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Courtesy of Griffin family (right); via Twitter/@Jay Tea (left)

Were You Fooled?

This year’s biggest viral challenge turned out to be a hoax. Here’s what you need to know to separate fun from fact.

via TikTok

It started with a wild claim: On February 10, the pull of gravity on Earth would change, allowing a broom to stay balanced when you stood it upright. Within hours, people all over social media were taking the broomstick challenge. On TikTok alone, videos of it have been viewed tens of millions of times.  

But the challenge turned out to be based on a hoax. Brooms really can stand upright on any day of the year. 

The broomstick challenge is pretty harmless. But experts say it’s just one example of a more serious problem on social media: misinformation. That’s information that is partly or entirely incorrect, misleading, or deceptive. And on popular apps like YouTube and TikTok, it’s easy for bad information to go viral.

More Likely to Share

Every day, countless bits of misinformation are shared on social media. Misinformation comes in many forms: a fake news article posted on Twitter or an altered photo passed around on Instagram. It might also be a video from a popular YouTuber that presents false information as fact. 

Often people spread hoaxes for fun or to get likes or shares. But other times, misinformation is about important topics that people are passionate about, like the environment or politics. The goal of these viral hoaxes is to influence people’s opinions—and even affect how people vote.

Experts say false information is most effective when it stirs up people’s emotions—whether it sparks laughter, sadness, or anger. 

“If a post or picture or video makes the viewer feel very strongly, they are more likely to share it,” says Sierra Filucci of Common Sense Media. That organization aims to help kids spot false information online.  

And, Filucci says, the more a video or post has been liked or shared, the more likely others are to believe it—and to share it without checking the facts. 

Designed for Fun

With all this misinformation out there, it can be hard to tell what’s true and what’s not. Sometimes, the best clue is where you’re seeing the information.

Think about why people open an app like TikTok. It’s probably to watch goofy videos of viral dances, not to do research for a school project. And it’s a safe bet you wouldn’t go to a news website to find a funny meme. That, says Filucci, is why it’s important to understand how some platforms are different from others. 

“Places like TikTok or YouTube are designed to be fun and entertaining,” she says. “They’re not created to communicate accurate information, like news organizations are.”

Stop and Think

You may not realize it, but you can play a part in keeping bad information from spreading out of control. Experts say the best way to do that is to be more skeptical of what you see online. 

“If something seems really strange or really funny or too good to be true, your first step should be to evaluate it,” explains Filucci.

Use reliable sources, such as trusted news websites or .gov sites, to confirm what you’re seeing. Then if you still can’t tell if something is true, follow Filucci’s simple advice: Don’t share it.

Close-Reading Questions

Click the Google Quiz button below to share these Close-Reading Questions with your class.

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