While waiting your turn in line for your morning coffee and scrolling through your Facebook feed, this one particular post grabs your attention:
Spyware HUH? Even Apple has it!
Read on to find which apps are being banned…
“Ah! So, they are all the same,” you thought before sharing the post with your friends, adding the caption, “See! I was right!”
You didn’t even read the subheading about the apps being banned by Apple for violating their terms of service. This is exactly how misinformation spreads.
So before you become an unintentional bearer of fake news, we’ll show you what fake news is, how you can spot it and how to avoid being part of it.
How Did It All Start?
Despite the relatively recent growth in awareness, fake news has always been around. Historically, it has led to death and the destruction of private property, while more recently it resulted in calls for boycotts and the near-constant spread of polarizing and potentially harmful misinformation.
While fake news has been around at least since the invention of the printing press, the term is fairly new. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the term “fake news” became part of the zeitgeist and everyone on both sides of the political aisle began using it as a descriptor for legitimately fake news and disagreeable information alike.
In fact, the moment the term was used during the elections can be pinpointed using Google Trends.
While its exact definition was not entirely clear at the beginning, the boundary between fake news and real news is now even less distinct with everything from truly false information to satire being labeled fake news.
Social media can largely be blamed for the lack of a definite distinction due to how flippantly information, true or not, can be spread on these platforms. This is especially the case if a respected public figure is responsible for passing the information along.
Why Is This Important?
To most, it is likely undeniable that fake news can have a serious impact. Depending on the reach of a particular piece of fake news, it can potentially change the course of history.
A Dartmouth College study [PDF] found that roughly 1 in every 4 Americans was exposed to a fake news website in the weeks leading up to the election. At that point in the election cycle, it’s not difficult to imagine the impact those websites may have had on the affected voters’ decisions.
In an environment where the need for factual backing for an argument is often neglected, opinions are often treated as facts and the inclination towards sourcing information from reliable sources is reduced. This not only cultivates a climate of mistrust but also hinders the spread of real information that would result in a more informed public society.
What Is Fake News?
In short, fake news is information that is presented as legitimate but is actually untrue either partially or in its entirety.
Including actual information in a fake article allows fake news to blend in. It becomes harder to identify, causing the reader to either believe all of the information in the article or completely reject everything about the topic.
To avoid being misinformed by fake news, it’s important to understand the different types of fake news and how to identify them.
1. False Information
These are news stories that have a specific agenda and are designed to capture and retain the audience’s attention quickly. They use manipulated images, audio and/or videos as evidence and are usually quite hard to distinguish from real news.
These types of articles are often used to make money by convincing readers to either share the content on social media or by making them believe in something that doesn’t actually exist.
Sometimes legitimate-looking news agency websites or company websites publish these false news stories.
With the help of software bots, these articles are shared thousands of times, going viral and reaching potentially millions of people. In some cases, these articles manage to reach a celebrity or public figure, who may share the article to their own social media pages. This endorsement gives credibility to the false information, making it even harder to stop.
This news is often the toughest to identify. You can run a reverse image search for the images presented as evidence. Using this method, you can see if the images have come from a legitimate source. However, when it comes to video or audio evidence, only the right technical staff can help.
2. Biased News
These are news stories where an opinion piece or something said by a public figure is used as a headline to support an argument.
Usually, these stories are not completely false. They may be correct about the fact that a particular person has said or done what is being discussed in the article. This information may or may not have been taken out of context for the purpose of the article.
The issues with this type of article arise when that opinion or action is presented in a way that supports a narrative. The opinions are used as sources, as opposed to standard news articles where information from reliable third parties is used as a source.
These articles may look as though they’re intended for the general public, but they’re usually targeted toward a particular group, either to anger them or give credibility to their cause.
Examples of the types of headlines featured on these articles are “Trump says that climate change is a hoax” or “Elon Musk thinks that the world is a simulation.”
Both of these statements may be accurately attributed to the person that said them, but they are still only the opinions of these people are should not be treated as facts.
The best way to identify this type of fake news is to first check with multiple sources to see if the person mentioned in the article actually said what they are credited to have said.
If you can confirm this, the next step is to see if the opinion is based on fact. This will require some research on your own. If it’s a fact-based opinion, then feel free to share the information and believe it yourself, but if it’s not based on fact, ignore it.
3. Unverified or Incomplete News
Unverified or incomplete news articles result from inadequate reporting techniques, either intentionally or unintentionally. They contain partial facts or facts that have yet to be verified.
