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Evaluating Information

A guide outlining false information, how it spreads across various platforms, and tips on recognition and assessment.

Avenues of Misinformation

Unfortunately for us, misinformation persists in a multitude of formats and contexts that may be difficult to identify depending on our own experiences. Click through the tabs below for some examples of false information and how it can manifest.

Note: to access some of the linked sources below, you may need to authenticate using your MultiPass.

Academic Misinformation

While it may seem like the clear answer to avoiding misinformation is to only read scholarly publications, even these resources can be untrustworthy.


Publication Fraud

Numerous organizations regularly commit publication fraud, circulating insufficiently reviewed information and articles in the name of profit. In this New York Times article, Carey (2016) outlines the rushed nature of some publications as well as the lack of credentials among several authors (despite their frequent publication contributions).

While this seems sinister, it should be noted that the vast majority of publication fraud is due to unintentional error (Cook, 2012). However, just because an article is peer-reviewed does not mean it is not fraudulent (Brainard & You, 2018).


Predatory Publishers

Some publishers and conferences that target academics are predatory, meaning that they charge the authors fees without actually supplying the peer-review, editing, and legitimacy of a scholarly journal or conference. Nature defines predatory publishers as "entities that prioritize self-interest at the expense of scholarship and are characterized by [one or more of the following] (Grudniewicz et al., 2019):

  • False or misleading information
  • Deviation from best editorial and publication practice
  • A lack of transparency
  • The use of aggressive and indiscriminate solicitation practices"

Several lists exist that outline publishers that are suspected of being predatory, such as this list developed by Jeffrey Beall. While these tools can be helpful in identifying suspicious publications, they are not foolproof (nor are they comprehensive). It is important to be vigilant, and to evaluate sources when you encounter them (Rele, Kennedy, & Blas, 2017).


Fake Papers

In other cases, groups work together to beef up citation counts, or sometimes even fake papers slip through the supposedly rigorous peer-review process (Else & Van Noorden, 2021).

More disturbingly, there was recently a trio of individuals who admitted to writing 20 hoax papers and submitted them to several peer-reviewed journals (Melchior, 2018). While this hoax was meant to prove a point about the increase of "grievance studies" in academia, it was incredibly unethical and specifically targeted fields of academia relating to both gender and critical race studies (Beauchamp, 2018).


Misleading Information Persists

Even in publications that are not predatory, academic material may still contain false or misleading information. Because of these dangers, it's important to think critically and assess every article you come into contact with. While most academic papers are trustworthy publications, you cannot operate under the assumption that they all are.

Check out the infographic below to learn more about how to critically analyze research publications.


Spotting Bad Science Infographic

Click on the image below to view an infographic with tips on determining an article's evidence quality. Image opens in a new tab.


"Fake News" became a hot topic throughout the 2016 US Presidential Election. While this term didn't originate from this period, it certainly grew in notoriety during the time. According to Kaspersky (n.d.), fake news tends to fall into two groups:

  • Stories that are deliberately false (or disinformative): this could be to increase clicks or to elicit opinions and responses from an audience
  • Stories that are broadly inaccurate with segments of truth: some of the truth is shared, but the story embellishes and is not wholly accurate

In this vein, there are several ways that news can propagate false information, with varying purposes and intents behind each format. Some of these formats are outlined below, with examples provided.



Clickbait is "designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest" (Merriam-Webster, 1999). Clickbait is intentionally worded in a way that grabs a reader's attention in hopes of gaining views and clicks. You likely see clickbait-y headlines on a daily basis. These headlines tend to follow a pattern in wording, several of which may contain the following: (Rock Content, 2021)

  • "You'll Never Believe"
  • "___ Things You Need to Know"
  • "This Hack for ___"
  • "This Is What Happens if You"
  • "The __ Best"
  • "The Top __"

In fact, this headline (while outlining examples of how to identify clickbait) follows the same template as these examples and serves as clickbait in its own way!

When interacting with news and media on the Internet, it's good practice to keep an eye out for these attention-grabbing headlines. Reflect on the article's purpose - is the intent to spread accurate, timely information, or is it to garner clicks and gain virality?


Poor Quality Journalism

Kaspersky (n.d.) outlines that some misinformed news that circulates may not be spreading out of a particular intent to spread inaccuracies, but due to journalist error. This could mean an author didn't fully consult fact-checking resources prior to sending an article for publication.

It should be noted, however, that if this is the case, trustworthy sources should correct errors and clearly outline the erroneous information as false. For example, The New York Times has a section on corrections to be made for previous issues of the NYT (pictured and linked below). They also have several methods of contacting them to notify about errors.

Imposter Content

Wardle (2020) notes the tendency for individuals to develop heuristics for analyzing or reviewing news sources. We likely have platforms or agencies that we prefer to receive our news from, and may accept headlines from trusted agencies or sources at face value. Unfortunately, this is an assumption that imposter content relies on.

Imposter content is false content that uses familiar logos or watermarks from established journalists, agencies, or companies. These imposing articles can circulate very quickly, especially on social media sites. See, for example, the news site below:

This screenshot reveals a news site using the BBC's logo to circulate misinformation regarding the UK General Election (Wardle, 2020). The danger in believing this ruse is apparent - according to the post, voters are assigned different days to participate in the election based on party affiliation. This could cause significant disparity in election results based on participants being misled to vote on another day.


