According to a study by the Pew Research Center, only 5% of Americans were on social media in 2005. By early 2019, that number had risen to 72%.

It’s safe to assume it’s climbed higher in the past year, a trend boosted by more social media options as well as an American population cooped up during the coronavirus pandemic.

And with that increase comes a correlating and disturbing trend: Misinformation spread via social media that blurs the lines between fact and fiction.

It can be dangerous, with an example occurring this week in St. Cloud, Minn.

There, police tried to detain a young man who, according to a police report, had been outside a local business with a firearm in his possession. During the ensuing struggle, the man reportedly drew the handgun, which went off and hit an officer in the hand.

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Police did not fire their weapons.

But rumors that police had shot a black man -- and possibly two men -- quickly spread, fueled by social media posts. A large crowd formed in front of the police station and police eventually had to use chemical irritants to disperse approximately 100 people. Properties nearby were damaged, as well as the police station.

The next morning, the town’s police chief was frustrated by the spread of misinformation, which he said was reckless and dangerous.

“This place could have been on fire because of a lie,” he said.

Our advice? Slow down, get important information from professional news sites and do what trained reporters do: Verify information before spreading it.

And strongly consider advice from a document posted to the website associated with UND’s master of science in cybersecurity. In it, students are urged to be on the lookout for fake news and information.

“Spotting fake news can be difficult,” the document notes. “Even people who are aware of the damage that fake news can cause may not realize they’re reading or viewing fake news until a friend or a legitimate media outlet identifies the bogus report for them. These tips will highlight the subtle indications of falsehoods students can look for in the news they consume and the vetting required to identify fake news and stop it from spreading.”

Among the document’s suggestions:

● Check the history and reputation of the author and publication.

● Determine whether other outlets are reporting the same news.

● Be leery of sensational headlines.

● Carefully scrutinize photos and other media that accompany the stories.

● If you see a shocking or particularly engaging photo or video in an article, take a moment to determine whether it pertains to the main gist of the story or is intended solely to incite an emotional reaction in readers.

● Evaluate the trustworthiness of the immediate source of the image, the person who shared the media, and the outlet where it was originally published.

● Consider the reasons why this person is sharing this news with you at this time.