When done intentionally, these articles generally hold some form of truth and are usually shared to support one side of an argument.
They may also be used to completely muddle the argument so that less public interest remains in the subject. However, most of the time these articles are the result of bad reporting techniques or a rush to be the first to break the news.
The easiest way to identify this type of news is to search the internet for other sources and to fact check them through the websites we mentioned above.
Once you’re done with that, see if the other sources posted updates to the story. If they did, did the updates change the original narrative?
4. Misleading News
News stories that are used out of context or contain incomplete facts are called misleading news.
In these news stories, carefully selected parts of a scientific study or facts of another nature are used to support an argument.
Outdated news or research proven false or incorrect may also be used. Since the articles contain partial facts or are partially based on research, accurate or disproven, they appear more credible.
Check the dates on the research that’s referenced. If the research seems fairly old, search for current research on the same subject. If no dates are mentioned, try to find the original study with dates.
Search the topic on the internet and try to find more material published elsewhere. If multiple sources have more material than the one you were presented with originally, it may be a sign that only carefully selected parts of the research were used in the article.
5. Satire or Parody/Comedy
Satire and parody are an age-old style of writing used to criticize people in power or powerful entities through humor. Often they’re written in such a manner that unsuspecting readers are tricked into believing them as fact rather than comedy.
The Onion is likely the most famous satire and parody website. The intention of satirical articles is to create awareness by poking fun at a societal issue. However, while the intention is not to spread fake news, sometimes the writers are so skilled in their craft that readers share the articles thinking they are true.
These are generally pretty easy to identify. Go to the original source for the article and look on their website to see if the articles they publish are satirical. They will often mention that their articles are meant only for comedic purposes somewhere on their website, usually on their About page.
Why Does Fake News Spread?
Recent years have proven one thing, whether it’s simple to identify or not, fake news spreads like wildfire. It’s often related to our most closely held beliefs and opinions, which may serve as an indicator as to why it spreads so easily.
Due to confirmation bias, we’re more likely to accept information as fact if it reinforces beliefs we already hold. This leads us to share the article with our friends who likely hold similar beliefs to our own, allowing the fake news to go viral.
Laziness may also be to blame for the spread of fake news. With our attention spans now being shorter than that of a goldfish and social media allowing us to skim hundreds of pieces of information in a relatively short period of time, it’s easy to be lazy. We can share fake news with the click of a button without having to read beyond the article’s headline, and our friends can do the same.
It’s no wonder that fake news has become such a hot button issue as the power of social media continues to grow.
How to Identify Any Fake News
With the prevalence of fake news and the ease with which it can blend in with real news, it’s best to check every article you read to verify its credibility.
Here is our suggested test to authenticate any news story you encounter.
1. Check the Source
Be it the website hosting the story or the author who is writing it, check their credibility. See if the website or the writer hold credibility in their respective domain and whether the news is from the same domain or not.
For the website, see whether there are spelling or grammatical errors in its name or content. Credible sources generally have staff in charge of ensuring grammatical and spelling errors are fixed before a story is published. What is the website’s mission? What do the reviews of the website say?
Is the author a real person? Is there a photo of them included with the article or a link to a social media account or personal website?
2. References and Source Material
Are there any references mentioned? If there aren’t references, then the article likely doesn’t hold any value or is an opinion piece. If there are references, check them out and see if the information holds true.
See what other websites say about the same news story. If they don’t say anything, then there isn’t any consensus on the story yet. If they do, see what their version says.
See if the images, videos or audio presented are trackable and are available on other sources or not.
3. Content Quality
What is the quality of the content? Are there any grammatical mistakes? Does the headline use gimmicks or clickbait techniques?
After confirming it’s not clickbait, go through the whole story. See if the headline was an incomplete part of the story to get your attention.
Content and Dates
Read through the whole story and see if the dates and timelines match up. Make sure it’s not an old story rehashed and used again or an outdated report used without context.
4. Is It a Parody Piece?
See if it’s satirical or a parody of a real news story. Although this may be identified when you check the sources, some satire sites make it difficult to determine what’s real and what’s not in their articles. Try to confirm the validity of the story by looking at other articles on the website to see if they seem satirical or otherwise intended for comedic purposes.
5. Reach Out to Experts
In some cases, it may be necessary to fact check the story with experts in the field. Although you may not know any of them personally, their commentary on a particular news story can often be found on sites like FactCheck.org or through Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network. Following this process, you can check the legitimacy of any news story you may come across. It may take you some time, but it is best to verify first before you unwittingly become part of the problem.