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What is "Fake News"?

Fake News is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. Fake News is related to propaganda whose purpose is to spread information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

 

Fake news is not a new phenomenon. But what makes it important now? It is primarily because fake news is easy to create, spreads rapidly and is easily consumed in our 24/7 news cycle. And it isn't as obvious what is fake news anymore, not like the examples below.

 

Why do people fall for fake news?

Why do people fall for fake news?

Fake News is easy to fall for, for a number of reasons:

  • a growing decline in trust of the media and government
  • people can now create content unburdened by the layers of editing and fact-checking that news organisations adhere to
  • content is aggregated into a single “news” feed – mixing updates from friends and family with identical-looking links to stories across the web
  • lower attention spans
  • fake news stories appeal to our emotions
  • proliferation of internet bots 
     

Bias

We all have biases.  However, it is up to us to recognize those biases and keep them in check.

Implicit bias: implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. Implicit bias is grounded in a basic human tendency to divide the social world into groups. We are inclined to trust people we consider a member of our own group more than those of a different group.  Social media (facebook, twitter and the like) tend cultivate an information bubble - friends and family that share the same values and points of view.

 

Confirmation bias: is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. We don’t perceive circumstances objectively. We pick out those bits of data that make us feel good because they confirm our preconceived notion of how things are supposed to be.

 

 

Sources: 

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K., & Cook, J. (2017). Beyond misinformation: Understanding and coping with the “post-truth” era. Journal of applied research in memory and cognition, doi:10.1016/j.jarmac.2017.07.008

Tarran, B. (2017). Why facts are not enough in the fight against fake news. Significance, 14(5), 6-7. doi:10.1111/j.1740-9713.2017.01066.x

Characteristics of Fake News & Media Bias

Characteristics of Fake News

In the most general form, fake news has three characteristics: 

  • factually inaccurate
  • optimized for sharing
  • meant to obscure or distort with emotions; preying on prejudice or bias

A news story is not fake simply because it is impolite or inconvenient.  A news story that challenges your beliefs or values isn't fake news.   A news story that is rejected by those in power does not make that story a fake news story either.  Case in point, Richard Nixon denied his involvement in Watergate at first too. 

What is not fake news?

Types of Fake News:

  • Clickbait: a story, often sensational or featuring a sensational headline, geared toward getting “clicks” (to generate ad revenue)

     
  • Sponsored content: a story that is made to appear as independent journalism when in fact it is public relations or advertising

     
  • Fabricated journalism: news stories that are completely made up (including fabricated quotes and sources, etc.)

 

Media Bias

No media outlet, even an established one, is completely bias free. All media selects which story is newsworthy.  It is important to recognize that our news outlets will have a readership and stories are written for a particular reader. Bias differs from fake news in that fake news is specifically untrue. Biased sources don't necessarily use lies, they just don't include the whole picture, only using the facts that support their viewpoint. By using only the facts that support their cause they are giving an incomplete and therefore inaccurate picture.

When determining bias look at:

  • Compare headlines and story content
  • Identify politically-charged labels, adjectives, and verbs
  • Question the agenda of sources
  • Consider whether the placement of ideas and sources affects the story’s impact
  • How might the story change if told from another perspective
  • Compare photographs and photo captions to the news stories connected with them
  • Which perspective does data from polls and statistics seem to support

Source:
Davis, J. (1990). Beyond the myth of objectivity. Media&Values, (50) Retrieved from http://www.medialit.org/reading-room/news-beyond-myth-objectivity

How to Spot Fake News

How to Spot Fake News

Review the web address or URL.  If you see an address that is unfamiliar, do a little digging. 

There are websites that spoof legitimate news sites - mimic the site's layout, logo and even have a web address that is similar enough to the legitimate website.  Be wary of fake news sites sometimes have domains that are very close to real news sites. 

 

Abcnews.go.com -- the real ABC news website

Abcnews.com.co -- the fake ABC news website

 

If words like “.wordpress” or “blogger” are in the domain that usually signifies it’s a personal blog rather than a news source.

In other social media platforms you may have to scrutinize the username as well.  In late 2016, there was an announcement from what appeared to be a BBC twitter account declaring that Queen Elizabeth II had died.  It was shared thousands of times before people started to notice that the username was a variation on the real BBC twitter username.  The real BBC twitter username is: @BBCNews and this account was tweeting from @BBCNewsUKI  A close enough match that it fooled thousands of people.

Look for an "About Us" page and read it. 

  • Is the website clear about who is running the site? 
  • Do they state that the website is satirical or full of fake news? 

Be wary of websites that don't tell you about the website. 

There are websites that have, at first glance, innocuous content.  For example, this Martin Luther King website which lists historical writings and "the truth" about King. But look closer.. at the bottom of the page there is a link that states that this website is hosted by Stormfront. 

When you click on the link, you are sent to a neo-Nazi website.

 

Does the website have a lot of ads? Flashing banners? Pop up ads?

A great deal of money is made by websites through advertising. When you visit a website with lots of ads, you have to ask yourself, what is the purpose of the website?  To transmit news?  Or to generate income through advertising?

Established news webpages will have some advertising.  It really comes down to the proportion of advertising versus news stories.

