Almost half of adults shared fake news online by mistake, according to a 2019 research panel. Are you surprised? Consider that the same year, Facebook reported that the top 100 fake news stories generated over 150 million views!
Misinformation has affected our lives and infected our politics. Fake news has been so pervasive during recent elections that pundits still argue its impact on the results. Conspiracy theories and hearsay have tarnished our political debates. Opinions are confused for facts. Truth is dismissed as fake news by dissenters.
Fake news is also threatening our personal lives. Claims of miracle home remedies can cause injury and death. Scammers use clickbait to steal our personal information and demand ransom. Faux experts spew misguided financial advice, causing victims to lose their life savings. In today’s environment, being a savvy net citizen is essential.
So how did we get here? Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Internet is the way it democratized content. It’s how we share self-improvement tips on BeAnInspirer or my blog, KnowYourBest. It works great for posting beach selfies or cookie recipes, but it can be harmful in the hands of dishonest actors and conspiracy theorists.
Social media algorithms cause misinformation to spread like wildfire. On the far reaches of the web, there’s no journalism code of ethics or editorial standards. The goal is impressions and clicks for dollars and cents, by any means necessary. Lies and exaggerations are the fast lane to virality and virtual stardom, no matter the cost.
What can you do to protect yourself from the rampant disinformation?
The following is a four-step method to avoid getting fooled by fake news:
1. Question the Source
The first question you should ask is: Am I familiar with the website? It can be easier said than done. A lot of fake news sites masquerade as official ones. Check the link to see if it’s a small deviation from a normal site (.com, .co, .info, .net, .org, etc.).
Check the label for “Sponsored Content”, as that is often clickbait. See if there is an author listed. If not, that tells me that no one is willing to defend the work. Read the website’s Contact Us and About Us sections. If the content serves a political purpose, I will check who’s funding it.
Often, it’s a special interest or industry group, which tells me their motivations. Last, look at other stories on their site. Do they all have a strong slant or bias? Do the other stories sound more like conspiracy theories than real news?
2. Go Beyond the Headlines
It may seem obvious, but be sure to read the full article, not just the headline, before reposting. The devil is often in the details. It’s essential to look past your personal biases – we all have them – and weigh the facts. Many of us would love to hear about a political opponent’s major gaffe or scandal, but it doesn’t make it real.
As you read, see if the article uses alarmist rhetoric. Is it trying to elicit ‘shock’ value, like predicting doomsday or foretelling a magic cure? Anything that sounds ridiculous typically is. Finally, sans the shares and comments for the work of bots. Obvious clues are anonymous or generic-sounding names with eerily similar posts.
3. Inspect the Proof
Authors will often cite sources to appear more credible or scientific. Scrutinize these sources as you would their assertions. Check the authenticity of the sources, assess their credentials. When they cite a study, review the underlying research. Consider statistical significance (5% or less error rate), sample size, and study length. Determine if the results show causation or correlation. In other words, was the result determined by the variable?
Also, look out for images that are taken out of context. A recent example was a photo of maskless senators shown huddling together, intended to prove their hypocrisy. It turned out the picture was from before the COVID-19 pandemic.
One way to prevent this is to use Google Reverse Image Search. Last, beware of polls, disproportionate graphs, and misleading charts included without context.
4. Trust but Verify
After running all these steps, you may still be unsure if it’s fake news or not. Start by using search engines to see if any other national news outlet is reporting the story. It would be rare for only one outlet to pick it up if it’s a significant story. Even respected news sources sometimes get their facts wrong, especially with developing reports. Where possible, verify the information on a fact-checking website. Popular ones include factcheck.org, politifact.com, snopes.com, or allsides.com.
The Internet has made it easier than ever to access the world’s information. It’s given us a platform to express our diverse opinions. With that power comes a responsibility to ourselves and our peers. To be smart consumers of news, to refrain from bias, and hold misinformers accountable. Remember to question sources, go beyond the headlines, inspect the proof, and verify.
End Fake News for All
How do we combat fake news overall? One of the best ways is to support independent media and journalists. Promote newspapers that do real investigate work by paying for their subscriptions. Reimburse journalists for their work through sites like Patreon. Mix up your media diet with a balance of outlets, authors, and hosts. And avoid getting all your news from a social media feed – go directly to the source.
So, what did I miss? Please let me know in the comments below or send me a message. Thanks!