The 2016 US presidential election brought some new issues to the forefront of American politics. But the topic that has endured even to today has been the prevalence– and menace– of “fake news”. In the internet age, where information is unlimited, it’s more important than ever to be able to distinguish between credible journalism and fake news. So how can you tell between fact and fiction?
But what is fake news?
Any article, video, or infographic that presents itself as credible but contains untrue information is “fake news.” Fake news is different from satirical websites like The Onion, because The Onion does not claim to be credible– their “About Us” section and editorialism is outlandish. In contrast, fake news sources present their information as true and valid while citing no supplementary or vetted sources.
So why is this a problem?
With the increase in social media usage fake news is thriving. Ever heard of “clickbait”? Clickbait is a flashy headline daring you to click.
One such incendiary headline, “FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide” was shared a lot on Facebook. This story was investigated but found to be totally baseless. This is a great example of fake news.
Unfortunately, humans are curious creatures. So, we click. And big advertisers depend on clicks so more and more online media use these tantalizing headlines.
Why do people believe these stories?
It’s psychological. Articles that incite emotion and divisiveness trend well. In 2018 social media platforms came under fire for not flagging the fake news on their sites. But algorithms can’t filter fake stories from real stories when the humans behind them don’t see eye-to-eye.
The Denver Guardian published the FBI story above. Here’s how the article started:
Walkerville, MD — An FBI agent believed to be responsible for the latest email leaks “pertinent to the investigation” into Hillary Clinton’s private email server while she was Secretary of State, was found dead in an apparent murder-suicide early Saturday morning, according to police.
The structure of the article lends itself to believe-ability. Starting with the city and state is a standard journalistic practice and the tone sounds legitimate. But there’s no such thing as the Denver Guardian.
We’re more likely to trust stories that appeal to our personal convictions and perspectives. But fake news can have real consequences. It is known to incite violence, amplify panic, and swing elections.
Following the 2016 campaign, it was found that conservatives were more likely to share fake news articles than liberals. However, it has also be shown that politics doesn’t correlate very strongly but age does. Researchers at New York and Princeton Universities found that users over 65 tended to share more fake news articles.
How can I tell if it’s fake or not?
Let’s take the Denver Guardian as an instructive example. Some sleuthing uncovered these notable discrepancies– you can apply these fact-checking steps to many articles.
1. Do a basic google search of the places and people mentioned
In our example, we found out there is a Walkerville, MD. But the quote from “police chief Pat Frederick” is null and void because the Walkerville law enforcement is a team of three— and there is not a Pat Frederick among them.
2. Check up on the publication
The Denver Guardian claims its newsroom is located at 5915 E Colfax Ave Denver, CO 80220. According to our GoogleMaps search, this is actually a tree in a parking lot. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself:
3. Is anyone else reporting on this story?
This story referenced a local TV station, but a quick search on their website does not turn up any results in reference to this story. If the story sounds incredible or emotional, check up on other news outlets. There’s strength in numbers!
4. What does their site look like?
Check the address bar to make sure their webpage has a SSL certificate. Does their site have bad grammar and spelling errors? If news organizations don’t put effort into their web pages you can imagine the effort they put into fact-checking.
How does fake news affect cyber security?
This story points to a broader trend in cyber crime that presents new challenges to security. Con artists are surfing this trend of fake news by sharing fake Facebook posts.
Social media provides a unique platform to communicate with potential victims and forge a connection. Users control which accounts they follow and interact with, creating their own personal networks. Once you start following and interacting with an account you invite them onto your Newsfeed and your guard is down.
The funny thing about trust is, once it’s gone, it’s pretty hard to get back. So always be on the lookout for fake news!