How to detect fake news

Laptop showing text 'Fake news'

Anyone who hasn't spent the last few years in a cave should be familiar with the concept of fake news. Fake news is just that – articles and other content that are presented as true but are in reality either made up completely or do contain an element of truth but grossly exaggerate or misrepresent other elements and facts that can be found in the article. Or even half of an article can be true and the other half completely made up.

There are other types of crap said and published by politicians and less than honest journalists, like writing a completely true statement or article but for example with units of measure used changed to make the numbers more impressive – instead of saying '10 kilometres have been built', they say '10.000 meters have been built'. Or saying 52% of women do that thing, without mentioning that the total sample size is 42 which is hardly representative. Or stuff like the hilarious twitter account @justsaysinmice exposes – citing studies without mentioning they were done in mice.

To add to the confusion, not everyone saying 'fake news' is right and not everyone saying 'fake news' is even honest and tries to deliberately throw shade on a story that is actually correct.

 

As you can see from this description alone it is clear that this all is starting to become a huge problem in our modern world which increasingly features shorter and shorter attention spans and more and more dependency on online sources of information – in fact it's becoming such a problem that it can affect issues like electing MEPs or presidents and indirectly the very health of our world and by extension – us.

So, what is to be done? Well, if you're an ethical person, you would want to know if something is true before sharing it. Of course, as everyone is extremely busy these days, your time is limited. So, how can you, preferably quickly determine if you're dealing with fake news or not. Let's see.

Note; this post focuses mainly on fake news and misleadings online. Legacy media might be touched upon in some other article.

Look deeper at the source

You need to consider who is the publisher of a specific article. Sure, even the most trust-worthy source can publish nonsense if they have a bad day or are not paying enough attention but they do not necessarily set out to deceive, unlike some online sources.

So, what are the indicators that a source of the story might not even be a genuine news organisation but rather some dude in his mom's basement with too much time on his hands?

  1. Check the domain name

    It is entirely possible that there are websites out there mimicking real news websites in order to gain trust. One of the more famous examples of this practice was the now-deleted ABCnews.com.co – notice the '.co' extension after com which mimicked the design of a real news site, ABC News – abcnews.com

    ABCNews.com.co back in 2016

    ABCNews.com.co back in 2016, courtesy of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine

  2. How about the author?

    Is the author listed? If not, the site might not be trustworthy. Of course, it could be – as it is here often – that the author prefers anonymity. Still, this is not a news site. It's an opinionated blog which is openly liberal. It is not neutral and does not provide the news. If the author is listed, there should be links to his twitter or other online profiles. There you can take a quick scan for bias, grammatical mistakes or other signs of being a fake news reporter.

  3. Look for an 'about' page

    While actual fake news sites are not likely to disclose that they are fake, lack of an about page and contact info, as well as means how you can contact the journalists is a bad sign. Newspapers love getting hold of a story first, so a site which offers the news but does not instruct anywhere how to report the news to them is suspicious.

    Not only that but some sites will in fact in their 'about' section disclose that they are satire and that their content is for the purposes of comedy only. Please consider that possibility if the content you're reading sounds especially outrageous. Do yourself a favour and don't be like one of those people who were fooled by the articles in The Onion, for example.

    Satire: Republicans Defend Trump’s Decision to Give Putin Office Space at White House

    As you can see, some sites explicitly label content as Satire. Pay attention. It might be as easy as that.

Look deeper at the quality of the site

Shady sites often have shady quality. Look and feel means a lot. A trustworthy source would care more about those things as it means properly representing their brand as opposed to someone just looking for quick money.

This is often easier to detect on the desktop as the advancement of modern web design techniques has ensured that almost all sites on mobile look very similar, with text representing almost the entire viewport, so it's harder to detect evidence of bad design, for example. Not only that, but many sites have implemented the Facebook Instant Articles so they are even more alike than they would be in a regular mobile browser.

