How to Spot Fake News on the Internet
Many moons ago, when we hummed along to the sound of dial up modems and logged onto Bebo (Google it), adults would tell kids, ‘don’t believe anything you read on the internet.’ Fast forward to now, when social media rules the news, and fake headlines like ‘Immigrants Force Government to Change National Anthem to Stormzy’ will be taken as gospel by groups who should really know better. Like adults.
So why the change? Well, no one buys newspapers anymore, people have the attention span of a concussed goldfish, and websites need clicks to make money. This means companies peddle sensational headlines, ‘alternative facts’, and, of course, Fake News (FN) in a bid to stand out on your timeline. At best, FN makes people ill-informed; at worst, it breeds hatred. Thing is, it’s actually pretty easy to spot if you know what to look for. Which we do, and we think you should too, so we’ve put together some steps to follow if you suspect you’ve been exposed to FN. This guide will give you the tools you need to separate the truth from half-truths and discredit the online stories that look too outrageous to be real.
The Fake News Basics
FN generally falls into two categories. ‘Obviously fake’ and ‘somewhat plausible’. The former could be something like ‘Refugee Catfishes Kate Middleton on Dating Site’; the latter could be ‘Refugee Cons Woman out of £10,000 on Dating Site’. While a few mugs might believe the first, the second one is more dangerous as it A) could happen, so B) might happen, thus C) makes people scared. We’re gonna focus on this category.
If one of your pals falls for a ‘somewhat plausible’ story, ask them this question…
What Website did They Read it On?
Mad World News. News Chicken. Newsiosity. Although that last one isn’t even a word, all three names belong to real websites you probably haven’t heard of that love very shouty headlines (recent example: BOMBSHELL EVIDENCE! Obama’s Muslim SPY RING Funded By IRANIAN Double Agent). They’re an amusing read and certainly encourage their fans to furiously mash ‘OBAMA!!1! = SAtqN’ or whatever into their comment sections, but news websites, much like people, are best avoided if you’ve never heard of them and they shout a lot.
If you’re thinking ‘every website has to start somewhere – just cuz they’re small doesn’t mean they’re liars’, then it’s time to ponder another subject…
Is it ‘Proper’ Journalism?
Mad World News and several other sites with exotic names (Shoebat(?), America Now) recently ran a grim story about a Christian girl in West Africa who was kidnapped and ‘mutilated’ by Muslim radicals. When a story like this is shared on facebook, people totally lose the plot.
The harrowing tale fits a narrative that scares them, but one they want to hear nonetheless; it proves they were right; as in, right to be fearful of other cultures and people and faiths. This in turn deepens divisions in society and generally causes a bad time for all.
But if they’d stopped for a minute and wondered ‘hey!? This story from ‘West Africa’ that doesn’t mention any towns or surnames in the article seems a bit flimsy’, then clicked their mouse a few times, they’d have saved themselves a lot of rage shares.
If a journalist doesn’t name sources, list locations, or give a very good reason for keeping identities private, then there’s a firm chance they’ve just made it up, or at the very least used ‘alternative facts’ to drive clicks. The source of the above story appears to be a website called Gospel Herald. Even though they’re breaking a harrowing tale of kidnap and religious unrest, they don’t even name the country in which it took place. It’s not journalism, so it’s probably not true, and everyone should just calm down TBH.
But Even if You Can’t Prove it, You Can’t Disprove it. Right?
Right. But also wrong. In the age of Fake News, it’s better to prove things beyond doubt before drop kicking them across the internet. Take, for example, this recent story about an SAS sniper killing three ISIS terrorists in northern Iraq with a single shot. The Ministry of Defence does not comment on SAS operations, so the anecdote was delivered by an anonymous ‘source’. Who knows? Maybe it’s true – why wouldn’t a member of Britain’s military elite want to reassure the folks back home that they’re doing a good job?
Probably because if you’re in the SAS and doing a good job, you don’t have the time nor energy to ring up British tabloids to tell them about your day at the office.
Speaking of West Africa and Northern Iraq, Let’s Consider Where the News Came From
You know at school when a kid claims they’ve got a new GF and you ask who they are and the kid says, “you don’t know her she goes to school in another town”, you can be sure that kid is single. Fake News is a bit like this. So when a website says ‘CIA Spies Invented Ebola to Wipe Out Texas’ and you think ‘How? Where?’ and the website says ‘secretly, in Russia’ it’s probably not true.
One Last Thing
Along with sketchy websites, strange sources and lack of proof, there’s one more important thing to look out for on your way to debunking online rubbish: if something seems a bit much, it probably is. Despite the headlines, the world isn’t nearly as wild as the news can make it seem.
From the smartphone in your palm, you can access every bit of information you’ve ever wanted to know; friends in different timezones can be messaged instantly, and memes can be shared across the world in seconds. In an era of endless choice, it’s going to take a lot to grab your attention. And the slow tick of regular life isn’t going to cut it.
So we get SHOCKING headlines YOU WON’T BELIEVE even if the story is about something normal that you will totally believe. Here’s a thing: The other day a Muslim Scout group started in Norwich. It was the first of its kind in the area. On various far-right websites, headlines featured words like ‘ISLAMISATION!’ and the websites’ followers reacted with panic in the comments section.
Now the Norwich Muslim scout troupe may be the first in East Anglia, but it’s certainly not the first in the country. In fact, there are 70 in the UK. This isn’t a sign of ‘ISLAMISATION!’, but a small increase in membership for the 12-year-old Muslim Scout Fellowship, where kids tie knots, sew badges on their jumpers, and perform all the other activities you associate with being a typical scout.
But you wouldn’t know that if you just saw the headline on your facebook feed. Remember: check the website, examine the source, and dig as deep as you can into a story before accepting it as truth.