Whether created as part of a smear campaign to discredit an individual or business; to spread conspiracy theories; or to sway elections, misinformation or ‘fake news’ is nothing new. In fact, it’s a tactic that’s been used for thousands of years by politicians and powerful figures alike – often created with deliberate intent to mislead or deceive, and usually with the result of damaging reputation.
The internet and social media, however have brought fake news to the masses, with misinformation now ‘professionalised’ and produced on an industrial scale. With anyone able to open a social media account anonymously, create their own website or blog, and broadcast an alternate version of events to the world, fake news is more accessible than ever.
According to a 2020 survey from the Oxford Internet Institute, social media manipulation of public opinion is a growing threat to democracies around the world. Advanced AI supported software can rapidly generate and disseminate believable content with clever click bait headlines, making it difficult to know what legitimate news is and what isn’t.
With many ‘news’ articles filled with false information and claims based on little to no evidence, it can feel an impossible task to decipher the truth – so we’ve outlined eight ways to help you spot misinformation and fake news.
1. Check the website
Check the URL – does it contain any spelling mistakes? Websites disseminating fake news often try to mimic the names of reputable news sites, so watch out for variations of spelling.
Next, check the domain, it should be a domain that you know and trust. Stay away from ones you may not have come across before like “.infonet”, or “.com.co”. Domains to trust include “.org”, “.com”, “.site”, “.net”.
The web host is the service that makes the website accessible online: this can usually be found at the very bottom of the page. Some web hosts are notorious for spreading fake news, so always Google the web host name to check.
2. Who is the author?
Research the author to check if they are real, credible, and if they are writing on their area of expertise. Check if they have written for other respectable news outlets and have a think about what their motivation is – why are they writing about this? If no author or byline is listed at all, this is a red flag.
3. Check the article’s sources
Does the article provide sources for their facts, statistics, and claims? If so, investigate the nature of these sources. Check if they are reliable sources, if they witnessed the event first-hand and what their motivation might be for providing this information.
4. Cross check with other media outlets
Are other news and media outlets reporting on the same story? Check reputable news sources to see if they are also reporting the story – professional global news agencies must abide by editorial guidelines and fact-checking policies, so if they are reporting the same information online, it’s a good sign.
At the same time, repetition of the exact text is a red flag – malicious actors use bots to post verbatim content on multiple sites.
5. Check the comments section
Even if the content is legitimate, the comments below may not be. Comments can be generated by bots to disseminate misleading information, or give a skewed impression of public opinion, so be equally wary of what you read in the comments section. Look out for poor spelling and exact repetition of phrases.
6. Zoom in on images
Media, like images and videos, can also be falsified or misused.
Use Google reverse image search to check the image was taken at the time the article says it was and depicts what the article says it does. Stock images or images from old events may be used to mislead the reader.
For videos, pay attention to the face, which is the hardest to falsify. Check if the lip movements seem natural. If the age of the skin matches the age of the hair or if the person blinks too little or too often. AI generated videos or ‘deepfakes’ can be used to deceive.
7. Don’t just read the headline
Headlines are designed to be eye-catching and encourage further reading, so do just that. Look to see if the article offers substantive statistics and examples to back up the headline or if there is a balance of alternate opinions and viewpoints.
8. Beware of sensationalist language and presentation
News is meant to be informative, but fake news is designed with the intention to cause harm and provoke strong emotions like anger, hatred, or fear. Be wary of articles that go overboard on capital letters, exclamation marks, and sensationalist language. Likewise, watch out for grammatical and presentation mistakes. Reporting facts and forming logical arguments takes time and care – an abundance of errors suggests the publisher did not take the time to report accurately.
The next time you read bold claims in a breaking ‘news’ story from a non-mainstream publication, think twice before sharing this information on. Fake news can be spread quickly by people sharing it onto colleagues, friends, and family or by being used as sources for other online content. Whilst many readers will take an article at face value, it’s always worth doing a bit more digging to ensure you’re aware of the whole picture beforehand.