How to spot fake news

Fake news
By Eleanor O'Neill, Student Blog

15 May 2017

Telling the real from the fake is now a major challenge in the digitally-connected information society - and just how can you tell if a news report is false?

Talk of 'fake news' is increasingly cropping up in discussions and debates, with everyone from Mark Zuckerburg to Vladimir Putin accused of spreading rumours, gossip and outright 'alternative facts' in the media.

In the age of social media and instant share buttons, it is all too easy for a seemingly legitimate, if not sensationalist, story to quickly gain traction across the web.

Although 'fake news' has been around for as long as the concept of news has existed, the issue escalated during the last US Presidential Election with research from Buzzfeed.

They revealed that 2016's top-performing fake news stories on social media were all related to either Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton: many of these 'reports' were intentionally inflammatory or obscene in order to provoke outrage and, therefore, more views and advertising revenue.

Think about your own reactions; are you more likely to read a piece that espouses a view you recognise or one that appears to directly challenge it?


The top five fake news stories of 2016

  • "Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president": Originated on WTOE 5 News.
  • "Donald Trump sent his own plane to transport 200 stranded marines": Originated on Americanmilitarynews.com.
  • "#Pizzagate": Originated on 4chan and Reddit.
  • "Ireland is now officially accepting Trump refugees from America": Originated on Winning Democrats.
  • "WikiLeaks confirms Hillary sold weapons to ISIS … Then drops another bombshell": Originated on The Political Insider.

Source: Buzzfeed Analytics


But how do you tell the real headlines from the hoaxes? Here are three questions you should ask yourself before sharing a news story:

1. Is this a legitimate source?

The simplest way to identify fake news is to determine where it's from. If you have never heard of the website before or if anything seems odd about the link, proceed with caution.

Some producers of fake news will even use the name of a respected source but slightly change the URL. For example, Bloomberg.com becomes Bloomberg.ma.

Cross-check the story on your usual news outlets or with a quick Google search. Is the BBC reporting it? Is the Guardian or the Telegraph? How about CA Today? This requires you to do some of your fact-checking by comparing an article across several outlets, but somewhere in the middle, you can find the grain of truth or the stepping stone to fiction.

A word of caution, however; 'fake' news can slip into 'real' news so always keep one eye open for retractions - sources can be misleading, and the whole existence of news relies on sources, in one way or another. It's why they employ journalists and not detectives!

In the 20th century we could rely on a limited number of outlets for our imposter pieces, such as the countless UFO-celebrity stories that appeared in National Enquirer - now they are just as likely to appear in 'traditional' outlets as well due to limited time for fact-checking in media departments.

If a random site seems to be the only source then there's probably a reason.

2. What are people saying?

Comments on social media can often be a veritable minefield of questionable wisdom but the responses to, for example, a Facebook post may offer insight into what the linked story contains.

If you're lucky, there will be plenty of people saying "This is fake, don't bother reading" in an appropriately dismissive tone, with some evidence to back up the claims. However, any useful kernels like these may be buried under waves of "OMG" and "I can't believe it!", so be wary.

In general, it's not a brilliant idea to solely rely on social media for news, but if you do, always track a few different sources that cover various political allegiances (yes, newspapers do have some bias).

3. Is it believable?

Finally, nothing really beats a good dose of common sense. The best rule of thumb is that, if something sounds too crazy to be true, it probably is. We live in a strange world, but it's also fairly predictable.

Keeping up with current events is the key to knowing if something may not be credible, and to always having a winning conversation starter!


Factcheck.org also shared some advice on how to separate fact from fiction.


ICAS insights are holding events in Edinburgh and London next month on the impact and implications of 'fake news' in wide society. Tickets are free for members and students.

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