How to Spot Fake News
Fake news is a term that didn't really exist more than a few years ago. The concept, however, is as old as news. Taking away the obvious political association, fake news can refer to anything from propaganda to spin to deliberate disinformation. There are always people out there trying to push some idea, and sometimes they're very good at it and they disguise it well to look like genuine, unbiased reporting. But that's actually pretty rare. More often, fake news is either ham-handed or so thoroughly tailored to fit into some echo chamber that it's indistinguishable. Today we're going to have a look at some ways to spot it and flush it out.
There's not always a super hard line of distinction between what's completely made up, and what's being highly spin-doctored to appeal to those of a particular world view. It's important to recognize that nearly every piece of news has at least some amount of spin on it; that's something we all know, and we also know that whenever we're inside our particular comfortable echo chamber, we tend to forget that everything we're seeing has been tweaked to make it more appealing. We know it, but we like to comfortably relax and forget it. A dangerous state to be in. Because when in such a state — comfortably ensconced in our bubble — we might pass along and share on social media an article which may so far over the line of spin that it constitutes genuine misinformation.
I'm going to mention "reliable news sources" (quotes intentional) a number of times in this episode, so a definition is warranted. It refers to news outlets that are both non-partisan and that have high journalistic standards for factuality. How can one tell this? One way is to use a source such as the Media Bias Chart at Ad Fontes Media, a public benefit corporation, which is transparent in its analytical methodology of categorizing thousands of news outlets. You can see at a glance if your favorite source is accurate and if it's partisan. Most sources fit on their graph in the pattern of an inverted V: unbiased and truthful sources are at the top of the V, and the vast majority of sources are on either of the two arms, each extending downward into inaccuracy and with either a left or right bias. As of this writing, popular sources at the pinnacle include NPR News, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC News, and The Hill, among others.
There are also some virtually guaranteed signs of an unreliable news source. If your source claims to "report the news that mainstream media won't" — or, if it even uses the term "mainstream media" to derogatorily refer to reliable sources — you can almost be assured your source belongs near the bottom of one of the arms of that inverted V.
So let's get started with one of the easiest and most effective ways to spot fake news, that depends entirely upon reliable news sources. You've got some news story you want to evaluate? Start with this:
Make sure the news also appears on reliable news sources.
Yeah, remember those "reliable news sources" we talked about? If your story is a real one, it should also appear in the legitimate news. Search them thoroughly, and if you can't find it, it's a pretty good sign that your story is made up or false. Between Reuters and AP, just about anything that's actually true has been reported. Keep them bookmarked as a quick way to double-check any story whose veracity you're curious about.
Check your biases
Does the story sound a little too perfect in a way that strokes your preferred worldview? If so, it could have been custom designed to thrive in the very type of echo chamber you feel comfortable in. Of course this is never proof that the story is false, but it should serve as a red flag to prompt you to check further. Always keep in mind that you are no harder to fool than anyone else, so it follows that your bubble contains just as much misinformation as every other bubble out there.
In times of extreme political division, one popular ploy used by all sides is the creation of fake news stories (or the extreme exaggeration or spinning of real news stories) carefully designed to make you angry at "the other side". Depict them as having overt Nazi sympathies. Depict them as wanting to abort all babies. Depict them as wanting to force their religion on everyone. Depict them as wanting to make everyone gay. Depict them as wanting everyone to be white, or as wanting nobody to be white. Any absurd exaggeration like these is virtually guaranteed to be the creation of political spin doctors trying to fire up members of a given political party. Don't fall for it, at least not without thoroughly fact checking it with an attitude of extreme skepticism.
Check the article's biases
If the article uses weasel words, or uses disparaging language particularly for members of an opposing political philosophy, then consider a big red flag to have been thrown. Even if this story is true, sharing it would not be a good look; so take the opportunity to search for the same story on a reliable news source. If you find it, post that version instead — though chances are you'll find it doesn't strike the same tone that attracted you to the original version. If you don't find it, thank the weaselly language that tipped you off.
