Recently the issue of fake and inaccurate news, also called junk news, has found its way in to public discussion. This is not a new problem, but with the amount of fake news relating to the most recent election, the issue is receiving much broader attention. Many are putting the blame fully on the social media companies like Facebook, or search and news aggregators such as Google. While these companies do have a responsibility to help address the problem, the blame is not entirely at their doorstep. The users of those services are also in part to blame, as they are the ones who visit and worse yet share the offending material. As news consumers, social media users, and even as bloggers, we share in the responsibility to mitigate the negative effects of fake news. It starts with being able to identify fake news; here are some tips for spotting a fake news story.
Check the source of the story & check for others reporting the same thing.
A news outlet that is legitimate should state its mission and purpose clearly on its website, typically they will have some form of editorial guidelines (you can see ours here), it should be clear that they actually publish inline with their stated mission and editorial policies. They should have a working method to contact them and their editors, and should welcome constructive criticism. They will typically have a several stories in their archives, read through a couple, is content constantly recycled and duplicated, do all of the headlines read like they are the story of the century, do these stories clearly fit an agenda?
A real story will usually be reported by more than a couple of sources. Americans have a distrust of some of the large media companies, and rightfully so. However, they are still a reliable way of verifying questionable stories. They tend to have large editorial and fact checking resources at their disposal, and face a higher degree of public scrutiny if they get it wrong. If a story only appears on one or two small sites, especially if those sites clearly have a specific agenda, you should check for other sources. This is not to say that a small site cannot break a story, but if it is really newsworthy, it typically wont stay an exclusive to the smaller sites for long.
Another tactic used by fakers is to use names that sound like legitimate news outlets. They may use names that give a look of authenticity. An great example of this is the well-known fakers “The Boston Tribune” which is designed to look legitimate, and has the added advantage of sounding like respected outlets like “The Boston Globe” or “The Chicago Tribune”.
The Smell Test
Just like bad meat, a bad story will just smell bad, metaphorically speaking. Stories that make sensational claims, deal in unproven conspiracy, or “bombshell” news that plays specifically into a particular narrative, deserves extra scrutiny. The story about suspicious deaths surrounding the Clinton family is a great example of this. It was a hotly contested election season, the story was published by a no name outlet, and widely shared by the extreme right-wing. But when you research it no respectable outlets were publishing it.
Use the facts that are readily available
A great example of a story where facts clearly don’t line up with reality was the widely shared story falsely stating the Pope endorsed Donald Trump. If you know anything about the Pope he has a track record of being pro refugee and pro immigrant, President-Elect Trump has clearly indicated he is not. Why would the Pope then go on to endorse him?
Not all suspect news real is false, or harmful
There is a difference between a deliberately or negligently false or inaccurate story, and a developing story. A false story is simply one that is either a blatant lie, or one that made no attempt at accuracy or fact checking. A developing story is a story where the facts are not all in yet, and media organizations are reporting what they know thus far, sometimes prematurely, but not with any intended malice. A legitimate news organization will let you know that the story is developing, and will issue corrections and retractions as appropriate.
Another tactic used by some publishers is click bait headlines and stories. At their base these stories can be true, but may have headlines that overstate their importance, or are written in a way to get hits on search engines and social media. While these stories are an annoyance, and usually leave the reader wondering why they wasted their time, they are not generally harmful.
Another category of website that is false by intention, but is not harmful, is the satire website. These websites are for humor and satire, and should be obvious to most users that they are not real news. Some examples of these are The Onion and for the military types, Duffel Blog.
Make use of tools and websites
There are people out there that aim to fight the dissemination of false or incorrect information. A couple of these include:
- Politifact – A website where the various claims and political stories and statements are fact checked and given a rating.
- Snopes – A long time fixture on the internet, they work to debunk or verify various types of rumors and hearsay, including news and political statements.
- BS Detector – A plugin for Google Chrome that will alert you to, well BS news.
A word of caution
There is a fine line between fraudulent news and headlines and stories designed to generate web traffic. Almost every news outlet invests a great deal of energy to get users to visit their websites, more eyeballs on your pages, makes for better ad revenue. This can result in a lot of “gotchya” type articles that may read like fakes or click bait, but are in fact legitimate. News companies can also exhibit a bit of bias, the very right-wing Fox News, and the left-wing MSNBC are to glaring examples of media bias, and although they don’t blatantly lie, they may provide the news through a tinted lens. it is best to look at more than one, even when dealing with major outlets. Sometimes stories are not flat out fake, but more like half truths, or a small piece of a true story presented in a way to influence the readers opinion. Think about all of those websites you saw posted to social media during the election that are pro one side or the other, the examples are endless.
These tips are not 100% accurate, 100% of the time, but they can be used as a guideline. Ultimately it is up to the reader to decide how much stock to put in a particular article. Use logic and reason, and don’t let your emotions on a topic cloud your judgement. These fake news, click bait, and otherwise misleading websites exist only for their own interests, whereas most news organizations contribute something of value to the public discourse, and benefit a free society. Fake news, and to a lesser extent, click bait undermines the work of hard working journalists who, at least attempt to do the right thing, and tell an accurate story. Worst of all with the connected nature brought on by social media, these stories can influence public opinion to the point of actually harming our society. Hopefully when you come across this crap you will recognize it, and choose to not contribute to the problem by knowingly sharing junk news.