What is Fake News?
On June 1st, 1897, The New York Herald published an article claiming that famous American writer Mark Twain was “grievously ill and possibly dying.” The following day, Twain was quoted by The New York Journal as saying, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” In those days, such rumours would have been called ‘untruths,’ ‘false reports’ or even ‘gossip.’’ In this day and age, there’s a different phrase for it: fake news.
Donald Trump's 'Fake' News
Donald Trump turned ‘fake news’ into a well-worn catch phrase during his 2016 presidential campaign. He used it to discredit any media source with which he did not agree. The inaccurate reporting of Twain’s death was surely not the first example of fake news, and Trump’s frequent use of the term will not be the last. The vast global reach of the internet means there are countless more examples of fake news it every day. So with the constant stream of news reaching us on social media and the web in general, how can we recognize fake news when we see it? To understand how, we need to take a look at who generates it and why.
The transition of news delivery from print- to web-based sources over the past 20 years has brought everyone online. Not only established newspapers, journals and television networks, but also countless other organizations and writers that have no origins in traditional journalism. As technology improves, it becomes increasingly easy and affordable to build an online identity. Anyone can build a website and post news articles with whatever agenda they want to endorse or popularize.
"...at a glance, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish credible news sources from bogus ones."
For decades, The National Enquirer and other tabloids have filled supermarket checkout stands with sensationalistic headlines of stories based on unsubstantiated rumours. They even went as far as to claim fiction to be real events. Over time, the true nature of such magazines became well recognized and distinguishable from credible news sources. By contrast, the internet generates an unending stream of information from multiple sources. For those of us who consume all of our news from our laptop and/or mobile devices (62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media, according to a 2016 study), it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish credible news sources from bogus ones at a glance.
A person wishing to further her cause through a 'news site' must have the appearance of being credible. Whether they are credible or not, individuals will create their web addresses designed to be easily mistaken for established news channels. Some examples are ABCNews.com.co, NBCNews.com.co and Bloomberg.ma. Others, like NationalReport.net or TheNewYorkEvening.com attempt to attract online traffic by using generic, neutral-sounding names that sound like their more established counterparts.
Keeping an eye out for extra letters in a web address is often a tip-off. The most reliable check is to search the news outlet on the web, find its official web address and compare it to the article you are reading.
Fake News Usually Starts With Clickbait Headlines
Another technique employed by fake news sites is to present a loaded headline, then bury the important details of a story deep within the text. This works because many people will simply identify with the headline and share the story on Twitter and other social media sites. A recent study concluded that “59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.”
The solution here is simple: read the entire article before assuming the headline is true and before sharing it with anyone else.
One of the ways in which writers convince people to accept fake news stories as true is by taking advantage of a reader’s confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one's existing beliefs or theories. If a trusted friend, relative or colleague shares a story and you share the same values or beliefs with them, you’re more likely to believe and share it yourself. You implicitly trust what they or the headline says as truth. Even if you share identical values with your best friend or partner, make sure you thoroughly read any story they send or may encourage you to share. If it’s legitimate, then you’ve lost nothing by checking it out, but if it’s fake news, you’ll have stopped it in its tracks (And the world should thank you for it).
Fake News - Truth, Fiction or Bias?
I recall witnessing an instance of extreme confirmation bias a couple of years ago. At the time, I was engaged in an online conversation about gender identity. An acquaintance of mine posted a link to a story with a headline that read, “Maryland Middle School Requires Children To Cross Dress For “LGBTQ Appreciation Day.” His views and opinions on sexuality were extremely conservative, and he asserted that this story was an example of how things had ‘gone too far.’
I searched the website that posted the story and found that it contained a disclaimer that stated:
“National Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news.”
When I drew this to the attention of the person who had taken it at face value, he begrudgingly acknowledged that ‘perhaps’ the story wasn’t true. He still reiterated his traditional views on the subject. His failure to confirm the validity of his source before sharing the story was all the more surprising given that he earns his living as a lawyer. He wanted so much to believe that it was true that he didn’t even bother to verify whether it was or not.