 

The example below is fake news for a number of reasons, but look at the prominence and the amount of advertising on this site.

Look for elements that you would expect from an established news source.  Such elements are:

  • Date stamp on the story. The date stamp lets you know when the story was first published. Fake news stories circulate for years.


     
  • An author or byline. Look for your stories to be signed by the author. Then take that name and put it in a search engine. Is the author legitimate? Have they written other stories?

     
  • Sources. These are different sources than you would see in an academic article. Credible news stories will often link to other stories or previously published stories. Of course, breaking stories or newly reported stories will not have links to previously published news and that does not make them fake news stories.


     

Photos play a large part in evoking an emotion when reading a story. Photos can play into our implicit and confirmation biases.  It is easy to save photos off the internet and use them in non-related fake news stories.

 

Photos can also be photoshopped. We've all seen incredible photos online. When you see something fantastic or unbelieveable, consult your factchecking sites to see if the image has already been debunked.

You can use google image search to help determine the original source of the image.  This is especially useful when you see photos that are too good to be true or seem suspect. On the right you see the original photo of President Obama.  On the left, you see the photo has been switched and someone photoshopped a picture of a cigarette in his mouth.  The doctored photo was shared widely in an attempt to paint President Obama as a liar who had publicly stated that he quit smoking. 

To create a website, not on a blogging platform such as blogger, you have to register your website.  You can run the URL of a webpage through who.is or whois.icann.org to see when and who set up the website.

If a website was just recently established, that can be a red flag.

If the website is registered in another country, but posts predominately on stories outside of that country, that can be a red flag.

If the website is registered to an individual, but the website seems to be representing a corporation, that can be a red flag.

People or bots who make fake news create headlines that spark a strong emotional response. Headlines in all CAPS or headlines that are sensational are likely to get shared more frequently. Most fake news stories are shared based on the headline alone and the stories aren't necessarily read. Go past the headline and critically read the story.

For example, this fake news story has an incredibly sensational headline. However, when you read the story you discover that the authors make claims without any supportive documentation, use sensational language throughout the story, don't share their methodology for data collection, editorialize and make suggestive comments within the story.  And the same story, word for word, is shared among many other fake news sites.

Before sharing that scintillating quote, copy and paste it into a search engine to verify if it is real or not.

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Fact Checking

Fact Checking

There are non-partisan fact checking organizations that verify information.  These are great places to see if that story or image is real or not.  

Most fact checking organizations focus on political issues.  Snopes is a great place for verifying other types of fake news content. 

How to beat fake news

How to beat fake news

Be savvy information consumers. Stop sharing content that you don't know is true.

  • Break out of your information bubble
    Seek out news from a variety of sources. Traditional news sources are not neutral. All news agencies report or publish stories based on what they consider to be newsworthy. Make it a habit to look at established news sources from all sides of the political spectrum. In addition to this, don't limit how news is delivered to you.  Don't rely on your Facebook or other social media venues to give you your news. 

    While there is no one definitive list of where news sources lie on the political spectrum, Allsides' bias rating does make an attempt to categorize news outlets (primarily US focused).  Pew Research Centre also publishes a list of trusted news agencies by ideological groups. 
     
  • Use different search engines
    Try using different search engines. Search engines are not neutral. Search engines keep track of your search habits and try to customize your search hits based on your past searching habits and where you live.


    Some alternatives to google are:
    Bing
    DuckDuckGo
    WolframAlpha
    IxQuick
    Dogpile
     
  • Know that fake news and biases exist
    Be critical of your own personal, moral and political biases when reading information or news.  Don't get suckered into immediately agreeing with information that matches your personal belief set.
     
  • Develop a healthy dose of skepticism
    When reading anything, even from traditional news sources, be skeptical. Look for information, photos, language that is meant to sway you to a particular point of view.  Even when reading something from a traditional news source or something that your favourite aunt, nephew or child shares with you.
     
  • Dig deeper
    Try to verify what you are reading from other sources. Look for those elements that indicate that what you are reading may be fake.
     
  • Question language, social conventions, and taboos being used to define issues and problems
    How does your news outlet refer to or describe conflict/issues? Inflammatory words, polarizing positioning, stereotypes or imagery.
     
  • Give breaking news stories time to develop
    The full story takes time to report accurately. Breaking news stories will often get the facts wrong. Give time for a story to be discovered. Hold off on your opinions and judgment on a story until more information is known to reporters.

Sources:
Anderson, J., & Rainie, L. (2017). The future of the internet and misinformation online. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/14/2017/10/19095643/PI_2017.10.19_Future-of-Truth-and-Misinformation_FINAL.pdf

On The Media. (2013). The breaking news consumer's handbook. Retrieved from https://www.wnyc.org/story/breaking-news-consumers-handbook-pdf/

Karlsson, E. (2017). How to defeat technological filter bubbles that skew your world. Retrieved from https://debunkingdenialism.com/2017/01/11/how-to-defeat-technological-filter-bubbles-that-skew-your-world/

Paul, R., & Elder, L. (2004). The thinker’s guide for conscientious citizens on how to detect media bias & propaganda. Retrieved from: http://kurtlancaster.com/socfilm/week11/MediaBias2006-DC.pdf

 

Fake News Quiz

Other resources

Other resources