How to avoid falling for misinformation, fake AI images on social media

There’s a flood of real, misleading and fake breaking news and information online. Proceed with caution.

misinfotips in-house illustration (The Washington Post)
7 min

Anyone with an internet connection can watch breaking news unfold in real time, or at least some version of it. Across social media, posts can fly up faster than most fact-checkers and moderators can handle, and they’re often an unpredictable mix of true, fake, out of context and straight propaganda.

The rapid spread of easily accessible AI tools is muddling the waters even further. Look no further than the mystery of the Pope in an expensive looking puffy coat, or a recent fake tweet that was quickly debunked claiming there was an explosion near the pentagon.

How do you know what to trust, what not to share and what to flag to tech companies? Here are some basic tools everyone should use when consuming breaking news online.


Know why something might be misinformation

Think about who would benefit from spreading confusing information during a news event, and brush up on specific narratives going around. During elections, for example, experts say to look out for conflicting information and conspiracy theories, baseless accusations and unfounded concerns about voter fraud that may benefit one political party or candidate.

If something feels too outrageous or satisfying, whether it lines up with your views or not, pause and do more research. Misinformation is often accidentally spread by people who want it to be true. The people behind could be trying to rile up supporters or create more tension between opposing sides of an issue, or generally destabilize a population.

Not all misinformation is serious. Some is just created for fun or to troll people, so be as skeptical of silly stories as serious ones.


Slow down while reading and watching

Do not hit that share button. Social media is built for things to go viral, for users to quickly share before they’re even done reading the words they’re amplifying. No matter how devastating, enlightening or enraging a TikTok, tweet or YouTube video is, you must wait before passing it on to your own network. Assume everything is suspect until you confirm its authenticity.


Check the source, don’t always trust “verified” accounts

Look at who is sharing the information. If it’s from friends or family members, don’t trust the posts unless they are personally on the ground or a confirmed expert. If it’s a stranger or organization, remember that a verified check mark or being well-known does not make an account trustworthy. There are plenty of political pundits and big-name internet characters who are posting inaccurate information right now, and it’s on you to approach each post with skepticism.

If the account posting is not the source of the words or images, investigate where it came from by digging back to find the original Facebook, YouTube or Twitter account that first shared it. If you can’t determine the origin of something, that’s a red flag. Be wary of screenshots, which can be even harder to trace back, or anything that elicits an especially strong emotional reaction. Disinformation can prey on that type of response to spread.

When screening individual accounts, look at the date it was created, which should be listed in the profile. Be wary of anything extremely new (say, it started in the past few months) or with very few followers. For a website, you can see what year it was started on Google. Search for the name of the site, then click on the three vertical dots next to the URL in the results to see what date it was first indexed by the search engine. Again, avoid anything too new. And don’t skip the basics: Do a Google search for the person or organization’s name.


Make a collection of trusted sources

Doing mini background checks on every random Twitter account is extremely time-consuming, especially with new content coming from so many places simultaneously. Instead, trust the professionals. Legitimate mainstream news organizations are built to vet these things for you, and often do report on the same videos or photos taken by real people after they’ve confirmed their origin.

Use a dedicated news tool such as Apple News, Google News or Yahoo News, which choose established sources and have some built-in moderation. On social media, make or find lists of vetted experts and outlets to follow specifically for news about the topic you’re following.

If you consume breaking news on Twitter, be especially careful to follow confirmed reporters from trusted outlets who are on the ground. Changes coming to Twitter’s verification system make this more difficult. Do not assume that an account is trustworthy or vetted by Twitter because it has a blue checkmark. Visit news sites directly or look up the people you trust on another platform.


Seek out additional context about news events

This kind of misinformation often spikes before, during and after actual major news. Many real news events will include information from the ground, like smartphone videos and first-person narratives. Even if you see only legitimate posts, they can still be confusing or misleading — they may be the most compelling pieces of a puzzle, but they are not the whole picture. Try to augment any one-off clips or stories with broader context about what is happening. Mix in information from established experts on the topic, whether it’s foreign policy, cyberwarfare, history or politics. You can also turn to online or television outlets that add this context for most stories.


Use these tricks to spot AI images

AI image generation tools make identifying fakes much harder, but not impossible. Here are five clues that you can look for to spot AI-generated images, including by zeroing in on hands, background images and inanimate objects that often don’t look quite right. You can find even more tips in our Tech Friend newsletter.

  • Look at the hands. AI software has a history of generating human hands with too many fingers or other oddities, though the technology is getting better fast.
  • Zoom in on any inanimate objects in the image to see if they feel off. Focus on items in an image like eyeglasses, fences or bicycles and see if they have any tell-tale flaws.
  • If you’re wondering if an image is made by AI, look for writing on objects like street signs or billboards and see if it’s backwards or nonsensical.
  • Scan the background. AI-generated images may have blurry or distorted details, particularly in the background.
  • Check if the images are overly glossy or artistic-looking. Some AI-generated images of real people appear garishly stylized or depict people with plastic-looking faces.

Vet videos and real images too

If you’re interested in doing deeper dives into unverified reports, start with this extensive guide on how to screen videos. Look for multiple edits and odd cuts, listen closely to the audio and run it through a third-party tool such as InVid, which helps check the authenticity of videos. This can be harder on live-streamed videos, like what’s on Twitch or any other live social media option.

To check images that aren’t AI but still seem suspicious, put them into Google’s image search by grabbing a screenshot and dragging it to the search field. If it’s an old image that’s circulated before, you may see telling results.


Use fact-checking sites and tools

Social media sites do have some of their own fact-checking tools and warning labels, and many have added special sections to promote official election results. However, given the sheer volume of posts they’re dealing with, a problematic video or post can still be seen by millions before ever getting flagged.

Keep an eye out for content warnings on social media sites for individual posts, which can appear as labels below links or as warnings before you post something that could be misleading. Look up individual stories or images on fact-checking sites such as The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, Snopes and PolitiFact.

Shira Ovide and Geoffrey A. Fowler contributed to this report.

Help Desk: Making tech work for you

Help Desk is a destination built for readers looking to better understand and take control of the technology used in everyday life.

Take control: Sign up for The Tech Friend newsletter to get straight talk and advice on how to make your tech a force for good.

Tech tips to make your life easier: 10 tips and tricks to customize iOS 16 | 5 tips to make your gadget batteries last longer | How to get back control of a hacked social media account | How to avoid falling for and spreading misinformation online

Data and Privacy: A guide to every privacy setting you should change now. We have gone through the settings for the most popular (and problematic) services to give you recommendations. Google | Amazon | Facebook | Venmo | Apple | Android

Ask a question: Send the Help Desk your personal technology questions.