With the proliferation of fake news sites, social media platforms, and even memes in recent years, sorting fact from fiction on the internet has never been more challenging. As we're bombarded with more headlines and content than ever before, attempting to fact-check it all could easily become a full-time job. So we reached out to the pros for their best advice on how to quickly spot and fact-check fake news and disinformation online. In many cases, uncovering the truth should only take a few simple steps.
And what can you do the next time you spot a loved one sharing something less than factual on Facebook? Don't worry, the experts offered advice for tactfully dealing with this complex situation, too.
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What is fake news?
Essentially, fake news is presenting untrue information as news. Sometimes these articles are created by fake news websites or satirical news websites that are misinterpreted as factual.
Two other terms to know: misinformation versus disinformation. Misinformation is the spread of false info, regardless of intent. However, disinformation is untrue info deliberately intended to deceive. Disinformation is intentionally manipulative content or propaganda.
How can you do a "gut check" for fake news?
"Are you having a strong emotional reaction?" asks Hannah Covington, senior manager of education and content at the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit. Headlines or posts that manipulate your emotions should be a sign to pause. Be cautious of overly dramatic headlines, all caps, and excessive punctuation.
"We live in the most complex information landscape in human history," says Covington. While some social media platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, now provide warning labels on content they've identified as fake news or misinformation, they don't catch everything. It's more important than ever that we each learn how to gut-check and then fact-check info online.
To spot fake news, Covington recommends looking out for common red flags. First, ask yourself if this is a news report or something else. "Be cautious of anything user-generated," she recommends, such as social media posts or memes. She points out that many likes and shares doesn't necessarily mean that a post is factual.
What else can you do to assess the legitimacy of content?
Check the source. There are many fake websites that have credible-sounding names. Go to the site's About tab. It may acknowledge the site's politics or say it's satirical. (Many of us have probably been fooled by a headline from The Onion.) If it's a site for only one purpose or cause, say, a Super PAC, then it's clearly biased. Also, a reputable source includes hyperlinks to research, while a fake site offers no backup and may have spelling and grammatical errors.
It probably matters who wrote the piece, right?
Yes. Check the writer's social media accounts and look for a blue check mark near their name on Facebook or Twitter. This means their occupation has been verified and they are who they say. An article without a byline is a red flag.
Sometimes misinformation can be dangerous, right?
Yes, during breaking news is when you see some really bad examples, say, alluding to a second shooter or identifying the wrong person as a criminal. In those situations, try to find a news outlet that is releasing original reporting, meaning developments are not from other outlets or anonymous sources. Giveaways that a source is getting info from other outlets: look for phrases like "we are getting reports that" and "we are trying to confirm," says Elizabeth.
What about viral photos and videos?
It takes just seconds to search a photo, says Shaydanay Urbani, the partnerships and programs manager at First Draft News, a project to fight mis- and disinformation online. In Chrome, you can right-click the suspicious image, then choose "Search Google for image." Urbani also recommends the browser plug-in RevEye, which lets you search the image on five different platforms. Then you can verify the subject of the photo and where it has appeared online. Sometimes, old photos will be recirculated on current news stories, so try to confirm the original date of the photo.
To fact-check a viral video, try searching with words that describe the video. Oftentimes, you'll quickly find articles debunking it. Similar to fake news stories, fake videos share the same red flags, including producing an emotional response. "If it makes you angry or sad, think twice about it," says Urbani. Disinformation is designed to play on your emotions. Before you reshare, take time to track down the original source of the video or cross-reference various trusted news sources.
What about lies in political ads?
Read or watch political or campaign messaging actively. Notice statements that are meant to provoke extreme emotion, notably sadness, anger, or fear. Before going off on a Facebook rant, check the statement's validity against neutral, intelligent sources, or cross-reference sources with different political leanings. Check out PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org, which fact-check statements made by political candidates of all parties.
What if you share something online and then find out it was untrue?
Correct it. If you're able to update the original post, do so, suggests Covington. This way, those who already engaged with the post will be more likely to spot the correction. If you can't edit it, like on Twitter, take a screenshot of the original post and share a corrected update, then delete the first post so it doesn't get retweeted.
How should we respond to misinformation shared by friends and family on social media?
"First and foremost, be civil and compassionate," says Covington. Depending upon the relationship, you may decide to respond publicly or privately. Use empathetic language and summarize the facts you found from a reliable sources, in addition to providing a link to the source. For example, you could reply: "Uncle Bill, hold on! DocInABox.com is not a reliable website, so maybe it's not possible to contract Ebola from apples. Here's some info from the Mayo Clinic. Check it out!"
And what about if a loved one is sharing a conspiracy theory?
"Empathy is always the best response," says Covington. Conspiracy theories can be appealing because they provide a sense of control, replacing complex realities with an alluringly simple explanation.
By their nature, conspiracy theories are difficult to disprove with facts, so what's the best way to respond? If you can, start by finding common ground with your loved one, and then ask questions that may help plant a seed of doubt. For example, you could try: "Can I ask where you first found this? I think we're seeing very different things." Oftentimes, these conversations are more productive over the phone than online, Covington notes. Don't expect to change someone's opinions right away, but keep having the conversations.