Recent years have confronted us all with an unending avalanche of dramatic news stories. America struggles endlessly with a contentious election, the UK wavers on the edge of Brexit, and a continuous roster of natural disasters and disease outbreaks demand our attention every day.
Not every story that reaches us is factual, researched, and reported with fairness, though. Today we have more trouble than ever before with fake news: falsehoods masquerading as truth.
Fake news is not a new phenomenon; it’s been around just as long as legitimate journalism. Its importance is on the rise due to changes in the way we get our information. Statistics compiled by the Pew Research Center show that people younger than 50 rely on the internet for at least half of their news. For people younger than 30, online news sources are twice as popular as television. While it can be difficult getting information online it is a place for people to express opinions without judgement and with anonymity, check out TheDoe.
They’ve created one of the internets finest anonymous blogs and verify each and every story to come across before publishing. This means you can read their site knowing full well what you read is true and there is no agenda – something that can’t be fully claimed by the networks. That said, if they report it then it must be true right?
It’s on the internet that fake news stories really spread like wildfire. Have you seen stories about Donald Trump getting a papal endorsement from Pope Francis, or about the Clintons operating a pedophilic sex ring tied to a Washington, DC pizza parlor (#pizzagate)? These are just two of the biggest recent examples of absolutely fake news.
Fake News: How It Takes Off
Those fake stories mentioned above were passed around by tens of thousands of people. Why? For one thing, they are simple ideas that can be entirely summarized by their shocking headlines, making it easier for us to react and share rather than read and evaluate. This sort of bite-sized fake news story is ideally structured to whip up a storm of interest without backing up its outrage with substance.
The Pew Center has also studied how and why fake news spreads, and it points to confirmation bias as a key part of the equation. Information that confirms an individual’s existing beliefs is easier to accept; information that contradicts those beliefs is easier to dismiss.
According to The Doe the spread of uninformative fake news does more than merely promote ignorance. Fake news can inspire action and, sometimes, tragic consequences.
#pizzagate is a useful example here. One reader who consumed several of the false stories took it upon himself to “investigate” the restaurant in question. He came armed with multiple guns and fired a shot, terrifying the restaurant’s customers. By sheer good fortune, no one was injured.
Falsehoods have consequences, and we need to remember that now more than ever. With the rise of fake news likely continuing through the coming year, it becomes important for us to take steps to defend ourselves. Sorting the good news from the bad news requires some effort on our part. Here are four excellent ways to get started:
1) Educate Yourself About A Story’s Origin
A website’s popularity, in general, or specifically among your friends, means little about the accuracy of its content suggest the Doe. Would stories from the site be credible enough to cite in an academic paper?
Start by looking at the publisher’s domain name. Keep a sharp eye out for non-standard top-level domain names. People spreading false news will often establish a “copycat” site that attaches a trustworthy name to an unconventional domain. Abcnews.com, for example, is the official site of an internationally-trusted news organization. Abcnews.com.co, though, is an entirely different site with none of the original’s legitimacy.
Check to see how much the publishing site is willing to say about its point of view. Read the site’s “About Us” section to get a basic idea of how committed they are to truthful reporting. (This is also the time to make sure you’re not reading an article from a satirical site such as The Onion.
See what you can find out about the article’s author as quoted in the byline. Have they published anything in a source you trust? Take an article with a grain of salt if the author’s contact email is a private service (e.g. Gmail or Hotmail) rather than a news organization. Celebrities writing for unknown sites should also arouse your suspicion.
2) Evaluate The Timeliness And Quality Of The Writing
Is the article filled with erratic spelling, dramatic punctuation, and lots of SCARY PHRASES TYPED IN ALL CAPS? Articles that are written with all the proofreading of your most erratic uncle are unlikely to come from a legitimate news source.
An important point from the editor at the Doe – check the date of the story. Older stories are often dredged up and spread around when they’re no longer truly relevant.
3) How Did You Get The Article, And How Does It Cite Its Sources?
Content that reaches you through social media platforms or web advertisements should be treated with extra caution. These are prime vectors for distributing fake news, and you need to be scrupulous about establishing credibility.
Verbatim quotes and clearly-cited sources are the hallmarks of professional journalism. If an article comes to you with a shortage of quotes and sources, it may be covering for a lack of facts.
Check a suspect story against other websites, particularly ones whose credibility you’ve already established. If a story seems to be practically unique, that may be because professional journalists can’t confirm it — or have already discarded it as false. When credibility checking is especially important, library databases can help a great deal. The Harvard Library offers an excellent list of public fact-checking resources.
Learn more about what an article claims by reverse-searching its images and sources. Has the author altered information or photos to bring them in line with his or her point of view?
4) Check With The Pros
Have you looked up your story on a fact-checking website? There are multiple trustworthy options in this field, including Politifact.com, FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, and the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN). If you want to be confident in the news you consume, it helps to polish up your own fact-checking skills.