Have you heard? The U.S. Supreme Court revoked the Church of Scientology’s tax-exempt status in 2016. Didn’t know that? There have been several stories about it. Quick! Find one and share it on your social media and email it to everyone you know.
If you think that bit of news was juicy, how about the fact that Pope Francis openly supported Donald Trump during his bid for the presidency? The Daily Presser was first to break the news of Pope Francis’ strong support for Trump and the story quickly went viral on Facebook.
How about that story about Glen Eagles hospital issuing an urgent warning after seven women died after sniffing perfume samples that were delivered in the mail? Several outlets were reporting that the killer perfume is the latest attempt by terrorists to hit us on our home turf.
Most shocking of all is the news that Ted Nugent, beloved conservative icon, was killed in a hunting accident in April. TheLastLineofDefense.org reported on Nugent’s untimely demise on April 28, with the news quickly being shared all over social media.
Fake News by the Numbers
Before you open Facebook and share any this dreadful news, you might want to read on a bit. None of the above stories are legitimate, but you’d never know it based on the number of hits they’ve received on social media sites.
Fake news is not a new thing, but it certainly has gained in popularity over the last year, particularly during the presidential election cycle. In fact, fake news has become so prevalent that Fortune.com has a “Top Fake News Stories of the Week” section dedicated to exposing it.
Facebook – where the spreading of fake news is rampant due to the ease of which you can like and share – announced it is testing a tool designed to help its users identify fake news sites and posts. The educational tool will pop up at the top of your news feed and provide information about how to determine if the items you are seeing in your feed are legitimate and flag items known to be fake.
Google, one of the most popular search engines in the world, has banned fake news sites from its advertising network. Like Facebook, Google also is incorporating a fact-checking tool that places fact check tags on snippets of articles generated by its news results search function.
Even though search engines and social media sites are doing more to help combat the fake news epidemic, ultimately it is up to consumers to decide whether what they are reading is fact or fiction.
According to this report on the Pew Media and Research Center’s Journalism and Media website, 64 percent of Americans polled said they believe fake news is causing confusion about basic facts. Another 23 percent said they had shared fake news themselves, both knowingly and unknowingly.
Age does not seem to play a factor in the ability to spot fake news. In November 2016, Stanford University researchers discovered that many students were unable to discern the difference between a news article, a persuasive opinion piece and a corporate advertisement. The researchers warned that this inability to vet information made this age group particularly vulnerable to falling victim to fake news.
Real vs. Fake
As a trained journalist, I can easily spot a fake news site or article. Sadly, this is not a skill that a majority of Americans seem to possess. Let’s take a look at some of the easiest ways to spot whether that article you’re reading is legitimate news, based on a truth with some misleading facts or an outright fabrication.
I’m not even going to address the argument about conservative versus liberal media outlets. While it is true that some outlets lean one way or another, that doesn’t automatically mean they are producing fake news. The suggestion that because something came from MSNBC or Fox News makes it fake is one of my biggest pet peeves. Slanted, maybe. But outright fake? No.
One of the first ways to assess if an article is real or fake news is to look at who wrote it. Is there a byline from a real journalist from a real news outlet on the story? If so, then you can be fairly certain the story is reporting real facts. Once you have sorted whether the story is by a real journalist, the next thing you’ll want to do is to look at the writer’s bio. Most media outlets include bios for their professional staff members on their websites. Looking at a writer’s bio will help to determine if the article is a news piece, an opinion piece or a corporate advertisement disguised to look like an article (otherwise known as an advertorial or sponsored content).
Among the biggest mistake most novices make when reading an article is failing to recognize under which classification it falls. A news article, by its very definition, is an article written with the intent to inform readers and contains facts that easily can be verified. News stories are never written in the first person, so if you are seeing an article that uses the words I or me in it, chances are, it’s not a news article, but rather an opinion piece.
Real news stories include multiple sources, especially if discussing a controversial claim. Sources are almost always identified by name and title. While anonymous sources have their place in reputable journalism, any publication that is always citing anonymous sources and no one else is probably not trustworthy. Keep in mind that facts can always be verified. So, if you read a story and find yourself doubting it, take time to research the facts to see if they are accurate, especially before hitting that share button and spreading misinformation.
Opinion pieces take any number of subjects, and present them from the writer’s point of view. An editorial, for example, is the opinion of the media outlet in which it appears. Most media outlets separate opinion pieces from news and features, so they are easily identifiable. Columnists also are a form of opinion writer. Some of the more well-known current columnists include Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, David Brooks and George Will. While these columnists are basing their pieces on actual current events, they include their opinion on those current events. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve seen someone post a column or editorial on social media, mistaking it as a news article. It is a pretty common mistake.
Advertorials – also known as sponsored content – generally are identified as sponsored content or an advertorial with a special notation on the article. Reputable media outlets take great pains to properly identify these story-like advertisements. Sponsored content is just one more way for advertisers to reach their targeted audience, and has a better overall return on investment than native advertising, especially where social media and online outlets are concerned. Just keep in mind that they are written from the advertisers POV.
As if all of this wasn’t confusing enough, we also have satire sites like The Onion, The Daily Currant and The Daily Mash. These sites are intended to be utter farces and make little attempt to hide that fact from readers. However, that doesn’t mean that readers don’t occasionally confuse them with real news sites. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was a recent victim of The Onion, retweeting an article titled “5 Things to Know About Sean Spicer,” which assured readers Spicer would provide the American public with “robust and clearly articulated misinformation.” Spicer commented “You nailed it. Period!” when retweeting the article. It is unclear if he realized the article was satire.
Some online outlets go to great lengths to disguise the fact that they are not legitimate sources of information.
ABC News – a longtime reputable news reporting media outlet – found itself in the middle of a spoofing incident with a fake news provider recently. A spoof site, with the website URL ABCnews.com.co, was being cited by other organizations and social media outlets under the misguided assumption that it was the official ABC news website. Fox News was among the legitimate news outlets that mistakenly used information published on the site, and then later had to retract the story and apologize to its viewers.
The spoof site, according to the Whois database, is registered to Paul Horner, an Arizona resident who has made a career out of impersonating legitimate sources online. Horner reportedly makes up to $10,000 annually just from this one spoof site alone.
One of the best tools readers have in verifying whether news is real or fake is to examine the website domain on which an article is hosted. Even when a site looks professional – complete with official-looking logos – it may not be trustworthy. In addition to using Whois, it also is helpful to check the country codes for the URL of the site. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) is the agency responsible for the global coordination of the DNS Root, IP addressing and other Internet protocol resources. Between these two sources, it can be fairly easy to determine if a site is legitimate or a spoof.
If you’re like most people, all of this is enough to make your head hurt. Sadly, it’s a sign of the times in which we live, and consumers can no longer assume that just because it’s online, that it must be legitimate.
Have you ever knowingly or unknowingly shared fake news on social media? What methods do you use to decide if something is legitimate? I’d love to hear about it in the comments section.
Photo Courtesy Alexas_Fotos/Pixabay
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Shari L. Berg is the owner/operator of The Write Reflection, and a writing professional for 25 years.