With every day that passes, it becomes more and more important to be able to identify what news and information is real and what is false. We have all seen–and fallen for– fake news at one point or another. Fake news and misinformation can be a complicated topic, but have no fear! We have put together a guide to help understand fake news and to help you spot fact from fiction in everything from tv news to social media!
So, what is fake news exactly? A lot of research is currently being done on it from experts in a variety of fields like library and information sciences, education, sociology, and psychology. What you need to know is that “Fake News” is used as an umbrella term that covers a variety of types of false information. These types of false information can be intentionally or unintentionally false and can cover information that is 100% false or just 1% false. Sometimes, a news story will be mostly true but will have one incorrect fact or misquote. Other times, people will give a biased take on current events and present their opinion as unbiased fact. This can happen very easily on TV news programs since tone and facial expression can convey a lot of meaning. Or sometimes, a news story will only share half the information or feature a quote or picture taken out of context. For example, if a story says that Politician X is going to raise taxes by 25% but the story leaves out that this tax hike will only apply to international businesses operating in the country, people may get the wrong idea and think that it applies to every citizen. Again, these types of false news can be done intentionally or unintentionally, but the result of false information remains the same.
How does fake news work? Experts in many fields are doing research on this, but we do already know a few things about how fake news works. Often, it works because it appeals to our emotions more often than it appeals to logic, sometimes on purpose. When we react with fear or anger or extreme satisfaction to a news story or piece of information, we tend to focus on those emotions and not think things through at the moment. On social media especially, we tend to share things that we have strong reactions to, which is one of the reasons fake news spreads fast on social media. We also tend to agree with things that confirm what we already believe, and we tend to seek out information that confirms those beliefs. This is called “confirmation bias” by experts (you can read more here). This means that if we think Person Z is a terrible human being or Politician Y is the greatest thing since sliced bread and we see a story that “confirms” our beliefs, we aren’t likely to question the story. The way social media works currently means we also see a lot of posts and news stories we agree with, either because our friends and family are sharing it or the social media algorithm is promoting it because it thinks we will like it. This can create an “echo chamber” or “filter bubble” which basically means we see a lot of the same stuff and that we are less likely to see diverse, differing opinions from our own. When this happens, we can be less likely to take information that contradicts our views seriously. You can learn more about filter bubbles here.
How can I spot fake news? There are a bunch of ways to spot fake news. Though some techniques are better suited for online content and social media, many of the following techniques can be used to spot false information in TV and in-person conversation as well. Take a look at these indicators and ask yourself the following questions when you listen to or read news stories, online or in print:
The URL – Is it a real website address? Sometimes fake news sites pretend to be real news sites (for example abc.go.com is the real ABC news website, abc.com.co is a fake news site).
The website/publisher – Are they a credible news organization? Are they a news site at all or are they a joke site? Did they just pop up or have they been around for a while? Do they have an “About Us” page and a way to contact them? If they don’t have an “About Us” page, that is a huge red flag that the site is not credible. If it does have an “About Us” page, what does it say? A credible “About Us” page will tell you what the purpose of the site is, and for news sites, it may give a brief overview of their reporting standards and ethics. Remember, these days anyone can create a nice looking website and write anything they want on it, so make sure it is from an established source.
Authors/contributors – Is there an actual author for the article or is the author something like Jimmy J or ilikecheeze9? Are they a journalist or an expert in their field? Can you find them and their credentials online? Are their credentials believable? Don’t trust anonymous news sources since anyone can write something and put it online.
Published date – Does the article or picture have a date attached? Is it a recent date? Old news articles often get circulated online for years, even when they aren’t relevant or true anymore.
Advertisements – What kind of ads are being shown and how many are there? Reputable news sites aren’t going to be showing 18+ ads on their site. While reputable news organizations do have advertisements on their websites and apps, the number of ads shouldn’t be super excessive. Websites get money from the number of ads on their site (and how many people click those ads), so if there are more ads than content on the site, it tells you something about the priorities of that news source.
