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January 25, 2023

Have you noticed all the accounts on Instagram lately that have the word “fact” in them? There are hundreds of these, including @fact, @factsuntold, @blowingfact, @factsdailyy. They have huge followings and thousands of posts, which the accounts churn out constantly.

The posts usually have a photo or video referencing pop culture, sports or history, and a short sentence underneath with a wild fact. Here are just a few of these bold claims:

  • “Babies born in January are more likely to become rich and famous”
  • “Oreo builds a doomsday vault”
  • “In Switzerland, you can be denied citizenship for being too annoying”

But is there any truth to some of these strange “facts?” Here’s how we fact-checked it.

Survey says…

A recent survey found that more than half of teens get news from social media these days. The Common Sense Media survey said 54% get news at least a few times a week from social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and 50% get news from YouTube.

Unfortunately, unlike with traditional news sites, it’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when the “news” is coming from social media accounts. For example, 72% of teens use Instagram regularly. The social media platform, designed primarily to share photos with friends, has spread in recent years to promote public pages. Now, posts are being promoted through the Explore page and even users’ own feeds — so you will see them even if you don’t follow them.

Two fact checks

Let’s look at two posts from a couple of those fact-page sites I mentioned earlier.

A claim from “@notcommonfacts” says “your tongue is the strongest muscle in your body.” A picture of a woman with her tongue out is the only other thing on the post, which has over 10,000 likes.

A simple keyword search led me to this article from Scientific American. The article says this myth started because many people wonder why their tongue is never tired. This is because the tongue is actually made up of eight separate muscles that intertwine.

But the word “strongest” is a bit subjective, because things like brute force and leverage are important to the body. Nonetheless, the article confirms that the tongue is not the strongest in any category.

We would rate this claim Not Legit. But to get to this conclusion you need to take the extra step of leaving Instagram to fact-check a lot of these pages.

And not all claims on these fact sites are flat-out wrong.

Another post comes from “@blowingfact,” which has 7 million followers. It says that until 1974, it was illegal to appear in public in Chicago if you were ugly. More than 80,000 people liked the post, but there’s a red flag: The caption doesn’t provide any context, evidence or links.

After doing a keyword search, I found a Snopes article, which surprisingly rated the claim as true. The article explains that in the late 1800s, cities enacted unsightly beggar ordinances, better known as “ugly laws,” to get beggars off of the street.

Snopes adds that after WW1, as veterans came home with injuries and deformities, enforcement of the laws quickly stopped, although they remained on the books in Chicago until 1974, just as the post claimed.

We’re going to rate this claim as Needs Context.

A double whammy

These “fact” posts are super appealing on Instagram, probably because of their quirky, sometimes off-the-wall content and bizarre visuals — the kinds of things that just stick in your brain. Plus, like any social media platform, Instagram’s algorithm values engagement, which means it’s going to surface posts with extreme or surprising content. It’s a double whammy that can make your brain turn off its critical thinking filter.

Some tips

Bottom line, while some of the posts on these “fact” pages are flat-out wrong, some are true,  and not all are misinformation. So, here are some things you can look for to help you spot these questionable “fact” pages:

  1. These pages almost always have the word “fact” in their usernames.
  2. The accounts make money by promoting products, selling followers or receiving ad revenue based on clicks. One of the biggest motivators for spreading falsehoods online is money! For example, @factsuntold says right in the bio, “Grow your account. Paid promotion available”. So, media lit tip: Check the bio.
  3. Finally, and probably the biggest red flag, almost none of the accounts I went through posted sources or links to their content.

While most of the posts on these “fact” pages are harmless evergreen content, some are not, and it’s important that viewers know how to discern the truth.

NOTE TO TEACHERS: This article is featured in a free, one-hour lesson plan that teaches students how to fact-check claims about “zombie” viruses thawing in the Siberian permafrost. The lesson is available through PBS LearningMedia, and includes a lesson summary and a handout, among other resources.

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