A few months ago, no one had ever heard the term fake news, but after BuzzFeed News exposed a string of websites dedicated to producing untrue stories related to the U.S. presidential election – mostly aimed at hurting Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning – that term has popped up everywhere. So too have many false stories purporting to be real.
We’re now getting our information from our friends, who may not be able to discern what’s real and what’s not. And if we get duped into believing a fake news story, we may end up disseminating this false information ourselves.
While this may seem like a trivial issue, it’s not. With hundreds of millions of articles getting shared on social media sites every year, we’re now getting our information from our friends, who may not be able to discern what’s real and what’s not. And if we get duped into believing a fake news story, we may end up disseminating this false information ourselves.
So how can you tell what’s real and what’s not? First of all, it’s important to know what fake news is. It could consist of made-up stories that are published on sites created purely to make money, such as these sites created by teenagers in the Balkans, or sites made to seem like neutral news organizations, but which have a state-sponsored agenda.
Fake news could come from a hyperpartisan site, either left- or right-wing, that is designed to evoke outrage, scaremonger and make money, but has little to no factual basis, or twists the truth. It could also be a meme made with good intentions that transmits factual errors, or a meme meant to intentionally mislead you for political reasons.
Most established media organizations, like The New York Times, CNN or The Globe and Mail, are reliable and do not intentionally spread misinformation – though they are not fault- or bias-free, nor are they immune to being fooled.
We want to be careful about our news consumption, but we all make mistakes. Here’s how you can spot fakes and be a critical reader.
Looks don’t matter
You can’t always tell from looks alone that a site peddles fake news, explains Iana Georgieva, a librarian with the Toronto Public Library who has been trained to evaluate information sources.
Many sites look as professional as established news outlets. “Even very partisan organizations and propaganda groups can develop very sophisticated websites,” she says.
That means that if it’s a site you haven’t seen before, you’ll have to investigate. Do a Google search on the author of the piece to see where they’ve been previously published. See who or what is behind the site – is it a real organization? Georgieva says to ask yourself questions like “What’s the context? Is it just somebody’s opinion? Is this well-researched, investigative journalism with sources and diversity of opinion?”
Vancouver-based author and media fluency expert Lee Watanabe Crockett agrees. He says to look at how the story is written. “There’s a strong difference between opinion and fact,” he says. “And I always encourage readers to look very, very clearly at the language that’s being used. It’s one thing to have an opinion and state it as an opinion. It’s another thing to state it as a fact.”
Burst your bubble
One thing to watch out for is whether something fits too neatly into your world view, or provokes outrage for outrage’s sake. Information that creates an emotional response shouldn’t be written off, but if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. To counter this, Georgieva recommends reading widely and talking to a variety of people to get diverse viewpoints – this will help you suss out fake “facts.”
It’s also important to ask yourself what you know to be true, explains Crockett, who also teaches media literacy. He asks his students to think about things they have read and then think about how they know that true is true. Pausing to think critically will give you distance from the news so you don’t automatically accept it as fact, react and share it on social media.
Facebook to the rescue?
There’s a glimmer of hope in that Facebook, which has been criticized for enabling the spreading of fake news, has taken steps to help users spot and stop misinformation. The social media company recently rolled out a feature for some users that allows them to mark a story as fake. The story may then be fact-checked by a third-party organization that has committed to following the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles. If they find the article fits in the “fake news” category, it’s labelled with a “disputed” tag when it’s shared.
Still, as much fun as sharing stories may be, everyone needs to think carefully about how critical we’re being when we evaluate a story’s veracity. ”The crisis with news literacy that we’ve been experiencing lately is profound, but it’s also catalyzing because it’s a wake-up call,” says Georgieva. “We really have to go back to the basics.”