Satire or Parody

As earlier stated, not all misinformation is intentional. Some misinformative news that circulates is originally intended to be humorous, satirical, or poking fun at a given topic/subject. However, while these resources may be harmless in theory, satirical content could be misunderstood by a reader unfamiliar with the topic. In these instances, what some may view as blatantly false and humorous may be mistaken as truth. Consider the example headline below, from The Onion (a well-known American parody news site):

This article may be blatantly satirical to some: accurately assessed to be a commentary on recent Supreme Court activity and conversations about religious freedom (The Onion, 2022). However, the background knowledge required to understand this as a tongue-in-cheek joke may not be apparent to everyone.

This article could easily be misconstrued as truth and spread falsely on social media platforms (likely spurring public outcry). While the material was never intended to be taken as truth, the perception of it as accurate information is harmful.


Propaganda can be defined, according to Merriam-Webster, as "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, cause, or person."

Numerous examples of propaganda can be found throughout history including instances in Ancient Greece, Catholic promotion during the Crusades, and the American Revolution (Jowett & O'Donnell, 1999). While propaganda does have historical significance, propagandist ideas still persist today.

For example, consider this UNESCO report on Holocaust denial and fact distortion. It was found that almost 80% of public messages regarding the Holocaust [in the German language] denied facts or distorted history (UNESCO, 2022). Additionally, the same was true for nearly 50% of coverage written in English and French (Morland, 2022). The circulation of this propaganda is frequently anti-Semitic in nature, and causes irreparable harm to numerous communities.

You can read more about the continued misinformation and propaganda relating to Holocaust coverage (and the implications of such) in the report linked below.

Misinformation Review: Propaganda

Harvard Kennedy School's Misinformation Review is an open access, peer-reviewed journal with several issues relating to the assessment and distribution of information.

A recent issue of the HKS Misinformation Review focuses on Propaganda, and can be accessed below.

TED Talk on Propaganda

Andrew Marantz, a journalist with The New Yorker, describes his experiences in observing propagandists responsible for the circulation of misinformation online. In this video, he outlines suggestions for combating propaganda.

Social Media

One of the most prevalent methods for misinformation to be curated and spread is using social media. Creating an account on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and other methods is free and easy-to-do, and posting on these sites does not require information to be true.


Identifying Misinformation

Researchers outline that one of the key contributing factors to the rampant nature of misinformation is due to an information overload (Menczer & Hills, 2020). As technology continues to advance and the Internet grants access to a nonstop flow of information, it can be hard to navigate a constantly updating feed of content.

In a simulated study to observe the impact the size of available information has on its quality, researchers noted that the more information we have access to, the lower the quality of that information (Qiu et al., 2017). See the figure below to visualize these results, with commentary provided in Scientific American (Menczer & Hills, 2020; Qiu et al., 2017).


Several critiques have been posited towards social media administration refusing to take sufficient action in addressing misinformation spread on their platforms. In an article for Forbes Magazine, one author noted that "simply put, misinformation gets clicks" (Suciu, 2021). Because of the engagement that hot-button, misinformed topics foster, social media platforms may be hesitant in removing the content due to profit.


How Misinformation Spreads

While we fight to stay informed by consuming media, digital algorithms work to keep us in filtered bubbles inspired by our clicks and engagement with online content (Meserole, 2018). Platforms including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have algorithms that prioritize content with higher engagement - thus, posts that elicit the highest reaction from readers is going to circulate more widely to a large audience (regardless of authenticity). This combination of human behavior and technological influence is very dangerous for the integrity of information shared across social media.

Several issues have been outlined as they relate to the perpetuation of misinformation on social media, including the following as outlined by MIT's Sloan School (Brown, 2020):



One of the key takeaways from a majority of the research on information spread and social media is that our own bias is partially responsible for the cyclical nature of misinformation. Learn more about the impact of individual biases here.

TEDx Talk on Misinformation Spread and Social Media

Mohsen Mosleh, a researcher at MIT, presents his analysis of two theories on how misinformation is transferred across social media platforms in his TED talk shown below.


There are several ways that statistical information can be twisted or taken out of context to misrepresent data. While on the surface, data-driven methods may seem reliable, citing statistical methods doesn't automatically mean that the information is correct or true.

In a Datapine blog post, Bernardita Calzon outlines the misleading nature of statistics in several contexts, including media coverage, political reports, advertising, health data, and scientific studies.

Below are some ways that statistics may be altered to mislead readers.


Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations depict two variables that may seem related to one another as they show correlation, but they do not have a causal relationship (American Psychological Association, 2022). Seeing a correlation between two factors may cause a reader to incorrectly assume that one causes the other. Consider this example from Tyler Vigen's blog of Spurious Correlations:

While the trends in these two variables are strikingly similar, they are completely unrelated. Civil engineering doctoral students are not singlehandedly responsible for the consumption of mozzarella cheese, and consuming mozzarella cheese does not determine one's status as a civil engineering doctorate!

To learn more about spurious correlations, check out this Harvard Business Review article (Harvard Business Review, 2015).


Misleading Axes on Graphs

Additionally, the way data visualizations are labeled can be intentionally misleading. Depending on the graph, axes labels may lead an untrained reader to perceive greater implications from results than are actually present. Bergstrom & West (2017) outline several misleading trends in labeling, including:

  • Bar graphs with an axis based on measurement excluding a zero label
  • Having a zero label on a line graph
  • Including more than 2 axes on a graph
  • Axes changing scale midstream
  • Axes not including measurable or numerical values

Learn more about the harm of these trends including example graphs.