Fake news have recently rose to prominence as a powerful force of misinformation. It has portrayed random young people as missing, identified people as perpetrators of heinous crimes they never committed, influenced general elections and even started social media fights between nuclear powers. We now live in an age of the misinformation wars. Not just misinformation that floats around passively, but misinformation that has been weaponized to serve political ideology or lining the pockets of charlatans and quacks.
Social media websites like Facebook first denied that there was a problem, then admitted that there was a problem and then promised to take action against the worse of the worst misinformants by cracking down on their ad revenue and even went so far as to promise collaboration with independent fact-checkers. While this is laudable, it will not be enough by any means. Individual users must take a personal responsibility to stop falling for fake news and stop sharing it on social media. The reason for sharing it does not matter as social media algorithms do not care about the reason you had for sharing it. Here are eight skeptical tricks to help you identify fake news.
Skeptical Trick #1: Check lists of known fake news websites
Do not trust any material that comes from a known fake news website. There are several initiatives on the Internet that gathers and catalogs common fake news websites. This includes both deceptive websites and those that primarily focuses on satire.
Some might disagree that satire websites are not fake news websites because the intention is not to deceive, but to entertain. While this is certainly true, this typically does not matter for people who fall for the story and shares it on social media. It has the same functional outcome. Thus, it is a good idea to carefully consider if you should share materials from satire websites as well. There are plenty of people who are gullible enough to believe it, and it just adds to the problem of misinformation. The most well-known example of this comes from a satire article The Onion wrote about alleged homosexual recruitment that the Westboro Baptists fell for in 1998.
The easiest way to find out more about if it is a fake news website is to simply perform a Google search for the name of the website together with “fake news” and then look through the results. Is it clearly identified as a fake news website by many different sources? Then it might just be fake.
Skeptical Trick #2: Find out if the story has been flagged by independent fact-checkers
Although the impact of fake news seems overwhelming, there are people and organizations that are trying to fight back. In particular, there are independent fact-checking organizations that focus on critically analyzing and debunking fake news items. The two most well-known fact-checkers are Snopes and Politifact. These are by no means perfect and occasionally makes mistakes (and corrects them), but they are highly reliable.
Search both websites to see if the story has been analyzed, confirmed or debunked there or do a Google search with some crucial detail of the suspected fake news story and the name of the fact-checking organization.
Skeptical Trick #3: Check for a deceptive domain name that attempts to mimic a real news website
Many fake news websites (and fake websites in general) often try to mimic a real news website in both design choice and URL. For instance, the URL might contain the name of a real news website (such as ABC, NBC, CNN etc.) with something added. Critically appraising the URL is therefore a must. Some fake news websites also have typical domain names and top-level domain such as .lo, .co or .com.co. Do not get fooled by the design. Always check that you are really at the website you think you are.
These kinds of domain name deceits are basically the fake news equivalent to credit card phishing. If you click on links in those phishing emails, you will be taken to a website that superficially looks like your bank, but with a deceptive domain name that tries to impersonate the real website. This is the same modus operandi that many fake news websites use to trick you into believing what they write. If you would not trust a website with a shady and deceptive domain name with your credit card information or bank login details, why trust them with your intellectual integrity?
Skeptical Trick #4: Check if other material on the website raise red flags
All people are not going to an expert on all issues. Or perhaps more crucial, not all people have the same biases on all issues. Fake news websites will undoubtedly contain a lot of articles about diverse topics, so it is worth checking out other stories posted on that website. Do they seem reliable or is it a cesspool of nonsense? By examining the other content on the website, you get a better idea of whether or not it is a fake news website. If you find that the website has a large number of fake news items on issues where you are informed, chances are that the story you were reading initially is also a fake news story.
Skeptical Trick #5: Check if the images in the story come from somewhere else
Fake news stories will often take images from somewhere else and claim that they accurately represent the story itself. For instance, they might claim that an image is from a certain protest, riot or criminal case, when it is, in fact, from some other event that happened years before. Or it might contain an image of a person that has no relationship to the story itself. For instance, common tactics involve finding a random young person and claim that he or she is missing or posting a picture of a person who has nothing to do with a certain crime and claiming that he or she is the real perpetrator.
Do a reverse image search using Google (by going here and clicking on the little camera to the right of the search field) to see if the image occurs previously in a completely different context. Then you can suspect that the image does not belong to the story itself. If the story relies substantially on the truth of the image and the context it is presented in, then there are reasons to suspect that it is a fake news item.
Skeptical Trick #6: Check the sources in detail
What sources does the alleged news item use? If they cite other news websites that are considered more reliable, go directly to that more credible news website and see if they have covered the story. If not, it is probably a fake news item. If they use quotes from experts, try to find if those experts are real and have positions that are consistent with the ones they are quoted as holding. If they cite alleged government reports or published scientific papers, go find the original documents and read through them to see if they support the news item. If they do not exist, you are probably dealing with a fake news item.
Skeptical Trick #7: Think about if the story confirms your biases
Fake news stories are written in such a way as to get people to believe them. This means that they are more likely to share them on social media and drive traffic to the fake news website. More traffic means that more ad revenue for the fake news websites. These websites encourage belief by appealing to people’s political, religious or social biases. Ask yourself if the news item you are reading confirms your own biases. Does it negatively report on a certain group you dislike? Report on some alleged new finding that confirms your prior belief about the world? Does it trash-talk a politician or celebrity you dislike? The more a news item fits with your own biases, the more suspicious you should be.
You might also want to consider if the news item appeals to the biases of some other group. While this is not necessary since it is very easy to detect a story that is biased against your position, it is still worth thinking about what kind of biases an alleged news item is trying to exploit.
Skeptical Trick #8: Try to detect if it is emotionally manipulative
Some fake news items do more than just appeal to your biases. Instead, they are written in a very emotionally manipulative way and attempts to get readers from their target group to feel intense emotion, such as anger, fear or schadenfreude. This can include a fake news story about how some group you dislike gets unfair benefits or advantages, how your own group or some group you agree with get unfair treatment or punishment. It can also be an item that grossly exaggerates the danger of relatively harmless things trying to get you scared or worried. A third way are stories where people or groups you do not like suffer hardship that tries to get you to feel superior and gloat at their misfortune and think that he, she or they are “getting what they deserve”. If a story makes you have an emotional reaction, ask yourself why it happened and why the writer of the alleged news item wrote the story in such a way as to provoke it.
Although social media websites have promised to help fight it, combating fake news also starts with the individual. Stop sharing fake news items on social media regardless of the reason.