“Fake News” became a hot-button topic beginning with the 2016 presidential election. Fast-forward to the current pandemic and the rapid proliferation of false information has exploded. The amount of fake news and extremely flawed misinformation is mind-boggling and is actually dangerous.
People who are following the advice of erroneous information are putting their lives at risk. The amount of political disinformation and misinformation is also dangerous in another way. People are making decisions that are crucial to the preservation of our democracy, based on misinformation and deliberately-placed false news intended to sow political discord.
There are seven basic categories of fake news: false or misleading websites that are shared on social media; websites that may circulate misleading and or unreliable information; websites that use click-bait headlines; satire or comedy sites; authentic material used in the wrong context; imposter news sites that are designed to look like legitimate news sources; and manipulated content, such as altered videos, or videos that only show snippets of the original video.
There are several formats for learning how to spot fake news. One of my favorites is the “5W” approach used by the Toronto Public Library. The “5 Ws” are: who, what, when, where, and why.
Who wrote the article? Is the author’s name available? Most authors who publish a well-researched article will have their names attached to it. What are their qualifications? Do a search on the author, find his or her occupation, and find other articles written by him or her. Is the author an expert, or at least knowledgable in the field of expertise being discussed? Does the author work at a reputable organization? Are the articles well-researched? Check the “About Us” section, usually located at the top or bottom of a website. Does the organization have a trustworthy staff of writers?
What does the article inform you of all sides of a topic? News articles should provide you with facts from various viewpoints. Check for sources cited in the article that support the claims being made in the story. Are they reliable sources? Are direct quotes used and taken out of context?
Does the content match the headline of the article? A headline should provide the reader with an idea of what the article is about. The headline may also be used to persuade the reader to believe something before reading the article. Authors may falsify their headlines to get people to read the full article, or worse yet, believe the claim without reading the article.
This is one of the leading reasons for false news to be so prolific on social media. People see the headline of an article and share it before reading the entire article. Also, check for spelling and grammatical errors. Well-researched articles are usually proofread before publishing.
When was the article published? Older articles may not contain up-to-date facts and have broken links. Individuals who share older articles may find out that some, or all of the information, has been disproven.
Where does the URL (web address) look correct? Typing in the wrong URL may direct you to a web page you did not intend to visit, and could lead to a page infected with malware. Be wary of website URLs that are made to look like the website you were looking for. URLs, including their domains, can be purchased by anybody. One trick is to use a domain that imitates the legitimate URL, such as the hypothetical example of foxnews.ca. If you do not know the URL, use a trusted search engine such as Google and review the results for the URL you are looking for.
Was this found on social media? Social media platforms are not news organizations. They are designed to create and/or share content. Social media utilizes algorithms to sort content that would be of interest to a reader, thus creating an information bubble. This means people see articles that they agree with, thereby adding to “confirmation bias.”
Is this from a blog or website? Blogs contain content written and run by individuals or small groups. Websites and blogs may use sensational headlines to increase the traffic on their site to increase advertising revenue. They typically target a certain demographic with their articles and may use strong language to generate a click. You can verify the validity of the article by looking for the original source of the information. However, individuals may post fake news on other websites.
Why – What is the purpose of the information? Is it to inform? What information is it providing? Be skeptical and verify the facts. Can sources be evaluated? If there are links on the page, where do they direct the reader?
Is the article trying to sell something? Many times an article appears to be a news article but is simply an advertisement.
Is the article entertainment? Satire and fake news are not exactly the same thing. Satire uses hyperbole, hypocrisy, or irony, especially in current affairs, to make a point in a humorous manner. The problem is that many people fail to recognize satire, or a website doesn’t state that an article is a satire. This means many satirical articles are shared as real news.
Is the article to persuade? What is the point of view of the author? Why does the author have that point of view? Lastly, who benefits from agreeing with the author’s point of view.
Below is a list of resources to assist you in recognizing fake news:
- MediaBiasFactCheck.com – Includes a searchable database of media sources and articles that are categorized according to bias, from extreme left to extreme right. Note that “bias” is subjective, and not the same thing as “fact.”The site also rates the truthfulness of the article or site.
- https://www.allsides.com – While not a fact-checking site, AllSides curates stories from the right, center and left-leaning media so that readers can easily compare how bias influences reporting on each topic.