Organic or Fabricated Viral Stories
One of the first lessons journalism students learn is to always check their sources. Editors require writers to base their reporting on credible sources and accurate information gathered during the research process. Quotations must be based on recorded interviews and attributed to traceable sources. Without following this practice, you wouldn’t be able to earn and keep a position in the profession. However, the advent of online journalism has shifted the paradigm, enabling virtually anyone to launch a website and spread information without first being subjected to editorial review. Gone are the days of traditional journalistic checks and balances.
The Mark Twain-type death story still happens today. With numerous reports circulating and recirculating of some celebrity being reported as dead, only for it to be disproven as a hoax or unsubstantiated rumor. If a relatively unknown news site releases a high-profile story, search the web to confirm that major media outlets are reporting the same story. If not, chances are it’s fake news. As consumers of online news and information, it’s up to us to be our own fact-checkers and editors. If something doesn’t sound read or sound right, take the initiative to do some digging. There will always be a credible source which will confirm the information you’re seeking or reading about.
Is it Really Fake News? Or a Game of Telephone?
Most news stories will contain quotes from the person/people involved. The mere fact that a story quotes someone may unconsciously lead us to assume the quote is legitimate. A quick copy and paste of the quoted text into your search browser can often reveal its true source or alert you to any inaccuracies.
Stories are shared so widely across the internet that something that pops up in your feed today could be days, months or even years old. A common practice of fake news sites is to fabricate a story and use a photograph as ‘proof.’ However, the image may be sourced from a completely unrelated event. In the aftermath of the recent terrorist bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, a photo posted to the web showing Grande with dirt and blood on her face implied that the pop star herself had been injured in the attack. It was later discovered, however, that the image was taken of Grande costumed and in character while filming a television series two years prior, not after the Manchester incident.
The website snopes.com is a frequently used method of determining the truth (or lie) of a story. Since 1995 it has been debunking urban legends, fake news and e-mail forwards. By 2010 it was receiving more than 300,000 visits a day . Many major news outlets consider it a valuable resource, and so should you.
"...when reading news on the internet or elsewhere, we should always try to treat every day like April Fool’s day."
A location-based social media discovery platform such as Echosec can also be a useful tool in separating fact from fiction. Enabling the user to draw a geographical fence around a particular area and entering keywords, it can help verify the who, what, when where and why of a story. Echosec returns search results in real time, searching across a range of social media sites to return results which match the desired keywords. When something newsworthy occurs, social media channels such as Twitter and Instagram are flooded with eyewitness accounts and images of exactly what is happening, generating a range of results - such as names, locations, images and other data - which have not yet been filtered through news outlets.
Someone once said, “April Fool's Day is the one day of the year when people critically evaluate news articles before accepting them as true.” It’s clear, then, that when reading news on the internet or elsewhere, we should always try to treat every day like April Fool’s day:
- read the article instead of just the headline before trusting it or sharing it
- always consider and double-check the source and web address
- if something sounds unbelievable and/or premature, search to see if it has been reported elsewhere
- make good use of trusted and reliable online tools and resources
- be mindful of confirmation bias so that it doesn’t influence your better judgment
And last but not least, don’t get swept up in the hype of a headline or popular opinion. After all, it was Mark Twain who said, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.”
Find out what's really happening on the ground, anywhere in the world in real time with Echosec.
 ‘62 percent of U.S. adults get their news from social media, says report,’ techcrunch.com, May 26, 2016, from: https://techcrunch.com/2016/05/26/most-people-get-their-news-from-social-media-says-report/
 ‘6 in 10 of you will share this link without reading it, a new, depressing study says,‘ washingtonpost.com, June 16, 2016, from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/06/16/six-in-10-of-you-will-share-this-link-without-reading-it-according-to-a-new-and-depressing-study/?utm_term=.2df553a6c5ca
 ‘At Snopes.com, Rumors Are Held Up to the Light,’ nytimes.com, July 15, 2010, from: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/15/technology/personaltech/15pogue-email.html