A great editor once told me, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”
Journalists are trained to apply that level of skepticism to every piece of information they encounter. Many readers aren't. But as the term “fake news” becomes more omnipresent, it’s on journalists and readers alike to stem the tide of misinformation online.
So how can you tell what’s credible from what’s not? Here are a few things to keep in mind as you head into a new year — may it be fake news free.
Check the source
You probably don’t expect to run into falsehoods on the trusted websites you frequently visit. But what about when you see something on Facebook? The first thing you should do is check the source.
An example: You may have seen this article about President Donald J. Trump allegedly "firing" a federal judge on your Facebook feed. It was shared on Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller’s Facebook page recently. He later corrected the post and acknowledged the news was fake.
The first clear giveaway that something is wrong is the URL seen beneath the story summary in the Facebook newsfeed: trumpsolidsupporters.me. Any domain including a politician's name is likely not a credible news source, but more likely from a partisan website.
If the URL appears to be that of a news source, you should still visit the site before sharing to confirm. This same story was posted on usadailynews24.com, a website that frequently publishes inaccurate stories under a credible-sounding name. So, what happens when you go to that website?
You're greeted with a swarm of clickbait-y and ridiculous headlines. Note that Hillary Clinton does not have a hit list. If you click any of these links, they take you to a completely different website and many turn out to be blatant ads — not real news. You should also check the “about” page of unfamiliar news sites. If you can’t find it, that’s a bad sign. If it exists but is vague or shallow with information, that’s also a bad sign.
There's another lesson here: Headlines from both traditional and nontraditional news media sites don't sound like this. If it sounds too ridiculous to be true, it probably is.
Double check “official” account names
The above example was easy to debunk. What happens when something fake comes from what you know to be a credible source? Journalists are human. While we build in safeguards to keep us from making mistakes, we're going to mess up occasionally. Here's an example from Quorum Report, a widely read and trusted newsletter about politics at the Texas Capitol.
Quorum Report recirculated a tweet from an account that appeared — at least at a glance — to be run by State Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano. In the tweet, Leach says he is mulling a run for the speakership. But this isn't actually Leach's Twitter account.
Note that the legislator’s name is spelled Leach, not spelled Leech. The Twitter handle “@jeffisaleech” is another clue that this might not be a politician’s account. Additionally, this account had only sent four tweets at the time. You can find the real Leach at @leachfortexas, where the Republican from Plano is one of the more prolific tweeters in the state House with more than 4,000 tweets — not four.
In that instance, avoiding getting fooled by false information was as easy as checking the spelling of the sourcing. But it's not always that easy.
In 2016, several mainstream news sites easily fell for a scam when a Twitter user claimed CNN aired 30 minutes of porn in the Boston area. The user had posted a video to back up the allegation, but beyond that there was no sourcing. The New York Post, Mashable and even the San Antonio Express News ran news stories about the tweet, giving credence to the alleged incident. They had nothing else to back up the report.
But the video was doctored, something that is becoming increasingly easy to do.
So what's the lesson here? Look out for stories that are based on a single, unverified source. Rely instead on reports with multiple sources or verification. That kind of journalism takes more time — but it is more often right.
Be wary when news breaks
Breaking news situations are breeding grounds for some of the most widely spread fake news stories. Every time a major hurricane hits a city, an image of a shark swimming down a highway circulates the web. It's never true. These are the times when you should heighten your skepticism.
So what do you do when news is breaking? Find credible journalists you like and trust and watch them for updates — initial reports, even from the best sources, are often incomplete and sometimes wrong. The best journalists correct their work as soon as they know something is off base. If you see something fishy from an unfamiliar source, check it. Find it someplace else that is either credible or official before believing it. You can do that pretty simply with a Google search. Putting words in quotes in a search engine query will display web pages that only include those words. So, what if I did that with our first example of the Muslim federal judge?
The very first thing that pops up is a fact check of the article from snopes.com, a website that devotes itself to fact checking falsehoods. It tells me right away the story is false.
Check out these additional resources below:
- Verification Handbook: A free PDF that shows readers how to verify information online.
- FactCheck.org: A online website dedicated to fact checking what major political players say both on TV and in print.
- NewsCheck: A chrome extension that walks users through a verification process and then allows other users to see how content was verified.
- Snopes: Snopes calls itself the oldest and largest fact checking website on the internet.