“Fake news” has been around since the invention of the printing press made the mass dissemination of information possible. With the internet, it's easier than ever to mislead people with fabrications. This simple guide is a starting point to understanding fake news and how you can protect yourself from it.
Why care about fake news?
Americans have the right to form and express their beliefs and opinions. But when you’re presented with misleading and untrue information, it is impossible to accurately and effectively come to reasonable conclusions and defend your positions.
For example, if you use untrue stories to express your viewpoint, it makes you less credible to others; fake medical information presents health risks for individuals and society; and conspiracy theories can cause people to do dangerous things, such as attacking innocent people or organizations.
Why do people create fake news?
There are a number of reasons. Perhaps a person or group wants to push a certain moral or political agenda, or a dishonest company wants to sell you something. It could even be as simple as greed: fake news websites count on their outrageous stories being shared widely, causing more traffic to their site, driving up revenue from their advertisers. Another reason is simply for humor, or as a commentary on society and politics; these satire sites are not meant to be malicious, but their content has occasionally been unintentionally spread as truth.
How do you determine what is fake news?
Often, it will take only a few minutes, or even seconds to determine if something is untrue or extremely biased. In fact, after a little practice, you may be able to tell instantly if an information source is worth a “click.” To get started, here are a few simple things that can tell you a lot about what you are reading.
Sources and Authors
First, be aware of known fake, biased, and parody websites. Some well-known ones include abcnews.com.co, NaturalNews.com, The Onion, and Occupy Democrats, but there are hundreds more. Look for things like odd domain names, read any “about” information, and look them up on Wikipedia or Snopes to find out more about the site you clicked on.
Are there sources cited in the story? Do an internet search to find out if an organization is legitimate, or see if a person is cited anywhere else, and make sure any links to further information are relevant and accurate. If a story from a reputable news source is being cited, make sure you check the date of the story. Sometimes a true story that happened a long time ago can be used out of context, leading to incorrect conclusions.
Find out the background of the author. Search for them on LinkedIn or Google them to make sure they are credible.
Bias and Emotion
Does what you’re reading incite intense emotions? Are you excited or happy about an easy trick to help you lose weight? Was there something reported about a politician that makes you very angry? Make sure your emotions aren’t being played with, and that you check your bias. (Beware of headlines written in all capital letters, or those that end with exclamation points; those are fairly reliable indicators of untrue or at least exaggerated information.) If it’s a true story or claim, it’s likely multiple sources would report on it. Read several sources on different sides of the issue so you can better formulate a context and opinion on the issue.
- Snopes.com - This site will validate or debunk news, rumors, and memes found on the internet. A great place to start for suspect information that spreads quickly through social media.
- FactCheck.org - This nonpartison and nonprofit site aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in US politics. They apply journalism and scholarship to monitor the factual accuracy of claims make by major political players.
- PolitiFact.com - Another fact-checking site for elected officials and other politicians, this one uses the trademarked Truth-O-Meter to rate accuracy, from “True” to “Pants on Fire.”
- Washington Post Fact Checker - Using their Pinocchio test to fact check political figures and candidates, this website and newspaper column to clarify issues and provide missing context.
- Gale Opposing Viewpoints in Context - Avoid emotional, inflammatory, and just plain false information altogether by exploring different sides of controversal issues through this research database. It includes comprehensive topic pages, with overviews, pro and con essays, court cases, magazine and newspaper articles, podcasts and more
Still need help?
Reference Librarians are experts at evaluating sources and information, and are happy to answer your questions! Visit us downstairs at our Tremont Road location, send us your question using the E-mail Reference contact form, or call us at (614) 486-3342.