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6 Tips for Identifying Fake News

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

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #217
6 Tips for Identifying Fake News
The Quick And Dirty
  1. Check the source behind the headline.
  2. Look for clearly false information elsewhere in the article.
  3. Spend a little time background checking the information.
  4. Look for source citations—and check them!
  5. Check that any graphs or plots make numerical sense.
  6. Keep an eye out for fake news red flags like bad grammar, hyperbole, or outdated-looking websites.

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 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?

A WordPress blog is a great tool for someone who wants a website of their own but does not have the skills (or maybe even the time) to create one themselves, but authors are not held accountable for the reliability of their information.

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.

4. Look for source citationsand check them!

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 greenhouse gases, you can find the citation for that on our site.

Sometimes fake news is spread without ill intent but rather simply exaggerated.

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 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 outdated-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 offensive content.

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

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?

Never retweet or share links to offensive or false content even with the intention of calling them out.

Another simple step to take towards fighting back against fake news is to not retweet or share links to offensive or false content even to call 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!

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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