Stay safe online – ‘Fake News’ and how to spot it


Fake News. It’s everywhere. According to some people “all news is fake news”. Some world leaders agree and constantly use the phrase – usually to divert attention from their own failures. Some world leaders actively promote fake news.

But the truth is, we’re overwhelmed with information, especially during the Coronavirus crisis. It can be difficult to tell the useful information from that which is malicious, or just made up for a laugh.

In this article, Dave shows you how to spot ‘fake news’ and help you to stop spreading it.

What is ‘Fake News’?

Fake news takes many forms – propaganda, misinformation, deception to name some of the more insidious forms; gossip, tittle-tattle and rumour describes some of the less harmful ones. But this academic paper (Bronstein et al., 2019) describes fake news as:

“fabricated news stories that are presented as being from legitimate sources and promoted on social media to deceive the public for ideological or financial gain”

There has been a spike in ‘fake news’ related to coronavirus, and one might wonder what the point of this is. A fake report of a cure isn’t going to make any money, and it’s not going to make us vote for anyone, so why do it? This question gets to the bottom of the reason for the majority of fake news currently. One word: Clickbait. The rise of social media has created a whole new stream of revenue for unscrupulous word-peddlers. Your eyeballs are the product. Every time you click on a link, the owner of the website that it leads to gets money from advertisers. Take a look at the website of any tabloid ‘newspaper’ and you will see pictures with headlines like “You won’t believe how [insert name of has-been celebrity] looks now!” or “Supermodels use these simple tricks to look stunning in the morning”.

This is a form of social engineering – which I wrote about previously – and it plays on our natural curiosity, vanity, ghoulishness etc. to get us to visit the site and ‘sell’ our eyes to the advertisers. The problem is, we don’t see the money. The website owners might only get a fraction of a penny each time we click, but if you get a million clicks at 0.01p per click, that’s still ten grand!

As well as clickbait, you will also see these other things masquerading as news:

Propaganda – Stories that are created to deliberately mislead audiences, promote a biased point of view or particular political cause or agenda.

Satire/Parody – Lots of websites and social media accounts publish fake news stories for entertainment and parody. For example; The Onion, The Rochdale Herald, The Daily Mash, etc. Mostly, these are just having a laugh, but some people take them seriously.

Sloppy Journalism – Sometimes reporters or journalists may publish a story with unreliable information or without checking all of the facts which can mislead audiences.

Misleading Headings – Stories that are not completely false can be distorted using misleading or sensationalist headlines. These types of news can spread quickly on social media sites where only headlines and small snippets of the full article are displayed on audience newsfeeds. This seems to be the standard journalistic model these days!

Biased/Slanted News – Many people are drawn to news or stories that confirm their own beliefs or biases and fake news can prey on these biases. Social media news feeds tend to display news and articles that they think we will like based on our personalised searches. This is called the ‘filter bubble’.

Spreading fake news can be downright dangerous. One couple from Phoenix, Arizona, believed what they read about chloroquine curing Covid, with fatal results.

How do I spot Fake News?

The truth is, it can be very difficult to spot. I have 3 main rules:

  1. Stop and think. Before you share that link, take a breath, and consider the article. You might have an instant, visceral reaction to it, or it might shock you into wanting to take action, or it might make you seethe with rage. If it does, that’s a good time to think about why you’re seeing it. Does it meet any of the criteria above? If the answer’s yes, go to the next rule:
  2. Check your source. Where does the information come from? Is it a reputable source? Hint: your Dad might not be a reputable source, unless he’s an expert in the subject at hand! The most reliable sources are generally widely quoted by other reputable sources. For instance the BBC will refer you to the WHO (World Health Organisation) for information about COVID-19. Ask yourself who the ‘expert’ is who shared it, and what their credentials are. If it seems a bit suspect, move to the next rule:
  3. Research it. This isn’t hard. Open Google, and type “Is [insert headline] true?” Look for the reputable sources that say it is (NOT tabloid newspapers). Look at where the original information comes from. Does the website look legitimate? Or does it look like it’s been created by a 12 year old with colour blindness? Are there spelling and grammar mistakes? Do they cite any trusted sources? The easiest way is to go to Snopes, and check it there. And while you’re at it, give them a donation! ActionFraud is another good source for debunking fake reports of scams.

It’s not all bad (or fake) news. Some people are actively taking a stand against fake news. Cornell University are creating an online ‘Fake News workshop’. Facebook say they are ‘Working to Stop Misinformation and False News’. The jury’s probably still out on that one. The Credibility Coalition are taking an academic approach to understanding the problem.

Remember:

Just because you disagree with an opinion doesn’t mean it’s fake news!

That’s the Donald Trump school of thought. It’s not a good look…

Fact Checking Sites

Snopes: snopes.com/

PolitiFact: politifact.com

Fact Check: factcheck.org/

BBC Reality Check: bbc.com/news/reality-check

Channel 4 Fact Check: channel4.com/news/factcheck

Reverse image search from Google: google.com/reverse-image-search

References

Bronstein, M. V., Pennycook, G., Bear, A., Rand, D. G. and Cannon, T. D. (2019) ‘Belief in Fake News is Associated with Delusionality, Dogmatism, Religious Fundamentalism, and Reduced Analytic Thinking’, Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, vol. 8, no. 1, pp. 108–117 [Online]. DOI: 10.1016/j.jarmac.2018.09.005.

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