Identifying fake news

Fake news has been a problem since basically forever, from sketchy cuneiform about your brother’s wife to tawdry rags on the streets of Victorian London to the modern internet. It’s an everpresent influence in our lives, but last year, it seemed to explode, and people realised how damaging it was when patently false information about the election proliferated. There was a lot of banging on about about soul searching and promises to do better, as well as looks at what kinds of news seems to flourish and why (and the related phenomenon of people only reading in their bubbles), but a lot of people really seem to struggle with how to verify news and information, including kids and young adults who are often extremely credulous because they don’t have the benefit of decades of experience. Hence, one of my periodic servicey posts. How do you spot fake news?

There are a lot of different kinds of fake news, including clear garbage on websites that exist to propagate that kind of thing, marginal junk on websites that straddle an awkward divide, and trash on websites that should know better. I’m not going to name any names here, but it’s not just Infowars and Breitbart that freely distributed false or misleading information during the election.

So, some things to look for:

  1. Where is this item of news? If it’s from a reputable source (which we’ll arbitrarily define as a well-established media property with a clearly defined editorial structure and some accountability, like, say, NPR, Rewire News, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlantic, The Nation, In These Times, The Guardian, the BBC, The Economist, the Christian Science Monitor, the National Review, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the Wall Street Journal, etc.), that’s a start, though it doesn’t mean the news item is valid. And being a well-established property doesn’t mean that something is necessarily reliable (The Daily Mail, the NY Daily News). Then there are sites I hope you know are littered with falsehoods, like Infowars and Breitbart. If you don’t recognise the name of the site and can’t quickly categorise it, try searching for it to see who references and talks about it. Read the masthead. Poke around the site to see if it has much content. A big trend in fake news last year was making publications — The Greater Island Bugle — sticking a few stories that fed partisan attitudes in them, and using those to drive traffic. A news site with a few articles on a basic WordPress install isn’t necessarily invalid (cough) but you should definitely be suspicious. If you can’t find other sites referencing it, or any references that aren’t more than a few weeks or months old, that is also sketchy. Also, just get a feel for the site. Does it feel sloppy to you? Again, not having much money and therefore having a site that’s not perfectly polished is not a problem, but it can be a warning sign.
  2. What’s the slant? You should know the news organisation’s slant, not just in general but on a particular issue, and you should know that yes, all news organisations have slants. It’s important to consider slant because that may colour how news is covered, but also how you receive it. If you’re a liberal reading Some Famous Liberal Mag and they assert that a hated Republican government official is doing something terrible, you’re inclined to believe that, right? Because that’s how confirmation biases work. So think about slant when you read stories.
  3. Speaking of confirmation biases…if you only go looking for what you want to read, that’s all you’ll find. And if you dismiss anything that doesn’t mesh with what you want to see, your beliefs will remain intact.
  4. Read the whole thing. Often, clues that something is fake are embedded in the article itself, or the author (who may be an entirely fictional entity, or just someone who is wildly unqualified, with no reporting background on the subject at hand). Check the date, while you’re at it — something may be making the rounds again after five months. It might have been true then and could still be now, but it’s not a new incident — or it could have been fake the first time around, too.
  5. Who else is talking about it? One of the easiest ways to tell if news is fake or fudged is to search for it and see who else is discussing it. Do all of the stories have more or less the same headline or text, suggesting that they were syndicated and/or aggregated from one place? Do they all link back to the same piece? (Or follow a chain that links back, with The Hot Take leading to The Thinkpiece which links to an original at Dubious Leftist Outlet?) Unless something is genuine original breaking journalism, it’s going to be covered in multiple places. Find independent confirmation of a piece of information.
  6. Speaking of independent confirmation…if people are talking about legislation, scientific research, agency rulesmaking, meetings, speeches, or other matters that are on the public record, go find that record. It can take a while to learn how to search for these things, but you should see what people are talking about at the source. Ideally, journalists should link at the source (or describe with a title that you can use to readily search it). If they don’t, that can be a warning that they either didn’t read/review it themselves, didn’t fully understand it, or did, and want to report selectively while making it more difficult for you to verify. When it comes to scientific research there’s a whole new body of guidance on evaluating validity which I won’t get into here.
  7. Check out Snopes and FactCheck.org. They move fast on fake news and can be a good source of information if something smells funny to you, whether because it’s totally outrageous or too good to be true.

Image: Newspaper, Victor Carreon, Flickr