In just one year, fake news has gone from the stuff of fringe conspiracy theories to a major national conversation. While much of the debate around fake news is politically motivated—in other words, anything can be fake news depending on who you ask—there is a valid issue of illegitimate sources masquerading as real ones, even for news consumers who think they know better.
Those of us who are still committed to facts and verification have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t spread fake news. This is not a matter of politics, but ethics. Democracy cannot thrive if we cannot trust the basic information we read. Recently, Dylan Avery – the director of the viral conspiracy theory hit “Loose Change”, a film responsible for spreading the idea that 9-11 was an inside job – reflected on the inadvertent role he played in fake news culture in a stunning interview. He said that these days, where we know fake news is an issue, it comes down to personal responsibility: “Now, when you click the news on a Google tab, you have more of a chance of something popping up where you really have to squint to see where it came from. I guess what it comes down to now is, what is people’s definition of news. Are you a reporter or journalist? Are you reporting things, or trying to get to the bottom of it? That, for me, is where the line is.”
Indeed, while much has been written about the transformational power of social media and the internet, we have to recognise that its power has a downside. As Vox recently reported, “A recent study showed that on social media, fake news, defined as deliberately falsified news articles created to drive clicks, was shared over 35 million times during our most recent election cycle.”
So how can concerned digital citizens make sure they are consuming legitimate news and not amplifying sources operating with ill intent?
Here are some indicators to help you spot fake news:
Check the URL: One of the main tactics of fake news operators is to take a trusted URL and make a small tweak. So, for example, the nytimes.com becomes nytimesnews.com. This sounds legit, and indeed it benefits from the long line of journalistic integrity the New York Times has built up. If in doubt, double check any strange-seeming URL to ensure it’s not masquerading as a long-time trusted news source. If a website that is breaking high profile news was founded last year, and you’ve never heard of it before, that might be a sign that it is capitalising on sensationalism.
Double check facts: If you read a stunning fact that sounds outrageous or too good (or bad) to be true, check the source. Did the article attribute it to a source? Did it hyperlink to another page? If so, who, what or where? If they are linking to another blog post that is not a trusted name, that should give you cause for concern. Furthermore, if they are attributing statistics to sources who have an obvious political agenda (rather than academic or scientific sources), that should make you stop and consider the authenticity too.
Google the author: You can tell a lot about the online presence of a journalist or author these days by Googling their name and reading their Twitter feed. Do they Tweet a lot of politically motivated material, or do they Tweet facts attributed to sources? Does their material seem highly partisan, or in pursuit of whatever is true? If you’re reading so-called breaking news (not opinion article) from someone who is highly opinionated, you may want to consider if there is a better source to turn to.
Trust your gut: If something gives you pause, go with that. A piece of news that is truly groundbreaking and shocking is likely to be shared all over the internet, and not just emanate from a single source. If you’re hearing earth-shattering news, but no one else is talking about it, that may be a sign that it’s all fabrication.