Fake news is by no means a recent phenomenon. Sure, the phrase became something of a by-word when trying to defend biases and discredit legitimate concerns during the 2016 presidential elections. And to be fair, sometimes the accusations are correct.
But from the first spoken exchanges to the first newspapers, and now with social media running our lives, fake news has been around since mankind first started sharing information and only continues to grow.
Fortunately, it’s nothing to be afraid of. If you know how to properly evaluate any piece of reporting, you’ll be able to spot fake news a mile away.
How Fake News Gets Spread
It happens to the best of us.
We’re checking our social media while sitting in traffic and a headline catches our eye. Maybe someone we know shared the story or it’s one of those sponsored ads we all hate.
The car in front of us is starting to move and it looks like the congestion is finally clearing up for good. But now there’s no time to sit and read the article, even though you desperately want to. If you don’t start moving, the cars behind you will start a cacophony of hooting.
So you hit the “Share Now” button and put your phone away. It simply won’t do to keep Karen from Sales waiting (and you’re wary of getting caught behind the wheel with your phone in hand). You’ll go back and read it on your lunch break. Right?
Next thing you know, your notifications are blowing up. Some people are strongly agreeing with the article you shared. The article you haven’t even read yet. Others are responding with accusations of spreading fake news. And they have proof to back it up.
Chances are, the headline was misleading or it elicited a strong emotional response; perhaps because it confirmed a belief or bias of yours. Because you didn’t investigate the actual article, you accidentally shared a piece of fake news.
Unfortunately, that’s an optimistic way of looking at how fake news gets spread. This happens often, but it isn’t the only way.
Why It’s So Prevalent
Far more insidious is the deliberate sharing of fake news.
News outlets – whether text, visual or audio media – all have an agenda. There’s no such thing as truly objective journalism: everyone has a political point-of-view. It doesn’t suddenly disappear as soon as they start writing their story.
And even if someone manages to write a truly objective article or radio/video script, it will never be published that way. Media houses have editors for a reason. Even columnists need to ensure their pieces are written in keeping with the publication’s “voice” – which is where that bias will sneak back in.
Sometimes it’s as simple as referring to a politician’s speech as a rant vs their passionate political stance. This is called selection bias.
Selection bias also creeps into the way we consume information. As a Republican, you’re more likely to favor Fox News over CNN, whereas Democrats are the opposite.
So fake news is often generated because it serves the outlet’s political agenda. And when that outlet’s viewers and readers agree, the story gets spread.
6 Ways to Spot Fake News
Now that you’re aware of how fake news is generated and spread, it’s time to learn how to spot it. Here are 7 worthy tips to help you get started.
Remember how the headline you hypothetically shared earlier without investigating created an emotional response?
It’s important to have a critical mindset when evaluating headlines. Even if they aren’t misleading, they – and the stories attached to them – are typically crafted with emotional response in mind. Shock value sells.
Be especially wary of any headline that uses inflammatory language, like calling someone an idiot. 100% of the time, these are opinion pieces masquerading as proper reporting.
So before you hit that share button, stop and ask yourself whether the headline/content persuades you of a specific viewpoint. Keep your emotions in check and take the time to go through a story before letting the headline tempt you into sharing. Make sure the headline isn’t misleading and the author hasn’t buried his or her lead.
And if you find yourself in a situation where you can’t go through the content immediately, use the save function. You can bookmark a browser tab and save both Facebook and Instagram posts to come back to later.
1. Evaluate the Platform
If you come across a story posted by a source you’re unfamiliar with, evaluate the platform it was posted from.
The first way to do so is by checking the URL. If the domain name seems a little off, you can say with almost 100% certainty it’s a fake news site. These typically try to piggy-back on the credibility of legitimate platforms by mimicking their logo, design and URL.
For example, instead of ABCNews.com, it might say ABCNews.com.co.
2. Evaluate the Platform
If the URL doesn’t give the site away as a fake news source, you’ll need to do a little extra digging.
Navigate away from the story and look for the site’s “Contact” and “About” pages. If they don’t have either of these pages, it’s an immediate red flag.
For this instance, let’s say the site does have these pages. What you’re looking for now is any kind of disclaimer that tells you the site publishes satirical content not meant to be taken seriously.
A good example would be WorldNewsDailyReport.com, which clearly states they post articles of a satirical nature.
3. Evaluate the Platform
The URL looks legitimate and there’s no disclaimer regarding satirical content.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the website is a credible source of information. Fake news outlets are hardly going to be upfront about the fact they’re producing fake news.
So if you’ve gone through the first 2 steps for evaluating the platform and you’re still not sure, it’s time to go one step further by doing a Google search. If the website has a reputation for publishing misleading or even false information, it’s a fake news source.
4. See What Other Sites Are Publishing the Story
Let’s say you’ve ticked all the right boxes going through the previous 4 steps.
You’re almost done, but It’s still not safe to hit share yet. If it’s not a site or reporter you’re familiar with, head back to Google and see if there are any other outlets covering the story.
Chances are, if the majority of other news sites – and especially those you know to be credible – are sharing the same story, it’s at least partially true. If you really want to do your due diligence, read a few others and compare them to the one you suspect to be fake.
Take note of the differences. Even if all of them are legitimate, you’ll almost certainly pick up on the varying biases.
5. Re-evaluate the Content
By now, you should be reasonably sure of the story’s credibility level. But if you want to be absolutely sure, there are a few more steps to follow.
First, re-evaluate the content itself. Reputable news sources have high editorial standards when it comes to grammar and syntax. Pay attention to the erroneous use of ALL CAPS and exclamation marks especially.
Second, scan the article for quotes. While quotes aren’t going to be found in every single piece of legitimate writing, the lack of at least one is a negative point.
6. Triple-Check the Claim
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking one or two of the above tips are going to help you identify every single instance of fake news without failure. You need to use as many of these tips as possible (preferably all of them) before you can be reasonably sure an article is legitimate.
If you’re still in doubt, make use of media literacy sites like FactaCheck.org and Snopes.com. While there will always be a margin of error involved, these sites typically do a great job of separating the chaff from the corn.