The fake news phenomenon has grown into a force to be reckoned with in the past decade. During the US presidential election of 2016, a combined 3.8 million individuals engaged with the top five fake news stories published on Facebook on the race. Since then, the winner of that election, President Donald Trump, has popularised the phrase and widened its reach considerably. For news enthusiasts looking for objective, factual news, fake news is a nuisance, and sometimes the effort put into producing these stories makes them difficult to spot. In this simple guide, we’re going to give you a rundown of the best tools for identifying fake news stories and separating them from the real ones.
What’s the difference between fake news stories and opinion pieces?
Before we take a look at the checkpoints for evaluating whether a news piece is real or not, it’s important to make a small note of how fake news and opinion pieces differ. Both tend to make use of subjective approaches to news, as well as emotional language and one-sided presentation of facts. The main difference lies in the intention behind the two.
Generally speaking, fake news stories are either trying to
- spread misinformation deliberately, or
- increase readership (by any means necessary)
They are often politically motivated when they are attempting to spread misinformation deliberately, and financially motivated when they are attempting to increase readership. In other words: The person writing a fake news story is trying to trick its readers into acting on the information in a way that benefits the writer or the subject the writer is focusing on.
On the other side, an opinion piece is the writer’s subjective thoughts on something that matters to them. The underlying intention is not to misinform the reader, but to share a perspective. That’s why fake news stories are generally labelled as news, whereas opinion pieces are labelled as that: opinions.
When you come across a news story you suspect is unreliable, these are the four checkpoints you should run it through.
Checkpoint 1: How many sources can you find on the topic?
It’s difficult to fake news coming from more than one source. The very first thing you should do if you begin to question how trustworthy a news article is, is to check if any other publications have written about a topic. If a news story is real, you’ll almost always find more than one newspaper or news outlet covering it. A good rule of thumb is that the more sources you can find, the more likely a piece is to be authentic.
The second part of this stage is checking for consistency across the different sources you find. Are the publications based on the same fundamental facts? The tone of voice and focus will vary from outlet to outlet. Still, all serious newspapers will ground their reporting in events as they’ve actually occurred. A typical fake news stories telltale is using sensationalist statements as facts – that you can’t verify anywhere else.
Checkpoint 2: What does the language sound like?
We already mentioned language briefly, but this is the second checkpoint for articles you feel unsure about. There are two aspects to this: how emotional the language is, and how correct it is. Typically, fake news authors are trying to stir their readers. They want an emotional reaction. In fact, they want such an emotional reaction that the reader doesn’t bother to check the facts. That’s why you should look for how subjectively or objectively written the piece you’re checking is. The more subjective, the more cause for fake news suspicion.
When we talk about how correctly written an article is, we’re talking about the actual grammar. Generally speaking, serious publications have thorough and scrutinous editing and proofreading processes in place. It means that real news tends to sound like news. Fake news, on the other hand, can be riddled with spelling mistakes and poor syntax.
Checkpoint 3: Where was the piece published – and who wrote it?
Your best tool when you want to figure out if a piece of news can be trusted or not is source-checking – and we mean checking the actual source. The Internet is a minefield when it comes to reliable information. Then again, it’s also a brilliant asset when you want to identify fake news. Start by figuring out the actual source of the article. Where was it originally published? What kind of publication is this? Is it known for fake news, or questionable reporting?
Following up on this, doing a background check of the article’s author is also a good idea. Journalists and bloggers today can write for as many publications as they like. If you can figure out whether the person who wrote the piece is reliable or not, you’ll be more likely to discover whether it’s fake news. Big fake news writers are generally known in the media sphere, and by doing some research you can pinpoint which voices to tune out.
Checkpoint 4: What does the headline say?
A headline says more than a thousand words – or, at least, gives you a pretty good idea of what the rest of the article will sound like. The rule of thumb where headlines and fake news are concerned is that the more tangible information the headline contains, the less likely it is to be fake news. This comes back to what we mentioned earlier. Increased readership at any cost necessary can sometimes be a motivation for fake news production.
The common term for this strategy is clickbait; headlines that are designed to entice and interest the onlooker, and get them to click onto another website. Once there, you may not even land on a news story at all. And if you do, you should always be careful to trust the information in it. Here are a couple of examples of clickbait headlines:
“She thought she would come home to a clean house. What she discovered will shock you”
“Donald Trump is using this trick to attract social media followers”
Neither of these headlines are news story-worthy. They are poorly phrased, say very little about the actual article content, and are specifically designed to make you click – rather than give you a brief idea of the article focus.
Why is it important to avoid fake news stories?
Once you’ve run a suspected article through these four checkpoints, you’ll generally have a clear idea of its reliability. And for a savvy news enthusiast, fake news aren’t necessarily dangerous, so much as they are annoying. The reason it’s important to avoid fake news stories is their intended audience: people who aren’t going to check facts, or who don’t possess the tools to do so.
Fake news stop being harmless when they’re treated as truthful news. If fabricated pieces of information in turn become the basis for action, a silly article suddenly turns into a societal problem. This is why it’s important to work for objective, well-researched, and well-written news for everyone, everywhere. News should give us a good understand of the world around us, without us having to worry about whether the facts are right or not.
Learn more about the Ansofy news revolution here.