How To

How to Spot Fake News

By Sydney Butler / May 31, 2018

While the current US President might love throwing the term “fake news” out whenever someone reports something he doesn’t like, it is actually a major problem. As the internet grows larger and more complex, the risks dangerous misinformation becomes much more serious.

Misinformation is a security risk, and the internet is a turbo-charged way to deliver that misinformation. There are plenty of people out there who want to exploit you through the fake news for their benefit. In other words, fake news is now a pretty serious type of internet scam, which means we need a defense against it.

Large social media companies like Facebook and Google have promised to help fight the scourge of fake news. However, we trust them to protect us alone. In fact, given all the privacy scandals recently you should probably not trust these tech giants at all!

Let’s look at what you can do to avoid falling for fake news you may encounter on the internet.

Check the Reporting Source

Man Reading Paper

This is the first and most important step without a doubt. Who is reporting the story and are they a credible source of news? That’s not to say that usually credible sources of news can’t also spread fake news from time to time. If you’ve never heard of the news site before and can’t find any good information on them, however, that should be a major red flag. If the source you are presented with seems a little dodgy, be prepared to do a little digging in order to find the truth.

Check the Date!

Calendar

I’ve been caught out by this one myself a few times. Sometimes people will start sharing old stories about celebrity deaths or other news items from years ago. Because people don’t check the date before sharing the story, it gets passed off as a current event. So while the news itself isn’t really fake, it’s not really “news” either.  It’s a small detail, but make a habit of checking the date on a news piece before passing it along to all your friends.

Find the Original Source

If you see a story shared on social media, try to find out the original source. Which news outlet broke the story? What evidence did they provide to back their claims? Any secondary report is more likely to get the details of the story wrong. If it’s a deliberate scam the story probably won’t make any mention of the original report then it is another major red flag. If you can’t find the original source despite a decent search, you’re probably looking at fake news.

Reverse Image Search is Your Friend

Google Chrome Window

Providing images along with a fake news story makes them much more credible. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to steal images from other news stories to help make a fake story sucker more readers. The fake story of sharks during Hurricane Harvey is a good example of this.

Thanks to services like Google’s reverse image search, you can quickly find if the same picture has been used somewhere else before. It can also help you find similar pictures used to photoshop the final image together.

Don’t Just Read Headlines

I get it, we are all busy and have lots of things to do every day. So it’s tempting to get your news just from reading the headlines. Back before the modern internet, that wasn’t such a bad thing. Traditionally, the news is written using something known as an “inverted pyramid” where the most important facts are earlier in the story. That means the most important single fact is reflected in the headline itself.

However, thanks to the way ad revenue works on the internet, this has changed. Websites need people to actually click on the article, so headlines are written to be outrageous or misleading. Which means if you only read the headline and not the article you might have things all wrong!

Social Media is NOT News

Social Media Icons

Reading people’s bad takes and uncritical sharing of “news” on social media is not a substitute for the actual news. Social media has been filtered and manipulated in so many ways that you could be stepping into an environment meant to fool you.

Social media is also geared at showing you stories or views that you already agree with, which might warp any chance of getting a moderate or objective take on what happened.

In other words, try to read a little broadly about stories that interest you and include more than partisan news agencies. The Associated Press is a good source of more or less neutral reports.

Beware of “Staff Writer” or Ghost Authors

Plenty of fake news sites will have no author listed, have a “Staff Writer” or fake author names.

None of these things is a problem by themselves. Most legitimate news outlets make use of all three strategies depending on the content. However, if a site only uses pen names and has anonymous editorial staff, be very careful. It’s likely to be sponsored by someone with a specific agenda.

Are Big News Sites Ignoring the Story?

Despite many people railing against the mainstream media, it should be a warning to you if none of the big names are carrying a story. If something truly amazing has happened big news companies would have to be mad to ignore it. So if a story from an obscure outlet is being shared around, but you can’t find mention of it elsewhere you should take it with a big pinch of salt.

Are the Claims Extraordinary?

bigfoot

Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. That’s one of the many gems Carl Sagan provided us. It’s incredibly relevant to the issue of fake news. If a story is claiming something really bizarre, such as aliens landing in front of the White House, you should wait for more information before believing it. In many ways, this type of outrageous fake news isn’t all that dangerous. It’s the sort of thing that could be true that fools the most people. Still, plenty of gullible people get taken in by the honestly crazy fake news and you don’t want to be counted among them.

Are You Actually Reading the Onion?

Satire is one of the greatest traditions of Western culture. So there is nothing wrong with the existence of satire at all. Unfortunately, some people share news stories from satirical sites like the Onion on social media thinking they are real. Despite the writers making it clear the whole thing is a joke or the site having a big fat disclaimer, many people miss all the clues.

If you want to avoid having egg on your face, make sure the article wasn’t written as a joke. That way you’ll avoid turning into a joke yourself.

Does the Website Address Check Out?

In our guide against phishing noted that a common trick scammers use is to create a fake website that looks like the real thing in order to trick you. The same method can be used when it comes to fake news. The scammers create a site that looks like it could be from the BBC or CNN. They then spread the fake stories over social media and inattentive people fall for the trick. Since they think the story is on a reputable site, they believe it.

You should check whether you are actually in the correct news URL when reading a story you found on social media. The best thing to do is got to the main news site and check the headlines. If the story is not in the headlines you can search for it on the real news site. If you don’t find it there you’ve saved yourself having to read the fake news.

Is the Story Written Objectively?

These days it has become acceptable for journalists to write their stories with a particular slant. They might be left-leaning or right-leaning or have a clear political bias. This is not a problem in itself, but if a publication isn’t open about it, a story can become fake news.

If you are reading a story which says it’s meant to be objective but is injected with lots of emotional pleas and pure opinion, be very suspicious.

Bookmark Fact-checking Sites

Just as the Internet has given us a massive number of fake news sources, there has also been a rise in independent fact-checking organizations. Snopes is probably the biggest and best-known of the lot, but you should find a few that are trustworthy. Bookmark these sites and make a habit of checking them when you think the claims within a story are dodgy. Just keep in mind that fact-checking is something that takes time, so you might have to wait a while before you know if there is any truth to the latest viral story.

Reserve Your Judgement

A Judge's Gavel

One of the key things you need when assessing the truth of something is time. Critical thinking isn’t something you can do with the snap of your fingers. It’s in your best interest to wait for more information to come out before you decide to believe something.

Fake News is No Joke

It might seem that fake news isn't anything more than harmless nonsense. The truth is that plenty of people not only believe fake news stories but are never corrected. They'll keep the belief they formed first and it influences their decisions. How people vote or act towards other could all be changed thanks to fake news.

Doing Your Part

While it's great if you develop the knack for spotting and ignoring the fake news, you can do more to help combat this particular scam. If you identify fake news, you should make a point of letting people on social media know that it is fake news and why you think so. If no one opposes scam news articles on social media, they'll just have free reign. Don't let the fake news scammers win.



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