Fake news is everywhere. We are all used to standing in the grocery check-out line and seeing the sensationalist newspapers on the rack next to us. The papers always have wild headlines like “Alien Baby Discovered Alive in Seattle,” or “Angelina Jolie weighs 60 pounds and is dying of starvation.” The grocery store tabloids have spent the past 5 years trying to kill off Cher and Angelina Jolie, and they have discovered “credible” photos of Bigfoot at least a dozen times. Everyone knows those stories are either fake or misleading. Yet, the same people who scoff at the grocery store tabloids are often willing to believe everything they read on the internet.
The internet and social media are awash with fake news stories. And people tend to believe and share those stories that fit with their personal or political bias. It is a huge and ever growing problem. Some fake news stories originate here in the U.S. Others come from foreign countries like Russia or Columbia. Fake news can be used to incite political and social unrest. It can also be used to negatively impact our economy.
Fake news feeds bias and paranoia. It promotes hate and polarizes the American people. Both the left and the right of the political spectrum are guilty of spreading fake news, each side seeking to one-up on the other. Only by knowing how to identify fake news, can we stop its spread.
Fake News, Misleading News and Satire
Fake News: False stories with recycled photos are the hallmarks of fake news. It often comes from sham websites that are designed to look like real news sites. Fake news stories may sound real but they seldom cite reliable sources. A good example is a recent story that was widely circulated on the internet claiming that Coca-Cola recalled Dasani water bottles after a “clear parasite” was discovered in the water. The article was accompanied by a photo of a hand holding a small, clear creature. The story is totally false. The photo is not a water parasite. It is a photo of a baby eel. Why would someone invent such a story? Could it be to damage Coca-Cola’s sales?
Misleading News: Misleading news stories are often the most difficult to debunk. They contain a kernel of truth. Often, they use quotes that have been taken out of context or recycle old photos to support their premise. Here is an example: A blog called Viral Liberty recently reported that Ford had moved some of its production from Mexico to Ohio as a result of the recent election. The truth is that Ford did indeed move some of its manufacturing from Mexico to Ohio, but it happened in 2015 – not after the election.
Partisan News: Facts are manipulated to fit a particular agenda.
Clickbait: Like the grocery store tabloids, these stories have sensational headlines that trick you into clicking on the story for more information. Then, if you read the actual story, you find the story doesn’t match up with the headline.
Satire: Satire is a form of commentary or entertainment. It is presented as outrageous or tongue in cheek, but those who are not familiar with a satire site could take it as fact.
Tips to Identify Fake or Misleading News
Look at the URL: Sites with strange suffixes like “su” or “co” are usually fake news. “Co” is the suffix for a site originating in Columbia. For example: abcnews.com is a legitimate news site, but abcnews.com.co and abcnews.co are not. Sites may have legitimate but generic sounding names like National Report and Now8News, but when you investigate further, you find the site is not a legitimate news organization. When you see unfamiliar websites plastered with ads and having headlines that are all capitals, beware.
Check the Publishing Date: Stories resurface and recirculate, much like the Ford story cited earlier. Look at the links and sources cited in the article to determine when those source articles were published.
Authenticate Photos: Fake news articles are often written by individuals who are sitting at home on their computer. They do not have access to the news photos taken at the event discussed in their article. They will find a photo on line that supports their particular bias and use it in their story. Fake news writers may take unflattering or misleading photos from another time and place and report them as being taken at their event. If you see the same photo used in multiple stories on different topics, the photo probably doesn’t belong with the story you are reading. If you are using google, you can right click on a photo and do a search to discover where it originated. If you are using another search engine, you can click and drag the photo into google images.
What Kinds of Ads are on the Website?: If you see lots of pop-up ads, especially ads you would not expect in a news site, be careful. Another sign of a questionable website are links or ads designed to be clicked that say things like “Celebs who did porn movies” or “Naughty Walmart Shoppers.” Legitimate news sites will not be directing readers to titillating content.
Read Past the Headline: Does the story match the headline? You may find a lurid headline followed by a mundane story that has little or nothing to do with the claim in the headline. Read the entire story and look for clues that it is not real. Does it quote real people and are the quotes current and relevant? Are there links to source articles from reliable news media? Is the author listed in the article? Are other news outlets reporting the same story? If they aren’t, this story may not be real. Look at the quality of the writing. If you see spelling and grammatical errors, lots of capitalized words and exclamation points, this story is probably fake.
Google the Author: If you can’t find the author or he lacks credentials, the story is fake. On the fake ABC news site, there is an article by “Dr. Jimmy Rustling.” The website claims Dr. Rustling has won 14 Peabody awards and several Pulitzers. It also says he recently married a Russian mail order bride and spends 12-15 hours a day teaching his adopted Syrian refugee daughter to read and write. Needless to say, this paragon of a man is not a real person.
Has the Article been Debunked by a Reputable Fact Checking Site?: If in doubt, check one or more of the fact checking sites such as FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, or The International Fact-Checking Network. Although some groups question the neutrality of these fact-checking groups, they are generally accepted by established news agencies as reliable.
Beware of Confirmation Bias: People, both liberals and conservatives alike, tend to believe news that reflects their own world view. Liberals want to believe stories that shed President Trump in a negative light, and conservatives tend to believe stories that negatively depict Hillary Clinton or former President Obama. We all need to read with a skeptical eye, no matter what our political or social biases are.
Combating Fake News
The best way to combat fake news is to refrain from passing it on. Let that fake story end with you. Don’t post it on social media such as Facebook or Twitter. The second most important thing you can do is to debunk fake news when you see it. If someone posts a news item on Facebook and you discover it is fake, refute the news story in an answering post. It may make you unpopular, but every time we debunk fake news, we strike a blow for justice and truth. People need to know that the inflammatory story circulating the internet is not true. Inflammatory fake news reinforces hate groups, divides families and friends and undermines the health of our society. We need to do our part to stop it from spreading.
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Robins-Early, Nick. “How To Recognize A Fake News Story.” The Huffington Post, 27 Nov. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/fake-news-guide-facebook_us_5831c6aae4b058ce7aaba169
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