What Really Is Fake News? And How to Spot It

June 6th, 2017

Today I joined a radio discussion on fake news. We have heard a lot about this, especially since the Trump era. That man labels any reporting he doesn’t like as “fake news.” In other words, I suppose, he is suggesting that it’s incorrect – because he doesn’t like it, and that we should all ignore it.

In a sense, fake news is the “wrong” news. It is not genuine. But how do we identify a report that we see online as “fake”? What are the red flags that should alert us to this, before we rush to share it with all our friends and create confusion and mayhem?

On radio today, a popular singer was bemoaning the fact that a malicious and very unpleasant headline was circulated on social media, and even picked up and repeated by one irresponsible media house. Yes – it was just a headline, but it damaged the singer’s reputation. Now, this is one problem with fake news. A sensational headline, with lots of exclamation marks, capital letters (possibly badly spelled, too) will likely be a fake story, if clicked on. This is what is called “click bait.” In the case of the singer, the headline revealed nothing that in any way corroborated the “story,” when it was clicked on. Nevertheless, people found it titillating – and simply shared it without investigating it any further. This brought down a torrent of knee-jerk responses from social media trolls, who have nothing better to do. How quickly these things can snowball!

Two points to make here: one is, obviously, to be very wary of lurid headlines. If it looks ridiculous, it probably is. Secondly, I would advise people on social media not to share posts without clicking on the link first, and reading the article. If I don’t have time to read the article in full, I “skim” through it quickly to make sure it is genuine and worth sharing. If you do go to the link, it will help you identify the source of the article (which may be highly dubious). It will also prevent you from sharing something that is not what it seems. Always read beyond the headline!

Historic presidential fake news!

Historic presidential fake news!

Now, how do you figure out if the source is not “kosher”? Even before you go to the website, check the URL. Does it look odd or unfamiliar? Does it perhaps remind you of a legitimate news website – and yet, not quite? When you look at the website, you may notice several things. The layout doesn’t look right, perhaps. The grammar and spelling are poor; the article is badly written, and there is no indication who the author is. Check the date, also – often old stories are recycled on these websites. Look for mention of sources for the story; if there are no references to named sources, that may well be suspicious. Often these websites have photographs and graphics; do they look photo-shopped and “fake” too? It’s easy to spot a bad photo-shop picture, isn’t it. Then look at the “About” section of the website. Does it give you any information? Or perhaps there isn’t one.

Celebrity deaths are common fake news. This looked like a Fox News report but it was a hoax. Moreover, it was also a "phishing" scam - so be VERY careful! Clicking on phoney websites can get you into trouble.

Celebrity deaths are common fake news. This looked like a Fox News report but it was a hoax. Moreover, it was also a “phishing” scam – so be VERY careful! Clicking on phoney websites can get you into trouble.

Here’s something else to look out for. If, for example, there is the sudden news of a celebrity’s death, a disaster of some kind – do quickly check to see if other news sources are reporting the story. Many of us have been caught out (myself included!) by a tweet that So-and-So has died. Before we can so much as tweet “RIP” we notice this is the only report on the matter. It’s undoubtedly fake! If you do find yourself sharing such a story, it’s best to backtrack, apologise and point out that you made a mistake and that the story is indeed fake.

Of course, if you continuously spread this kind of story, your online behaviour will also reflect badly on you. It shows that you are irresponsible, and do not care what impact your posts have on others. It may also suggest a kind of malicious intent on your own part, in some cases – or at least, a propensity to gossip that may well not be true. This is probably not the kind of online presence you would wish to have, if you want people to take you seriously.

"The Onion" is a satirical news site, which is not to be taken seriously (but some people do!)

“The Onion” is a satirical news site, which is not to be taken seriously (but some people do!)

Which brings me to my final point. Yes, some stories are intentionally false; the source has an “agenda” and is deliberately misinforming. Yes, some stories may be put out there for a joke. They may even be satirical, and not meant to be taken seriously; one can be fooled that way. They may simply be poor, inaccurate reporting. However, people who spread “fake news” need to look at themselves. Why are they doing this? We all have our prejudices, our bias. When we see a fake headline, do we sometimes want to believe it – even if we know it’s not true? Do we wish it were? Let’s “check ourselves”!

By the way, Trump has himself retweeted fake news! But that is another story…

A fake tweet from a fake account. Facebook is actually awash with fake news, to the extent that its officials are trying to educate users on the problem.

A fake tweet from a fake account. Facebook is also awash with fake news, to the extent that its officials are trying to educate users on the problem.

 

 

 

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