Fake News – Life Hacks – close-up photo of clown reading newspaper

How to spot fake news

A 7 minute read • Simon Q

Part of our life hacks series. I’m sure that if you ask your friends and family, they will all claim that they have never fallen for fake news. I suspect that most people confidently believe that they can sniff out a fake news story. I’m certain that some of them are wrong.

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Fake news is nothing new. On 13 March 1986, The Sun, a UK tabloid newspaper, caused a stir when its front page screamed, “Freddie Starr ate my hamster”. The Sun’s editor admitted many years later that he allowed the story to run despite knowing it was a lie. His reason? He wanted to help promote the comedian’s forthcoming tour.

Fake News – Life Hacks – photo of hamster by an apple

But the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA in 2016 and accusations of electoral manipulation by Russia raised more serious concerns about whether or not the news we read is true. President Trump has regularly labelled the mainstream media as ‘fake news’ when it does not report his own views and aims.

What is fake news?

The Reuters Institute divides fake news into satire, poor journalism, propaganda, fabrication and hoaxes. And there are many reasons to bend the truth or even lie. Consider the worlds of politics, war and criminal activities where information has value and, whether true or not, can be hugely influential.

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Research carried out in 2017 by the Reuters Institute discovered that people see the difference between fake news and news as “one of degree rather a clear distinction” and that the fake news discussion is playing out against a backdrop of low trust in the media, politicians and contemporary sources of information.

But to understand and spot fake news, we need to explore where news comes from.

Where does news come from?

The mainstream media gathers news from a range of sources. There are global and local news agencies that supply news to the media; examples include The Press Association, Thomson Reuters and Bloomberg. Newspapers, radio and TV channels as well as online news providers source stories from these agencies in addition to their own journalists.

News from these news agencies is fact-checked. Notwithstanding human error, you can be pretty certain that what you are reading is true. There are also sources of news that have implicit authority and can be cited with a relatively high level of confidence. These are newspapers of record and exist in most countries; The Times in the UK, El País in Spain, Le Monde in France and The New York Times in the USA.

It’s also worth knowing the difference between on and off the record comments provided to news organisations. Consider these two examples:

“The Minister today made a clear commitment to fund the building of 100 new schools during the next year.”

“Sources close to the Minister claimed that the proposed school building scheme would be cancelled in the autumn.”

Which is more certain? Which do you believe? If you chose the first, then you’re more likely to be right. The first came from an on the record interview during which the person interviewed was happy to be identified. The second is from an unidentified source speaking off the record and should be treated with greater suspicion; it sounds like a politically motivated statement.

The difference between fact and opinion

There’s an important difference between fact and opinion. Facts can be verified, regardless of somebody’s opinion. Opinions may or may not acknowledge the facts. Yet some people seem to struggle to understand the difference.

Most news sources probably think that they report facts, but it’s clear that many tabloid newspapers blur the facts with opinion. And it’s usually politics that gets in the way with the shade of politics defined by the newspaper’s owner.

It’s hard to read some tabloid newspapers without seeing through the political agenda that they promote. And some of them print blatant lies on the front-page sound in the knowledge that they can print a tiny apology in the lower corner of page 27 three days later.

But it’s not all bad. The newspapers of record pride themselves on their opinion pieces and editorials where a journalist’s opinions are given flight. You just need to decide if you agree with them or not. And in a reputable newspaper or website, opinion pieces are clearly labeled as such.

Fake News – Life Hacks – photo of clown reading newspaper

What’s different about online news?

Online news is different. Most of the mainstream media simply replicates its print content online but the online versions of some well-read newspapers can differ from the print version. Take the UK’s Daily Mail; the print version is highly political with a conservative slant yet the Mail Online focuses on celebrity news and features aimed at women.

There are also news websites that only exist online; examples include Buzzfeed and Mashable. While these are generally trustworthy, they tend to focus on entertainment news and topics more typically found in a tabloid newspaper.

One area to watch out for is ‘sponsored articles’. These are usually found in online newspapers under the banner of “From around the internet” or similar. Media companies such as Outbrain and Taboola provide these articles via sponsored links that generate shared revenue for the two parties. The articles are usually sensational in nature, have multiple pages associated with a single story and are often highly personalised. For example, you will see:

“You won’t believe what these 1980s movie stars look like today. Number 16 is shocking!”

“People in [insert your town] are amazed by these inexpensive dental implants!”

Hopefully, you’ll see immediately that the first is a click-bait ad designed to get you to visit at least 16 pages and the second is simply a targeted ad.

The role of social media

An important aspect of online news is the ‘need for reach’. Online advertising revenue is directly linked to the number of times that an ad is presented on a web page. Media companies therefore need ‘page views’ and promote their content in social media to amplify their web content and increase ad revenue.

So, when you share news on social media, you are not only telling your friends what you like, you are also helping to drive up the profitability of news companies. Unfortunately, social media also ensures that fake news is easily and rapidly shared and amplified.

Social media also provides a powerful platform for ‘citizen journalism’. Anybody with an account and a large number of followers can make up stories and rapidly propagate them across the Internet. Many of these stories are useful records of events that happen away from the eyes of the mainstream media and emergency services. Many are parodies or hoaxes, but some are fake news, malicious and designed to confuse and distort the truth.

Fake News – Life Hacks – photo of man using tablet device

Top tips for spotting fake news

We’ve looked at where news comes from and how it is managed, so here are our top tips for spotting fake news:

1. Understand the difference between fact and opinion and spot this in what you read
2. Read beyond the headline. These are often short, emotive and low on context. Online headlines are ‘calls to action’ to entice you to click so may be at best incomplete and at worst misleading
3. Remember that politics can shine a different light on a story. And you’re likely to be biased towards believing news that matches your politics anyway
4. Check out alternative points of view and news sources to get a wider picture; you probably don’t have all of the facts and may be missing vital clues that expand your understanding
5. Apply a healthy dose of scepticism to what you read. If it sounds too bizarre or outrageous to be true then you’re probably justified to be sceptical
6. Look for verifiable sources of news such as newspapers of record and other trusted media outlets
7. Recognise the websites that propagate fake news – they usually have names such as ‘The Trusted News Network’ or ‘True News Gazette’. These are made up, but you’ll learn to spot them
8. Avoid sponsored articles from Outbrain or Taboola unless you have a thirst for the sensational
9. Remember that some news is parody rather than fake. There’s a thin line between them although parody is usually jocular rather than subversive
10. Think carefully about what you share in social media. Nobody likes to be exposed as a promoter of fake news

Fact-checking websites

These websites are widely used and cited although you should be aware that some of them have been accused of being politically-biased.

Full Fact – UK charity that provides data for fact checkers
Channel 4 FactCheck – from the UK’s Channel 4 News team
Politifact – US-based websites for checking political claims
Snopes – US-based fact checking website since 1994
FactCheck.org – US-based website

And finally

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References  Freddie Starr Hamster  Reuters Institute  Newspaper of Record

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