against misinformation include researching the news source, seeing if other news sources have covered similar news stories, or consulting a fact-checking site.

“Facebook and Twitter are fantastic resources for connecting with family and friends, but they aren’t a news station,” she said. “Don’t believe everything you read. News from a newspaper, whether it’s print or online, will always be more trustworthy.”