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
Episode #217

4. Look for source citationsand check them!

If the headline claims you’ll never believe the article’s epic content, well, then perhaps you shouldn’t.

I can tell you from firsthand experience that citing sources is extra work for a writer/journalist. For example, I read or talk to anywhere from 10-30 sources each time I write an episode for this podcast to be sure that I am presenting the most up-to-date, relevant, and fact-based information. When I sit down to write, linking each specific fact to its source often means tracking back through my brain, my emails, and my browser history to recover where I found the information. For example, when I tell you that the US produces 16% of the world’s green house gases, you can find the citation for that on our site.

So far we’ve been talking about the deliberate spread of false information, but sometimes fake news is spread without ill intent but rather simply exaggerated. For example, a few years back I read a flurry of articles all covering the same topic: the best time of day to drink your coffee. I thought this would be of interest to many of you Everyday Einstein listeners, and thus a great issue to cover here. Each of these sites firmly stated that neuroscientists had determined that taking a strategic approach to your morning coffee could maximize its boost to your productivity.

However, when I did some digging, I noticed that all of these articles pointed back to the same original source: a blog post by a graduate student in neuroscience, who by the way studied an entirely different subfield of neuroscience, expressing a fun theory that might be worth looking into for future research. Now, this was not the fault of the author—even scientists are allowed to promote musings as to potentially interesting areas of research—but rather the dozen or so news sites that wanted to create from his suggestion something more than it was. Looking closer at some of the articles promoting his “result” even revealed that some included quotes from the original scientist suggesting caution in taking this idea as fact.  

5. Check that any graphs or plots make numerical sense.

One common trick to skew the perceived impact of a result can be to present a graph or plot that either willfully or unintentionally misinterprets the data. For example, if an article claims a “huge spike” in anything, from crime rates to positive test results, take a look at the y-axis on the plot. Is there really a big jump in the numbers? Or is the range on the y-axis very small? Head on over to Math Dude’s page for more information on interpreting plots.

6. Keep an eye out for these fake news red flags.

Writers over at mashable spent many, likely brain-numbing, hours combing through fake news stories to look for what they had in common. Among them were bad grammar, poorly constructed or out-dated-looking websites, and hyperbolic headlines. If the headline claims you’ll never believe the article’s epic content, well, then perhaps you shouldn’t.

The use of unflattering photos also is a possible indicator that the author is more motivated by earning your click rather than providing you with trustworthy information. Another likely warning sign of a dubious source: promoted content that is blatantly sexist or racist. Consider whether you are willing to trust information from a site that also suggests you might like to click on an article promoting clearly offensive content.

While fact-based news sites are not immune to these mistakes, noticing one or even multiple of these red flags should give you caution in trusting the article’s content. Repeat offenders should especially go on your “proceed with caution” list.

What can you do to fight fake news?

First, and most importantly, always read before you share. Often when a headline is particularly catchy or relatable, it can be tempting to share the article without actually taking the time to read it. Summarizing an article’s worth of content into 140 characters for a tweet or a headline is an art form that requires certain skills. However, sharing based on headlines or captions alone can easily lead to the careless and even dangerous spreading of unchecked information. If you haven’t read the article, how do you even know that it delivers on the promise of the headline?

Another simple step to take towards fighting back against fake news is to not retweet or share links to offensive or false content even with the intention of calling them out. No matter what caption you put on it, you are still sharing the article which depending on where you share it, can give it an SEO boost (i.e. a higher ranking in search engines like Google). If you absolutely must share an article, but want to do so without promoting it, try using sites like donotlink or freezepage. (Although keep in mind that even those tools do not offer a complete decoupling from the original site.)

Finally, both Google and Facebook have suggested that they will make an attempt at cracking down on fake news, and a first step algorithm isn’t hard. However, these efforts have a long way to go. If you use these sites, voice your support for these efforts. Urge other social media platforms and search engines to adopt similar efforts. Access to real, fact-driven information is too important to take for granted.

How do you spot fake news? Leave your suggestions in the comments or on the Everyday Einstein Facebook page!

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Everyday Einstein’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Everyday Einstein on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr. Sabrina Stierwalt is an extragalactic astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology and Adjunct Faculty at the University of Virginia.

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