Fake News is not a new problem but with the internet its effects are magnified. Fake News as a concept has many different meanings but it boils down to a form of media that is relaying inaccurate information, either accidently or maliciously. False information can instantly spread on the internet, the best, and sometimes only, method of prevention is education. It is up to us to filter through the nonsense to find credible and honest sources of information. These are a few ways to determine if what you are reading is “Fake News.”
When a news article crosses your path there are two important aspects to consider: the source and the content. The source of an article is crucial to determining its credibility. When reading an article, check out the rest of the website it is featured on. Do other articles they publish seem ludicrous or are clearly bogus? Do they have an extreme bias? Do they have many “clickbait” style articles? Do they list authors? Are the authors credible? These are some of the questions you should immediately ask when arriving to a news site.
Your goal is to narrow down whether a site has any authority to speak on the topics it is writing about. If you find an article and notice that other articles on the website are clearly irrational, illogical, or making absurd claims, these are signs that the content creators either do not know what they are talking about, or they do not care. If a website has a clear trend of posting nonsense this is an obvious sign that they have low credibility.
A website with numerous articles talking about how Obama is about to usher in the New World Order and how he will force people into FEMA camps is most likely not the place you want to get information about politics, science, or really any information from. If they have been consistently wrong in the past, did not use any references when they made bold proclamations, and are very distant from reality, these are all huge indicators that they are not credible and that their articles are not worth reading. It may be challenging at first to quickly judge a new website, especially if you are less familiar with the topics and content. Over time this skill will improve as you practice judging credibility and the red flags to look for will become more instinctual.
Judging the authors is essential to determining the credibility of a website. If the author is not listed, or has minimal credentials and experience, this means that the information is less credible. Conversely, if the article is authored by an established journalist, researcher, or writer, with an education and a portfolio of content that has proven to be legitimate, this greatly boosts the credibility of the source.
Here are two made-up articles:
Article 1 is titled “Irma Becomes Strongest Ever Hurricane in the Atlantic”. It is written by a woman named Jane Smith who is a hurricane specialist. She attended the University of California and has a PHD specializing in atmospheric science and meteorology. She has a proven record of writing lengthy well-argued articles and her work features extensive links to credible sources such as NASA, other climate scientists, and academic journals. Her article is featured on the National Geographic website.
Article 2 is titled “Hurricane Irma caused by HAARP”. It is written by a blogger named Dave1000. He has no credentials and has scarcely written about climate and weather before. His other work includes an article that argues Obama is the Anti-christ, that the London 2012 Olympics will feature a mega false-flag terrorist attack, and that vaccines cause autism. His article is posted on a website that is plastered in bogus claims, many advertisements for “alternative” medicines, and “proof” that the cure for cancer is kept secret.
Article 1 is substantially more credible than Article 2. In article 1 we know that the person is properly educated, has experience in their field, has written credible pieces in the past that other experts have supported, and is posted on a website that is known for credible and reasonable content. Article 2 is the exact opposite and is not a credible source of information.
Just because a writer is new, or inexperienced, or writing on an unreliable website, that does not inherently mean that their information is false. It is plausible that Article 2 contains accurate information, but since the content, author, and site are all far less credible, this warrants you to become distrustful and more skeptical. A source that is less credible and less reliable must be analyzed more diligently and carefully in order to validate their information. That being said, if you want accurate information from sources that reliably provide it, your best bet is to avoid writers and websites with low credibility.
There is some confusion about which major news outlets are credible. Some people even identify institutions such as CNN or the Washington Post as fake news. None of the major news outlets are fake news. Even Fox News, which is more of an entertainment channel than a journalistic one, is not “fake”. Some agencies have agendas, and some agencies have more of a bias than others, but a bias or a general attitude is not the same as creating fake content or maliciously distorting the truth to mislead the public.
A “bias” is a slant that a news organization has in the way they report content. For example a news agency run by mostly liberals with mostly liberal hosts will undoubtedly feature more liberal stories with liberal understandings. It is nearly impossible to have a news agency with zero bias. Fox News has an extreme conservative bias and it makes much of their reporting distorted. Huffington Post has a strong liberal bias and this bleeds into how it interprets and reports about the world.
Articles or news reports that interpret world events, give their opinions, or try to create a narrative, often show signs of some bias. Articles or reports that simply articulate more straightforward facts and raw information tend to be less biased. This infographic below while not perfect gives a useful outline on which news sources are more biased than others.
Groups like MSNBC, or Fox News, feature both credible content, but also heavily biased material and are not the best sources of information. While biased, neither is “fake”. For a platform to be “fake” it must either accidentally, or maliciously, create content that is objectively not true, is filled with misleading information, and/or is not supported by any evidence, logic, or reality.
Fake news can come from many different places. Some fake news is created by governments to lie to their own people, this is especially true in totalitarian systems such as in North Korea. Some fakes news is made because the creators are either delusional, or are greatly misinformed about topics, this is the case in many conspiracy websites such as Infowars. Other fake news is created to act as clickbait in order to gain ad revenue from visitors viewing a website or article. Some governments even produce fake news to influence other countries and to shape narratives and ideologies. Russia and Russian sources operate a giant fake news industry that typically targets former Soviet countries but more recently used its apparatus to influence the US presidential elections. While many sources come to this conclusion, most recently Facebook came out and “acknowledged publicly that fake accounts linked to Russian sources bought $100,000 in political ads, accounting for over 3,000 ads.” Stopping fake news is impossible, but learning how to not be tricked or persuaded by it is easily achievable if we put in the effort.
One fantastic way to tell if a story is accurate is to compare it to multiple other credible sources. If you find an article stating that Trump did a particularly odious thing, quickly check other news sources and see if they are also reporting on it. If one website is saying that Trump did some egregious action, but multiple other reliable sources such as AP, BBC, or Reuters are not, this is a quick and early indication that the information is false.
The University of Toronto identified three of the best and easy to use fact-checking websites to further help cut to the truth. FactCheck, Politifact, and Snopes are all fantastic resources to fact-check many topics and current events. Keeping these in your arsenal will make you extra vigilant not only in catching fake news, but also in cutting through biases and media distortions.
Fake news can only be stopped by learning to identify and dismiss it. Fake news is powerful when readers blindly accept the information and forward the content into their social networks. When friends and family notice a shared article this leads them to believe it is more credible and worth their time. It is your responsibility to not spread false information. There is no automatic process to do this, it requires a conscious effort to determine the credibility of the source, the author, and the content. If you are too lazy to do this then sharing articles online is irresponsible and harmful. If you care about what you are reading about and want to make an impact in politics, or with social issues, or any other topic that interests you, then it is up to you to curate and analyze the articles you are reading and sharing. Fake news is a challenging problem but through educating ourselves and by taking responsibility we can overcome this hurdle of dishonesty and delusion. The solution is in our hands.
Written by Daniel Govedar (Sept 2017)