How to Spot Fake News
- What is Fake News?
- Fake News and Social Media
- How to Spot Fake News
- Library Resources
- Additional Resources
What is Fake News?
The New York Times defined "fake news" on the Internet as false articles deliberately fabricated to deceive readers, generally with the goal of profiting through clickbait. Clickbait is content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page.
PolitiFact described fake news as fabricated content designed to fool readers and subsequently made viral through the Internet to large groups of people who further disseminate it.
Fake News and Social Media
Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter enable information sharing among their users, and many of these platforms present ‘news’ items, ads or ‘sponsored content’ in a manner that makes it difficult to distinguish real news sources from spoofed sites, or hoax sites. Most social media platform ad space is sold through brokers, meaning the platform often has no idea what is being advertised on their site. These characteristics make social media platforms an ideal place for fake news to flourish.
A good example of this can be seen in this article, where Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s post about fake news is lined up beside two fake news items.
How to Spot Fake News
- Who wrote it? Check for the author’s name. Is the name available or is it missing? Most authors who put time into a well-researched article will likely have their name attached to it.
- What are their qualifications? If the author’s name is listed, find out who the person is and what their credentials are. Do a search on the author’s name, find their occupation and other articles written by them. Is the author an expert in the field? Does the author work at a reputable organization? Are the articles well-researched?
- Check the “About Us” section. On the top or bottom of the website there should be a section called “About Us.” This section outlines the purpose of the website. Does the organization have an authoritative team of journalists or writers? Or do they invite members of the general public to contribute? Reading about the host of the website will help you determine whether it is a trustworthy source.
- Does the article inform you of all sides of the topic? News articles should provide you with facts from various viewpoints. If the article showcases only one side of the argument, readers should keep in mind that they are not seeing the full story and the article may contain bias.
Tip: Check for sources cited in the article that support the claims in the story. Search for the sources online. Are they reliable sources? Do they support the claims being made? Are direct quotes used and are they taken out of context?
- Does the content match the headline of the article? A headline should provide you with an idea of what the entire article is about, but it can also be used to persuade you to believe something before reading the article. Authors may use this to their advantage and falsify their headlines to get people to read the full article or believe the claim without reading the article.
Tip: In addition to the headline, check for any spelling or grammatical errors in the text. Well-researched articles are typically read and re-read before posting.
- When was this article published? Older articles may not contain up-to-date facts and might have broken links. Individuals sharing an older article may discover that some information has been disproven or debunked.
- Was the article repurposed or updated? Repurposed or updated content tends to have a disclaimer at the beginning or end of the article. News organizations may repurpose an article if a current event is related.
- How important is the date? The date gives you an indication of when the article was published. Websites may show time/date stamps in the article, but it is possible that these could be modified.
Tip: Run a search to see if there are similar articles written by other news organizations.
Does this web address (URL) look correct? Typing in the wrong web address will direct you to a webpage that you were not intending to visit. It may lead you to a page with computer viruses. Be cautious of website URLs that are made to look official or real. A splashy looking website can contain fake news. Similar to a phone number, a minor mistake can take you to a completely different website.
With few exceptions URLs including their domains (.ca, .com, etc.), can be purchased by anyone. Many domains do not have any requirements to register. Some individuals trick users by using domain names to imitate an organization’s official site.
Tip: If you do not know the URL, use a search engine and review the results for the result you are looking for.
Did I find this on Social Media? Social Media platforms are not news organizations. These are platforms for people to create and/or share content. Monitoring of fake news is virtually non-existent on social media platforms and blogs. They use algorithms to curate content that would be of interest to you, creating a personal echo chamber. Be cautious of videos/photos as images may have been manipulated.
Note: While photo/video editing software allows filmmakers and artists to create life-like environments, this software also provides anyone the same tools to manipulate an image/video to fit their story. Use Google reverse image search to see where else an image has appeared.
Did I find this on a blog/website? Blogs contain content written informally and run by an individual or small group. Anyone can register for a blog or create a website. Websites and blogs may use sensational headlines to pique your interest. Individuals can generate advertising revenue from page views. They may write articles from a certain viewpoint to target specific audiences. Be cautious of websites that use strong language to generate a click/reaction.
