Spotting Fake News

We have all seen the problem recently about fake news. News that has little or no bearing on reality, that really gets the blood boiling, and helps create a belief that the world is a particular way. I know people that are *sure* that the earth is flat, there was never a moon landing and Kennedy is still alive.

There are also people who believe that any day now the truth about the politician sex trafficking ring will be revealed. And if it isn’t then it is proof that there is a conspiracy to cover it up. Do you see the trap? “I believe X, and if X is not reported in the media, it is proof that X is real.”

So, how do you tell the difference between real news and fake news……..it is getting harder every day really. The very first thing to realize is that you have value. Yes, you. You are a commodity. People compete for your time and views. They do this because while you are viewing what they have written, you are also being bombarded with advertising. On Facebook, online news, newspapers, TV, magazines, everywhere…….you, your eyeballs and what they see is of value to an advertiser. Some spend millions building complex algorithms to target what might be of interest to you. Don’t believe me? Search for something you never will need on Amazon, and have never looked for before…..click on a few varieties of it…..’shop’ for that left handed flange wrench. In a couple of days, Facebook will start showing you ads for it, because you are more likely to want to purchase one, and you are now looking at targeted advertising. You, yes you, are a commodity, just by looking at advertising. So, with that in mind, realize that there are sites that have the sole purpose of getting you to look at the site, so they can show you ads…….those advertisers pay the site owner for views and pay even more if you click on one of the ads.

Here is the thing……if someone makes a wild story, and you go to the page to look at it you put money in the pocket of the guy who published the story. Now, if my only motivation is to get money from the advertisers, rather than inform, I have every motivation to make up anything that will get you to click on my ‘news’ site. There are a few things we can all do to verify though, and separate ourselves from the duped. Here are a few tips:

1) Look at the headline. Does the headline get your blood boiling? Either in a ‘I told you so!’ or a ‘No WAY!’ kind of way? Truth is, news is usually kinda boring. If they want your outrage, rather than your reason in the headline, ask yourself “Why?” If the intent is to sell ‘clicks’ or ‘views’ rather than inform, there is a good chance the news is not accurate.
2) Ask if the facts of the story match the headline. The same facts support both headlines: “Mother abandons child on side of road and drives off!”, and “Mothers take children to bus stop on way to work.” But only one of them sells, and if the object is to sell rather than inform…….it is probably lower on the accuracy scale.
3) Look at the website itself, the advertisers will pay the publisher for you going there, but only a few cents……look at the site…….is it riddled with ads for “Male Enhancement”, “Bigger Boobs”, “Weight Loss Miracle”? Yes? Dropping lower on the accuracy scale. Even more generic ads are suspect. Actual news sources with well researched information are independently funded, and generally don’t need ads.
4) Let’s look at the story itself, you are already here, why not……does it cite sources that don’t exist? “According to the Arizona Times, charges are pending…..”……quick google search can tell you if the ‘Arizona Times’ is real…..if it is not, and they are citing sources that don’t exist this is a full stop on legitimacy, you are being had. No matter how much you want the article to be true, it is not……full stop. Doesn’t matter how juicy the gossip/story/news is……it is not true if the ‘sources’ are made up. Trickier ones are “Police Chief Smith….” You would have to do a little more research to find out the Police Chiefs name is actually ‘Abernathy’.
5) A close second to that is ‘undisclosed sources’ say…… Be very suspicious of those. A legitimate news source will have at least one person willing to go on the record and put their name on something. Other examples are “Many people say…..” “Some people indicate…..” “Unnamed sources….” All of those people could be Mrs. Smith’s 3rd grade class for all you know…..and should be given as much weight.
6) Here is one of the trickiest ones……are there facts in the article? Read it, look for actual, verifiable facts, and then, if you want to go the extra mile……look up those facts. Does the place exist? Did the local news report on the thing happening? I saw an article claiming that an intern was murdered because they were about to reveal damaging secrets about a candidate……but the local news had no such story. There was no intern by that name. The police blotter for that area did not have a murder listed, much less the fire and additional injuries……yeah, fake news. Google can help you find actual facts. So can government sites that have tax records, property records, police blotters (the document listing all events), local news and so on. Local news is important because it is easier for someone locally to walk down and check, if they didn’t, chances are it did not happen.
7) Does the article inject motivation? If so, it drops several points on the credibility scale. They can’t know motivation……and when they use ‘motivation’ words they are tilting the reader to an opinion. “person did X *because* of Y” should be a dead giveaway. Harder to see is the push toward motivation between the lines. “Because”, “In order to”, “attempting to cause” are all ways to describe motivation. Using the example in #2 above the same facts represent two very different motivations, one is to spend time with her kids, the other is to get away from her kids. But the facts are identical. Good reporting does not provide motivation, it provides facts, and facts are verifiable.

There you have it, seven quick tips to tell truth from fiction. It is not absolute, but those few tips will get you 98% of the way there. Be informed, be educated, be in the know…..but learn fact from fiction. Basing opinion based on facts comes off way better than opinions based on fiction.