6 Tips for Identifying Fake News

You've likely heard about fake news. But how can you identify it? Here's six tips.

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #217

Fake news sites have seen a drastic increase recently. These sites have always been around, but in a startling trend, they are becoming more and more mainstream. These sites create fake content with enticing headlines designed to encourage readers to click on them or, even better, share based on the title alone. Sometimes the motivation is political or social: don’t like the narrative around your favorite cause? Rewrite it! Sometimes the motivation is clearly financial. More clicks/shares/likes can mean more traffic on the site and thus more funding from advertisers.

The process of sorting out real news from fake is very similar to the approach scientists take to solving a problem. What are the knowns versus unknowns? What can previous experience tell me? Is the experiment (or the found news item) reproducible?

When you are reading the news, here are six ways that you can separate fact from fiction.

1. Check the source behind the headline.

If a headline catches your eye, first check the source before you decide whether or not the article is worth reading. Have you heard of the site before? Has it published trustworthy results in the past?

If you didn’t know before the 2016 US Presidential election, you most likely know now that due to the electoral college system, the winner of the election does not necessarily have to get the most votes (i.e. to win the popular vote). In the weeks following the election, a heavily shared, trending article claimed that the winning candidate won both the electoral college votes and the popular vote in a landslide. However, that article was from a WordPress site. WordPress is a great tool for someone who wants a website of their own but does not have the .html or .php skills (or maybe even the time) to create one themselves, but authors are not held accountable for the reliability of their information. Thus, WordPress is fine for opinion pieces but not a reliable source for fact-based journalism.

Despite what a WordPress site may claim, the 2016 candidate who ultimately lost the election is in reality likely to win the popular vote by more than 1-2 million votes.

2. Look for clearly false information elsewhere in the article.

If you’re trying to decide whether or not to trust a particular “fact” in an article, it doesn’t bode well if there is clear misinformation quoted somewhere else. For example, the same false article about who won the popular vote in the 2016 election claimed that absentee ballots had not been counted. The idea that absentee ballots are not counted unless the race is close is a popular misconception that has already been debunked by multiple sources including vote.org and the Federal Voting Assistance Program.

3. Spend a little time background checking the information.

If you’re still not sure about a source, look around to see if anyone else is carrying the story. Can you find it elsewhere at a source you trust? If a source includes a quotation from someone that seems questionable, do a google search on that quote to see where else it comes up. There are also several sites dedicated to tracking down the validity of news stories that go viral, including snopes.com, factcheck.org, and politifact.com. These sites can’t catch everything, but there’s a chance your article has already been tested.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.

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