A lot has been written about fake news recently and it makes sense to have an idea how to detect it.
The efforts you take will partly depend on why you want to see whether a particular article is legitimate or not.
If you are simply browsing and come across something that seems unbelievable then it probably is. The first rule of spotting fake news is to use your common sense (and remember the old saying “don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”).
We talk with TEISS’s Jeremy Swinfen-Green and Sunetra Chakravarti on the threat that fake news poses.
But if you are still unsure then you could consider asking some or all of the following questions:
- Where did you first see a link to the story? If it was via an anonymous email or an advert on social media then it may well be fake.
- Is the URL of the story trustworthy? Is the story on a site with strange domain name, perhaps one ending in “.co” or “.ru”? Does the URL appear to be a misspelling of a genuine website? Or does it incorporate a genuine website URL within a longer address (e.g. thetimes.co.uk.my-fake-news-site.com)?
- Are all of the images original? Do a reverse image search on a website to see if any of the pictures have been published anywhere else. Often “amazing” images are simply pictures taken from humorous advertising campaigns.
- Has the story been published elsewhere? Copy the headline and paste it into a search engine. If other stories from reputable sites come up then there may be something in it. But if the site you are looking at is the only one that has published it then it may well be fake.
- Does the story look low quality? Watch out for spelling and grammatical errors. Reputable news sites have strict editorial quality guidelines. So if you find multiple exclamation marks then the story is probably fake!!!
- Does the story predict some future disastrous event? If it does, and gives a date sometime in the future for the event it’s probably fake news or at best, opinion rather than fact.
- Does the headline represent the story? Often headlines are “clickbait” designed to attract you in or to get you to share the story without reading it. The content of the story may well be less exciting than the headline. In this case the story may be true but the headline is “fake news”.
- Is the story satire rather than fake news? There is a difference! (Satire is not intended to mislead.) Satirical websites like The Onion [theonion.com] are not news sites and if you can’t understand that then “Tu Stultus Es”!
If your reasons for detecting fake news is a bit more serious, say you are writing an article or preparing a presentation, then there are some more time-consuming things you could consider:
- Take a look at the home page of the source and, if it has one, their “About us” page. What is the “mission” of the site? If the site has a clear and strong political or social mission then it may well consider that using fake news to promote their agenda is a reasonable thing to do.
- Checkout the author. Are they credible? What do other people say about them? And what about their opinions and affiliations – does the story support an argument they have been making strongly for a long time? If it does, then it isn’t necessarily fake news but it probably bears some further investigation.
- Check out any links in the story: do they actually support the story. Most people don’t check links out so putting a few in that make it look as though authoritative websites or people support the story can be a great way of adding credibility to a fake story.
- Look at some of the fact-checking sites like Snopes.com and org? Are they reporting the story as fake news?
- Watch out for stories that “lie with statistics”: don’t rely on illustrative charts in the story. Think carefully about what the data are really saying.
It’s unfortunate that fake news seems to be increasing in popularity. It is pernicious, because some people are easily taken in by it. So if anything does look as though it might be fake, then do think very carefully before you share it. You may be misleading vulnerable people. And you may well be making yourself look stupid.