No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, or your opinion about whether or not “fake news” influenced the results of the presidential election, the fact is that for the past several months, fake online news stories have become widespread (see here, here, here, and here to learn more). Many, but not all, of these fake news stories were related to the presidential election and were written to appeal to the political right-wing. However, it does occur on both sides of the political spectrum. Most of these fake news sites are created for revenue- so that the creators can make money through ads on the site, and the articles have “click bait” titles luring people to the page. Facebook has been criticized for enabling the spread of these fake news stories, because they are shared by users the same way real news stories are shared. Because of the Facebook news feed algorithm which only shows you what you like, these fake news stories might be all that some users see.
A study was recently conducted at Stanford University, which found that a majority of high school and college students cannot evaluate resources online and cannot judge the quality or trustworthiness of websites. The ability to evaluate information sources is part of information literacy, and encouraging information literacy is at the core of what any public or academic library does. In fact, the master’s degree that all librarians are required to have is called a Master of Library and Information Science degree. We can curate our print collections to make sure that none of our books have false information, but we cannot (nor should we want to) curate the internet. All we can do is offer guidance in evaluating online information sources.
Sometimes fake news stories are obvious because they are based on outright lies, but sometimes they are trickier to identify because they have a small grain of truth that was distorted or misinterpreted. One well-documented example of the obvious type was from the fake news site WTOE 5 News, which ran a story claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump. In reality the Pope never endorsed Donald Trump, and the WTOE 5 [fake] News site is not even online anymore. Another example, which was much more difficult to identify (I fell for it myself), was published last month in Outside magazine, claiming that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was dead due to bleaching from global warming and rising ocean temperatures. The article seems believable because the worldwide scientific community has agreed that global warming due to human activity is fact not fiction, but if you look at the article more carefully, you will notice that it does not present any scientific data about the bleaching and does not credit any sources or reference any biologists. CNN published an article a few days later, clarifying the story. The CNN article has quotes from actual scientists saying that although the reef is in grave danger, it is not yet dead, and that the magazine should not be sending the message that it is too late to save it. It also pointed out that the author of the Outside article is a food and environmental writer, not a scientist. In other words, the Outside article very effectively raised awareness about an important issue, but distorted the truth.
The following are some quick tips on identifying fake news stories and advertisements that masquerade as news stories:
- Fake news stories and advertisements are often placed on real news websites, and designed to visually blend in with the real stories. However, a reputable news site will always label the advertisements as Paid, Sponsored, or Promotional. Screen shots of two examples from the New York Times and CNN are below.
- If the story seems too good to be true, too crazy to be true, or evokes any strong emotions, it might be fake. The creators of these sites make more money the more widely the pages are shared on social media. Do a Google search to see if there are any other more widely known news sources covering the same story.
- Real news sites have editors. If there are any typos or misspellings, it is most likely a fake news site.
- The use of ALL CAPS except in a breaking news headline is unprofessional, and reputable news sites don’t do it.
- Look for an author attribution at the beginning or end of the article. If there is no author, the site probably requires verification.
- Does the author credit any sources? Does he or she say where the information came from, or give links to any other sources?
- Bad web design is also an indicator of a fake news website. Are there links that don’t go anywhere? Does the page look cluttered or disorganized? (However, just because a page does have good web design, does not automatically mean it’s reputable.)
- Check the “About Us” page, and read it carefully. If there is no “About Us” page, be suspicious and look for other sources covering the same story.
- There are many news sites that are in the gray area of providing real news, but with a political angle. For example, The Huffington Post, Slate Magazine, and Fox News all have stories that are based in fact but written from either a left or right political angle. These stories might require a second reading from a more neutral source in order to get more context.
- There are also satirical news sites like The Onion, which are written entirely for humor and are not based in fact at all, and do not intend for their readers to take it as fact.
- If you are suspicious of any story, there are many fact-checking websites: Snopes and FactCheck are popular and reliable ones.
- A few examples of mainstream, reputable, and trustworthy news sources are The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall), The Washington Post, NPR, and The Atlantic.
- For more tips, see this article from a Communications and Media professor.