There’s been much ado in media circles this past week about the prevalence of “fake” news on social networks and what, if any, effect that had on the outcome of the U.S. election. Stories from big players like InfoWars and The Blaze as well as cookie-cutter outlets like Occupy Democrats, WorldNetDaily, The Other 98% and US Uncut have taken off on social media, largely because they hit the right buttons with their target audiences.
The formula is simple, but brilliant. They start with an incredible headline intended to upset or delight a particular type of reader. That reader skims the story, is set off by particular triggers, then immediately shares it to their network of like-minded friends. The story spreads like a virus across the network, with little attention paid to whether or not the information is real or where it really originated. It’s classic social media strategy, greatly amplified.
Though some of the news on sites that have been called into question is undoubtedly made up whole cloth, there are many more stories that may have started with a sliver of truth, but these stories are so dubiously sourced and creatively written that they barely resemble the truth by the time they start their travels around the social web. And, sadly, a Buzzfeed investigation has found that such stories performed better on Facebook during the election cycle than stories from the leading news sources.
Many have been quick to point fingers at the social networks, Facebook in particular, for allowing fake news sites to thrive in their environments. But those who are most guilty here are the creators of these sites, their success aided by the lack of media literacy among social network users. In the past few days, Google and Facebook have announced plans to try to stop the spread of manufactured news. This is welcome, but the real work needs to be done by the users, and that includes all of us.
Since Storyful’s specialty lies in verifying and debunking content found on social media, we hope we can help.
Granted, we are most known for working with user-created content (what is often the raw material for news) and not news generated by “professional” outfits, but the same principles we use for verifying eyewitness content can be used by anyone who consumes news.
The first thing any reader, brand, researcher or journalist should do is maintain constant vigilance.
This means to approach every story or account you read online with skepticism. That’s what we do at Storyful, and it usually serves us well in identifying a fake.
How to Find Out if the News Is Real
Note where the key information comes from
Are direct quotes attributed to someone with good reason to be familiar with a certain situation, or to know what they claim to know, such as an expert or someone with provable experience in the field? Or is the piece quoting someone of dubious “expert” credentials, or with little apparent ties to the situation being discussed?
Follow the links
Does the story reference a business/government report or cite another story on another website? If the story is based entirely on a different story, click through and read that source (if there is no link, simply Google the purported source). Keep doing that in every subsequent story until you find the original report and original sources.
You may find that the shadiest sites will reference stories on similar sites that reference stories on similar sites until you’ve made it full circle without finding an original source. I call this “aggregation inception.” Or maybe, even worse, you’ll hit a total dead end looking for that original source. This should be a major red flag.
Who is the author?
If all of the notable information seems plucked from thin air or from the writer’s opinion, look into that writer. How do they know what they claim to know? Maybe he or she is an expert in that field, and that’s great. Or maybe they are a crackpot conspiracy theorist, or an ill-informed teen in his parents’ basement, or someone using a fake identity.
Look for a second source
What is standard good practice for the journalist should also now be for the reader. If nobody else is reporting the news, there’s a good chance it isn’t real. Sometimes this is because the site in question has a huge scoop and if that’s the case, great! You were among the first to know (though the window of exclusivity is very short nowadays). But there’s also a chance that this was made up, and that is why you aren’t finding it on any other known, legitimate site.
A few more tips on spotting fake news sites:
- Look closely at the URL. From the appearance of the shared item on social, it may look like it is from a known source like ABC News or CNN. When you click through, the site may even look like the familiar source, but look at the URL. It may have an additional domain after the “.com” – which indicates it is likely not a real site.
- Be wary of websites that have odd domain names and particularly non-standard domain extensions (i.e. not .com, .edu, .net, .gov, etc.). It’s much easier and cheaper for fact-factory sites to spin up a new site using domain names from other countries.
- Look on the site’s “About Us” page for any information you can find: Who runs the site? Who owns it? You might also find this information at the bottom of the site’s pages. All legitimate news sites will have this information.
- Check the name of the site in Wikipedia, Google and Snopes.com to see if they are known for fake stories.
- If you spot a lot of misspellings, use of all capital letters or generally odd use of language, be suspicious that the site may not be a legitimate news source.
- The same goes for web design. If the design is difficult to navigate, doesn’t open properly or seems to be on an amateurish site, proceed with caution. It may be a legitimate self-starting journalist or expert, or it may be a total fake.
- Take note of the author. If the post or story doesn’t have an author’s name – or any information about the author – they may not be a legitimate news source.
And this doesn’t just apply to sites with weird names or political pop-ups, but all forms of media. Most of the newspapers, TV news sites, magazines and online news brands out there do good work – but sometimes they don’t. Maintain constant vigilance.
Finally – one of the best ways to combat misinformation and the bias of your own filter bubbles in navigating the news is to simply ensure you are reading a range of sources, especially on the stories you find yourself saying are too good, too terrible, too amazing to be true (because they probably are). This sort of varied media diet is not only useful to identify any bias from one outlet or another, but, ideally, to give yourself a fuller picture. Different reporters are able to talk to different sources and you can get a more complete story by seeing a variety of perspectives.
In an age where news is easy to manufacture but difficult to get right, we all must demand better of our news sources and ourselves as the audience.
(This was originally published on Storyful’s blog)