There has been many interesting discussions happening now about the spread of fake news on the Internet and what companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter, among others, should do to stop it. Fake news is nothing new to most people these days, but bogus stories can reach more people, more quickly through social media than what good old-fashioned viral emails could accomplish in years past.
Not all of the misinformation being passed along online is completely fake, though most of it is. Snopes.com has been exposing false viral claims since the mid 1990s, whether it was fabricated messages, distortions containing bits of truth and everything in between. David Mikkelson, the founder, warned in an article not to throw everything into the “fake news” category. “The fictions and fabrications that make fake news are but a subset of the larger bad news phenomenon, which also includes many forms of poor quality, unresearched, error-filled, and deliberately misleading reporting that do a disservice to everyone,” he wrote. A lot of these viral claims aren’t “news” at all, but fiction, satire and efforts to fool readers into thinking they’re for real.
Fake stories, completely made-up “news,” has grown more sophisticated, and often presented on a site designed to look like a legitimate news organization. Yet, we still find it easy to figure out what’s real and what’s not if you’re equipped with some critical thinking and fact-checking tools.
When trying to spot fake news you should first start off by considering the source. About a couple of weeks ago I did homework for a class on fake news. I fact-checked fake news from multiple sites, such as, abcnews.com.co (not the actual URL for ABC News), WTOE 5 News (whose “about” page says it’s “a fantasy news website”), and the Boston Tribune (whose “contact us” page lists only a gmail address). I also learned that the claim that the Obama’s were buying a vacation home in Dubai, a made-up missive that came from WhatDoesItMean.com, which describes itself as “One Of The Top Ranked Websites In The World for New World Order, Conspiracy Theories and Alternative News” and more says on its site that most of what it publishes is fiction.
It’s clear that some of the sites do provide a “fantasy news” or satire warning, like WTOE 5, which published the bogus headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” Most fake sites aren’t so upfront, like the Boston Tribune, which doesn’t provide any information on its missions, staff members or physical location, further signs that maybe the site isn’t a legitimate news organization. The site also changed its name from Associated Media Coverage, after its work had been discredited by fact checking organizations.
Another thing when spotting out fake news is, reading beyond the headlines. For example, if a provocative headline drew your attention, you should read a little further before you decide to pass along the shocking information. Even in legitimate news stories, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story. But fake news, can include several revealing signs in the text.
After considering the sources, and reading beyond the headlines, you should also ask yourself, “Could this be some kind of joke?” Remember, there is such thing as satire. Normally, it’s clearly labeled as such, and sometimes it’s even funny. Andy Borowitz has been writing a satirical news column, the Borowitz Report, since 2001, and it has appeared in the New Yorker since 2012. But not everyone gets the jokes.
There’s also more debatable forms of satire, purposely made to pull one over on the reader. That “Fappy the Anti-Masturbation Dolphin” story? That’s the work of online hoaxer Paul Horner, whose “greatest coup,” as described by the Washington Post in 2014, was when Fox News mentioned, as fact, a fake piece titled, “Obama uses own money to open Muslim museum amid government shutdown.” Horner told the Post after the election that he was concerned his hoaxes aimed at Trump supporters may have helped the campaign. The posts by Horner and others, whether termed satire or simply “fake news” are designed to encourage clicks, and generate money for the creator through ad proceeds. Horner told the Washington Post he makes a living off his posts and when asked why his material gets so many views, Horner responded, “They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore.”