When online stories seem too good—or bad—to be true, they just might be, says veteran journalist and American Press Institute (API) staffer Jane Elizabeth. She offers tips for sniffing out the truth.

By Brandi Broxson
Updated January 20, 2016
Peter Oumanski

What’s the first thing you should do if you see a fishy headline?
Google the exact headline. You should immediately see links debunking it if it’s fake. Snopes.com and Reported.ly also investigate the validity of Internet content.

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. (DailyCurrant.com has even fooled major media outlets, like the New York Times.) 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 writers’ 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.

Just how prevalent is misinformation on the Internet?
An API study found that misinformation on Twitter outpaced efforts to correct it 3 to 1. Once a lie is told online, it’s difficult to retrieve it, quarantine it, and debunk it. Many journalists and other professionals try very hard to correct wrong info on social media, but we’re outnumbered.

And sometimes that 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.

How can we tell if info is from other outlets?
Listen for red flags, including phrases like “we are getting reports that” and “we are trying to confirm.”

What about viral photos and videos?
Upload a suspicious photo into a search on Google Images. [Right-click on the photo, save it to your desktop, then drag it to the image-search box.] Then you can verify the subject of the photo and where it has appeared online. Sometimes footage from the past gets recirculated in a current news cycle, like when a video reporting “Muslims celebrating Paris terror attack” in 2015 was found to actually be showing Pakistanis cheering after a 2009 cricket match. Also, keep an eye out for details that don’t match up. (Example: One part of the image is very bright; other areas are muddy.)

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 or anger. Before going off on a Facebook rant, check the statement’s validity against neutral, intelligent sources. Here are a few: NPR, The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact.com, and FactCheck.org.

What if you share something online and then find out it was untrue?
Correct it. Contact people who shared your post and let them know it was wrong. Then delete the original and post an apology explaining how it happened and providing updated facts.

How should we respond to misinformation shared by friends and family on social media?
Try to avoid making others feel foolish. Keep it light and helpful. 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!”