So, If you really care about something you should double-check the site on the desktop when you have access to it.

  1. Ads galore

    The math is not difficult here. Fake news drives traffic. Trafic means views. Views mean clicks on ads. Clicks on ads mean cash. If the content of the site is surrounded with ads from all possible sides and you cannot look anywhere without seeing an ad – that might be an indication of the site which does not believe in showing only ads that might be relevant to their visitors but are playing the numbers game. And the way to get ahead in that game is to make up things which will lead to clicks.

  2. Design

    A professional website is likely to have a professional designer. If the design doesn't appear professional, most likely it is not – was designed by amateurs eager for clicks to earn money. Mind you, this site is not bad looking either. As I am not a designer, I purchased the theme for it from ThemeForest for not a lot of money. I am saying this just to remind you that there are ways around this rule, so do not rely on it too much.

  3. Does the site have valid SSL?

    This might not mean anything but reputable news organisations are not likely not to have SSL or have it expired or something similar. Note that the presence of SSL should not indicate the site to be particularly trustworthy, as at least basic SSL is relatively cheap – but that factor makes the lack of it even more alarming.

  4. Look for traces of bad spelling

    Reputable news sources would not have this. While I am not personally familiar with the process of writing and publishing a news article, I would imagine that the article goes through several people – reporters, sub-editors, editors ... [Wikipedia] Also look for strange punctuation, like multiple sensationalistic exclamation points, all caps or similar signs.

  5. Adherence to the GDPR, privacy policy ...

    Many fake and hoax sites would not even care if they are not fully compliant with the EU or US law. Remember that story about the city in Macedonia that was essentially a fake news factory? Here's a reminder. Note that they only cared about the law of Macedonia and nothing was illegal there.

Other considerations

  1. How old is the article?

    Some stories might be true but no longer relevant five years ago or they might have even been disproven later. Always take a moment to look for the date. After all, you might be sharing something from 2015 as news today, which would be, to put it mildly – embarrassing.

  2. How did you arrive at the site?

    While Google is far from innocent when linking and profiting from the fake news, nonetheless it is much harder for a site to get on to first few pages of google search results than is it for someone to just share a link on Twitter or Facebook on which you clicked. While this is not technically a way for you to detect if the site is fake, you should keep it in mind.

Technical means – use NewsGuard

If you feel the above is really a lot of work, well it actually can be. Luckily there exist browser extensions which do some of that work for us. Behind them are independent organizations that do the fact-checking thing professionally. The only drawback there is – they usually operate within the records of their own databases – that means if their fact-checkers haven't gotten around to checking a particular website yet, there might be no results.

But, hey, you're supposed to get your news from multiple resources anyway. Some of them might be already checked. So, verify the story on another source.

I want to recommend the NewsGuard extension.

NewsGuard Ratings of CNN.com

NewsGuard is an organization which employs journalists and editors to rate news websites based on their criteria. You can read about the criteria or see it in action after you install their extension. To install the extension, simply visit their site and it should offer you the appropriate extension for the browser you use.

Other important things to keep in mind

  • We can be very lazy and judge things too quickly.

    Our own nature is part of the problem. Whenever you see something online that either inflames you greatly or gives you great joy – maybe because it is powerful stuff against your opponents – pause for a second and give it a thought. Try not to be hasty but critical.

  • Be EXTRA careful when it comes to medicine

    Homoeopathy, healing crystals and other nonsense, in my opinion, could be considered fake news as well – especially the reports of them being miracle cures. Pay extra attention to all factors discussed above when deciding on a health-related issue. When it comes to anything more than a scraped knee or a headache, nothing you will ever find online can be a substitute for a visit to the doctor.

    That includes mental health as well. Do not joke with your health.

People at The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions have created this very useful infographic which contains some of the advice given here.

How to spot Fake news

IFLA [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Please, remember to think critically. We have all seen the damage fake news can create. Let's do everything that we personally can to limit their reach.

Sources

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