Watch for conspiratorial overtones
Legitimate news articles report the facts, they don't editorialize about how the story is being suppressed by the authorities or ignored by mainstream media. If your article does go ranting off on such tangents, then at best it's a terrible article and at worst it's just some propaganda nonsense. Claims of suppression are the territory of the conspiracy monger and are nothing more than a weak attempt to show that powerful forces are afraid of the truth. Send the article to the round file.
Double check for satire
Even the most sage among us are sometimes taken in by satire. A lot of satire is not very artful or well done, and often misses its attempt to be funny, so it isn't always obvious. A lot of the time, intentional satire — as bad as a lot of it may be — still openly identifies itself as such. Read the masthead at the bottom of the page. Look at the other articles. Also, legitimate publications will sometimes have a satire section or a satire columnist, and this might evade your checks to see if it's a satire publication. So look at the author, see the section it's filed under, click on the author's byline; look everywhere that an indicator of satire might be found. Also be aware that unlike a lot of bad satire, some satire columnists are very good writers, sometimes too good for the purpose; and their satire might be over the head of some readers. When a writer aims badly, missing their satire doesn't require an unsophisticated reader.
Check the date
Some things that seem like they should be obvious can be easily overlooked. Sometimes a story is really old, and we don't notice that, and we read it and post it as if it happened yesterday. This is a quick way of turning a true story into a false one.
Don't trust the headline
Again, this seems so obvious, but lots of smart people get tripped up by this every day. Even in some otherwise reliable publications, editors will try to dress up the attractiveness of an otherwise mundane article by giving it a clickbait-style headline. Never share a story based only on the headline. Read the actual article. It seems this will never not have to be said.
Don't trust pictures
Unless you're reading the story on a reliable news source, all of its content should automatically be suspect. This applies especially to photographs that seem particularly remarkable. A lot of times, when someone has mocked up a fake image using Photoshop to combine two or more images, the dominant image can be found using a reverse image search. A few popular ones include TinEye, Google Images, Pixsy, and Yandex. You might be surprised what you find out. You might discover the image is real but either old or misattributed, or you might find out that it's a composite image. Just beware that these searches don't always find everything, and some of your reverse image searches will come up empty handed. This doesn't necessarily mean the image is genuine. Reverse image searches can often prove that your image is faked, but they can't ever prove that it's genuine.
A quick Google trick....
Often when a fake story is floating around, somebody else will have already done the work to debunk it. There's an easy way to check for this that works in nearly all cases. Let's say the story is that Lady Gaga is running for President. Use a search engine to find articles that have already fact checked this. Search for "Lady Gaga President skeptic", "Lady Gaga President fake", "Lady Gaga President hoax", or "Lady Gaga President fact check". If it's a fake story, one or more of those will almost certainly uncover the evidence. This is a trick I've successfully used many, many times.
Consider the source
Even the best reliable news sources will sometimes include editorial or opinion content, and this can sometimes include terrible misinformation. See who the author is. See what they've written on in the past. The thing to look out for here is a source that is dedicated to the promotion of a particular viewpoint. If it's an author who has written books promoting a specific viewpoint or otherwise has a reputation for being associated with it, then it's an author who is not objective. Some such authors, who are not objective, are right; many others are people who have made a career out of some niche claim that is pseudoscientific more often than not.
When we're trying to assess whether a news story is fake or not, an objective reporter who follows journalistic standards is unlikely to get it wrong. But the only reason a reporter with a career-long bias would write an article is that it happens to align with their particular thing, whatever it is. By itself this doesn't make the article wrong, but it does make it the wrong source. Seek a version from a reliable news source instead.
And so I'll leave you with that. You probably won't need more than one or two of these tricks in most cases; but even then, you'll be using one or two more than most people. Media literacy is more important than ever, and building your immunity to fake news is a big part of it. It's one great way to make sure we're all part of the solution, and not perpetuating the problem.
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