Tip: Verify the information you found by using another website. Find the original source of the information. Be aware that individuals may post their fake news on a similar website.
Did I find this in the news media? Newspapers and network/cable news hire reporters and journalists to gather and report on news. These news organizations adhere to strict policies and standards. They include an online presence to report on breaking news. News media may also have opinion pieces or discussions with individuals offering different viewpoints on current topics.
What is the purpose of the information? To inform? Is the article or online content informative in some way? What information is it giving you? Try to think critically about the information you receive. Be skeptical! Can you verify the facts? Are sources offered? Can you evaluate the sources? If there are links on the page, where do they take you?
To sell? Is the article trying to sell you something? Some online articles are designed to get you to buy a product. Sometimes, what looks like a news article is actually an advertisement. Sometimes, they exist side by side, news articles next to “sponsored content” or “native advertising.” Can you tell the difference?
To entertain? Satire and fake news are not the same thing. Satire uses strategies such as exaggeration or irony to expose hypocrisy, especially in current affairs, and it is (usually) funny. Fake news *is* that hypocrisy, and nobody’s laughing.
To persuade? It is not at all unusual for an author to try to persuade their audience to believe one thing or another. Can you tell when something is persuasive? Ask yourself, what is the author’s point of view? Is it objective? Is it biased? Then ask yourself why the author might have that point of view, and why they might want you to think one way or the other. Who benefits from you thinking that way?
What other reasons can you think of that someone might want to spread information, or misinformation?
Tip: Ask yourself: who benefits?
A project of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Annenberg Public Policy Center, which monitors the factual accuracy of what is said by major US political players, such as politicians and lobbyists.
Staff from the Tampa Bay Times publish original statements by US political players, check their factual accuracy, and assign each a rating ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.”
- Media Bias/Fact Check
Includes a searchable database of media sources and articles that are categorized according to bias, from extreme left to extreme right. Note that “bias” is subjective, and not the same thing as “fact.”
An independent website that covers urban legends, modern folklore, internet rumours, and other stories of questionable origin.
Another independent myth-busting website, this one focuses on dubious stories that resurface year after year, instead of “breaking” news and current events.
A search engine developed by researchers at Indiana University that visualizes how fake news and other claims spread across social media.
- B.S. Detector
This browser extension can be installed to alert you to unreliable news sources. Curated by Open Sources, a project of researchers at Merrimack College.
Books, eBooks, and eVideos
- The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking (Book, 2016). Journalist and teacher Brooke Borel offers “best practices for fact-checking in a variety of media, from magazine articles, both print and online, to books and documentaries.”
- Crap Detection 101: How to Distinguish Good and Bad Information Online (eVideo, 2011). Journalist Howard Rheingold offers “guidelines to help you determine whether the information you come across online is legitimate or whether it’s just plain crap.”
- Media Literacy: Thinking Critically About the Internet (Book, 2016). “Lessons and activities that challenge students to examine the roles and power of the online world.”
- Debunk It! How to Stay Sane in a World of Misinformation (Book, 2014). “Uses modern, ripped-from-the-headlines examples to clearly explain how to identify bad evidence and poor arguments.”
- Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True? (Book and eBook, 2014). “Taking on everything from breaking news coverage and online dating to program trading and that eccentric and unreliable source that is Wikipedia, Seife arms his readers with actual tools--or weapons--for discerning truth from fiction online.”
When in doubt, ask a librarian! Librarians are trained on how to search for information and how to evaluate it, and we can help you find reliable information both online and in print. You can book a 30 or 60 minute appointment with a librarian for help with research.
- How Do I Spot Fake News? (University of Toronto Libraries)
- Fake News: Resources (Indiana University East)
- Fake News, Misinformation, and Propaganda (Harvard University)
- Fighting Fake News: Start (Gustavus Adolphus College)
- Evaluating Information - Applying the CRAAP Test (PDF) (Meriam Library)