How to Spot Fake News

Growing up, my grandfather liked to read a specific newspaper. It was considered a tabloid (not in content, like the National Enquirer, but in old-school paper terms, as opposed to broadsheet papers like The New York Times. Am I broadcasting how old I am?) and I remember the sometimes-scandalous headlines. The actual articles were fairly balanced, but the bold type on the front page was what really sold copies, so the more attention-grabbing they were, the more money the paper made.

But that isn’t always the case nowadays. The internet has their own form of scandalous headlines, mostly in the form of clickbait—you know, where the headline is something you just have to click on because the headline was so interesting—and it usually turns out to not be an article at all. It’s an advertisement for something packaged to look like a news story. Half the time, we don’t even realize it is trying to sell us something until we’ve finished the whole article (and sometimes we don’t realize it at all).

But there is a lot of misinformation out there, often disguisedas real news. And it has a much wider reach now thanks to people reposting it on social media. If you aren’t sure about the article your mother/uncle/sister-in-law wants you to read, here are a few different ways to verify the source:

  • Check the URL. If it looks wrong—say it’s ‘cnn.com.co,’ then it doesn’t matter if they have the CNN logo as a masthead. That’s not their real website; it is a spoof. Stop reading. I’ve gotten confused by articles I didn’t realize were from The Onion or The Borowitz Report. And while those are also ‘fake news’ they don’t hide that fact on their websites. So check to see if the page you are reading comes with a similar “fantasy news” or “satire” warning.
  • Look at the date. You’d be surprised at how many times you are actually reading about something that happened in the past—the information may be outdated or completely irrelevant by now. So while this may not be fake news, you would likely read it and misinterpret the information as being current.
  • Look at the byline. While wire services don’t often credit their authors, most other sites do. If it is a legit story, most reporters want credit for their work. You can google their name and see what else they’ve written. I’ve done this and come up with an image of the supposed reporter that went by more than one name!
  • Actually read the entire article. You may find out that it is an editorial or an opinion piece and not even news. You may also find other signs that it is fake news—for example, ridiculously named “sources” or a lack of credible details can also tip you off that what you are reading might not be true.
  • Investigate the sources. If it’s a real article, it will provide names of sources that you can verify, or give you links to the places where they got their information. Verify the links. Oftentimes, they’ll just pick something that sounds good—for example, give you the number of a law and expect that you’ll be impressed enough not to look it up to see if it has any relevance to the article’s claims.
  • Glance at other articles. Are they all like that? Do you see articles expressing another viewpoint at all? Most news sites will cater to a certain point of view, but they’ll have a token opposition writer or two. Do you see mostly outlandish headlines and little real content? It’s things like that where you should wonder about the legitimacy of what you’re reading.

Last thing: if you’re still in doubt, there are organizations who look into these things. Check out snopes.com, FactCheck.org, or PolitiFact.com to see if anybody else has looked into it. They’ve got more resources than the rest of us, and they are trained to dig into questionable stories.

Hope this helped!