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4 Tips for Spotting a Fake News Story

Don't be fooled by false reporting. Here are some tips to help you tell fact from fiction in today's news.

1/23/2017 | Harvard Summer School | 9 minute read

Written By:
Christina Nagler

The last few years have been newsworthy, to say the least. An unprecedented American election, Brexit, earthquakes, and outbreaks all contributed to some of the most compelling news in recent memory.

cell phone

But mixed in with all the fair, factual, and well-researched reporting was something more sinister: Fake news, stories that seemed accurate, but were actually downright false.

While fake news has been circulating as long as its legitimate counterpart, it's been getting a lot of play recently, thanks to the way we consume information. According to Pew Research Center, people under age 50 get half of their news online. And for those under 30, online news is twice as popular as TV news.

Speaking of the Internet, did you hear the one about Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump or the Clinton campaign running a child sex trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, DC, (#pizzagate)? Both fakes.

WHY FAKE NEWS GOES VIRAL

Thousands of people circulated these false stories. Why? Perhaps because eye-popping headlines in our social media feeds make it easier for us to share content than evaluate or even read it. This creates a viral storm of sound bites without substance.

Another contributing factor, according to Pew Research, is confirmation bias. People are more likely to accept information that confirms their beliefs and dismiss information that does not.

But the result of all this misinformation isn’t simply ignorance. It can also provoke serious consequences.

In the case of #pizzagate, a man decided to “self-investigate” the child abuse allegations, arming himself with several weapons, arriving at the restaurant cited in the fake story, firing a shot (luckily without injury to anyone), and terrifying bystanders. In instances such as these, the stakes are too high not to get the facts straight.

If the last two years have been any indication, next year promises to be a doozy of a news year. So we need to defend ourselves against getting duped. Keeping track of good and bad news requires us, as readers, to do a little legwork. Here’s how:

LET’S GET CRITICAL: 4 TIPS FOR EVALUATING NEWS

graphic of newspaper
1. Vet the publisher’s credibility.

  • Would the publishing site meet academic citation standards? Just because a site is popular among your friends does not mean its content is accurate.
  • What is the domain name? Be wary of unusual top-level domain names, like “.com.co.” A second-level domain like “abcnews”  may appear credible. But note that abcnews.com.co is a different and illegitimate site, though designed to appear similar to the original.
  • What’s the publication’s point of view? Read the “About Us” section for more insight into the publisher, leadership, and mission statement. Also, confirm that you have not stumbled upon a satirical news site, like the Onion.
  • Who is the author? Has he or she published anything else? Be suspicious if the byline, which names the author, is a celebrity writing for a little-known site or if the author’s contact information is a G-mail address.

graphic of typewriter2. Pay attention to quality and timeliness.

  • Do you notice splling erors [sic], lots of ALL CAPS, or dramatic punctuation?!?!?! If so, abort your reading mission. Reputable sources have high proofreading and grammatical standards.
  • Is the story current or recycled? Make sure an older story isn’t being taken out of context.

3. Check the sources and citations.

  • How did you find the article? If the content showed up in your social media feed or was promoted on a website known for clickbait, proceed with caution. Even if the information was shared by a friend, be sure to follow the steps below to vet the publisher’s credibility.
  • graphic of chartsWho is (or is not) quoted, and what do they say? If you notice a glaring lack of quotes and contributing sources, particularly on a complex issue, then something is amiss. Credible journalism is fed by fact-gathering, so a lack of research likely means a lack of fact-based information.
  • Is the information available on other sites? If not, then it’s very likely that the journalistic jury is still out on whether this information is valid. Library databases are a great resources for confirming the credibility of information—check out Harvard Library's list of public resources.
  • Can you perform reverse searches for sources and images? By checking cited sources, you can confirm that the information has been accurately applied and not altered to meet the author’s point of view. The same goes for images. In an era of Photoshop magic, you can’t always believe what you see.

graphic of people communicating4. Ask the pros.

Sources for this story include the News Literacy ProjectPew Research CenterVenngage: How to Spot Fake NewsNPR’s All Things Considered.

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