Headline language – Is the headline clickbait? Does it exaggerate the story? Is it trying to get some kind of emotional reaction out of you, like anger or fear? Is it mean or biased? Is it relevant and appropriate to the news story it is telling?
Language – Is the language of the article or news broadcast sensational? Does it exaggerate the story? Is it trying to get an emotional reaction out of you? Is it using biased terms and language? Is it being mean? Does it seem to be telling the full story, or is it avoiding talking about certain viewpoints or implications?
Spelling – Are there a lot of spelling mistakes and missing words? Does this happen in other articles by this news source? Does it happen consistently? Every online source will have a spelling error eventually since humans do make mistakes. But this shouldn’t be a regular occurrence.
Acknowledged mistakes – If the news source makes a mistake in reporting facts, quotes, etc., does it publicly acknowledge and correct these mistakes? Does it do this immediately and without public pressure?
Sources cited – Does it tell you where it is getting your information? Can you verify that information on your own? Does it only cite other news articles, or does it cite primary (original, credible) sources? If it is an image, where did the image come from? Who took the image or created it? Google any experts and organizations that facts are cited from to see if they are credible, and to see if you can find what facts and figures they are referencing.
Always ask questions – Never read/watch/listen passively or let something or someone think for you. Always ask questions about the news you see! Always ask questions like: “Is this true?”, “Is this the whole story?”, and “What does this piece of information mean?”
What are some more resources I can look at if I want to further improve my information consuming habits?
Experts check the facts of news stories and internet rumors in this resource. This site rates each story or rumor covered true, false, or everything in between. It also gives the origin of these stories or misconceptions and directly explains what is true and false about each.
Factcheck.org is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. It has fact-checking on news stories and internet rumors by experts. It also fact checks political talking points, Facebook stories, and science news, among other topics.
This site delivers expert fact-checking on politics, national news stories, healthcare news, and Facebook hoaxes.
This list of 35 points of journalism ethics shows what ethical journalism should look like, no matter the news format. The Society of Professional Journalism isn’t attached to any news outlet. Check these points and compare it to your favorite news providers to see how they measure up!
Get out of your filter bubble and see how other news outlets are reporting a story! This website takes major news stories and shows the headlines of those stories as reported by left-leaning, center leaning, and right-leaning news agencies, with access to each article
This database of 1000s of news providers rates each news agency’s biased, from extreme left bias to extreme right bias and everything in between, and gives the reasons for those ratings. It also lets you search for all news providers with a particular bias rating. This is a great starting point for looking at news sites’ credibility, but you shouldn’t let it think for you!
This is a web game produced by BBC to help people understand how the news is produced. You play as a news reporter for the BBC covering a huge breaking news story and you have to decide which information to believe and publish. Players’ scores are determined by accuracy, impact, and speed of the story/information put out. This is a great resource for understanding the news cycle, and although it is aimed at kids and teens, it is still very entertaining and informative for adults as well!
This poster by the International Federation of Library Associations is great for teachers and tells you how to fact check at glance. This poster is also available in many languages including Spanish, Polish, Italian, Chinese, and many more!
Helping to stop the spread of fake news doesn’t just mean fact-checking. Here are some good news habits to get into beyond fact checking:
- Get news from at least 3 different sources.
- Don’t click on articles from social media.
- Don’t share news stories on social media that are more newsworthy than cute puppies or a chocolate cake recipe.
- If you really need to share an article on social media, read or watch the whole thing before posting it. Don’t just share a headline.
- Don’t just react with your emotions to a news story. Take a step back and think it through if you have a strong emotional reaction to something.
- Avoid anonymous news sources.
- Fact check everything you read, hear, or watch.
- If you find that your usual go-to news sources don’t hold up, it may be time to find some new ones!
If you want to read up on fake news, you can check our catalog for books or our online databases for scholarly research by experts, particularly the Academic Search Premier and ERIC databases. Keep an eye out for more blog posts and virtual programs about fake news and fact-checking, coming soon!