I am devastated by the amount of fake news, false information, and outright lies I see in my Facebook news feed. Collectively, I will simply refer it all as fake news from now on, regardless of it being news or not.
Of course, this is correlated with the people you follow and are friends with on Facebook – in certain circles, there is just more fake news than there is in others.
I made the mistake early on to engage in networking on Facebook. This meant I was adding people and accepting people I did not know personally as friends. Later I wiped my friends list clean from people I did not know, which also cleaned up my news feed (mostly).
While I realize this networking was a mistake, it did have the effect that I ended up learning more about fake news.
The majority of the fakeness could actually be narrowed down to a few friends on my list. Once I unfollowed or unfriended them, my news feed would get much cleaner. This is why it is important we do not generalize and assume it is the majority who shares or falls for fake news and false claims. It is not.
Sometimes it can be very difficult to discern if something is fake, even for the most "sharp minded" users of the internet. In this article, I will share most of the signals I rely on, when determining if something is trustworthy.
Before you continue reading, please understand that it is not about mainstream vs some opposition. It is about true vs false.
The characteristics of fake news
I will try to share my top red flags, which I use to determine if something is fake news.
When I first see the article/link in my news feed, I look for:
- Unknown domain name (I.e.: unknown-site.com).
- Website (domain name) is known to spread fake news.
- Sensationalistic claim in title.
Very often, this alone is enough to determine if something is fake, because I know a lot of domain names that are known to spread false information, either on purpose or out of extreme ignorance, and I never read anything from those sources without extreme skepticism.
If the website is unknown to me, I look for:
- Anonymous source'(s).
- Claiming mainstream news is fake news, or critical of mainstream news in a collective/generalized manner.
- Claiming to portray the truth.
- Failure to correct past mistakes in old articles, or update articles to remove disputed statements.
- Using an anonymous wordpress website. (I.e.: myname.wordpress.com).
- The website is exclusively focusing on controversial subjects.
- No contact or about us information on the website sharing the story.
- Extremely ugly design and layout on the website sharing the story.
- Release of huge amount of data in support of generalized claims.
The above will usually give me a very clear picture, and no further investigation is required at this point.
If I am still unsure, I look for:
- Check if fact checkers has anything on the article.
- Check the history of the website. I.e. Does it have a history of producing fake news? What does fact checkers have on them?
- Check forum discussions about the website and article.
- Check what experts on the article subject are saying.
- Repeat all of the above for both the author and the sources used in the article.
Using fact checkers
People often seem to distrust fact checker sites such as Snopes, thinking they are biased. However, I have not yet witnessed this, so I actually think it is highly irresponsible to spread such claims without concrete evidence. Maybe it depends on the subject you are investigating. Regardless, sources are usually provided by fact checker sites, so you can easily check if they reached the right conclusion yourself.
If you think a fact checker has made a mistake, you can try to reach out to them with your evidence, I am sure they are willing to update their article if your evidence is adequate.
Mainstream media vs alternative media
Alternative outlets seem to enjoy calling out the mainstream media for fakeness. Well, if your own website has a history of producing fake news, and not updating articles to correct errors or remove disputed statements, then your credibility suffers severely, and then I can not take your claim about mainstream media seriously.
Clean up your own house, before criticizing the state of other people's houses!
If you are a fan of alternative news outlets, then beware that several of them have a history of spreading false information, and many of their articles are not corrected after being disputed. Mainstream news often go back and correct their mistakes. I am not sure if this is due to mainstream having better resources, or simply because alternative outlets do not care about the truth. Probably it is due to a combination of ignorance and carelessness – but that is just my opinion.
If you find that a mainstream news outlet has made a mistake or false claim in a story, it is extremely important you point it out to the author, and make sure to have your evidence ready. If they are unwilling to correct their story, you can try to reach out to fact checkers.
Claiming to portray the truth
When a website or article boldly claims to be reporting the truth, it is usually reporting fake news.
A credible news outlet should avoid "patenting" truthful reporting by making such claims. Why? Because it implies that other outlets might be untrustworthy, and it does so without providing the concrete evidence to support the implication.
If you care about truth, then you should stop implying that others are lying. Concentrate on your own reporting, then one day, if you do well, you might become mainstream!
Failure to correct mistakes
Mainstream or alternative, a responsible news outlet should strive to correct mistakes.
If you find a Wikipedia page or similar, documenting past falsehoods and deception from a site, you can be fairly certain that the site's content can not be trusted.
Stories that are proven false should either be marked as false or deleted entirely from the website that posted them, otherwise we can not trust their willingness to be truthful.
Anonymous sources are not always trustworthy
The authors name should be shown a prominent place in the article, and sources should generally not be anonymous. There has been a number of cases where even mainstream news got mislead by anonymous sources, and cases where anonymity was abused to spread lies.
If someone wants to say bad things about a somebody, they should back up their statements with their own name.
Anonymity is probably best suited for very specific life and death circumstances, or cases where people are living under a suppressive regimes. Not really in our part of the world.
We know people will often lie to portray a certain false narrative, so unless we are talking life and death, I really see no reason to grant anyone anonymity. Why should we trust your anonymous source? Seriously?!
Using an anonymous wordpress site or similar
Some of my friends uncritically re-share content from anonymous wordpress blogs, and I truly wonder why? I mean why would anyone, ever, want to share something from a random, anonymous, wordpress blog? It does not make any sense. Especially not when combined with other red flags, such as sensationalistic claims in the title.
It is not just about wordpress sites. There are other places to get a free "amature" website, some even offering a unique domain name. But, the people resorting to these are typically not very serious about running a website.
The website is exclusively focusing on controversial subjects
This is a small signal to look for. It applies best when it appears together with other signals.
There are plenty of non-profits and similar focusing on controversial subjects, abortion is a good example.
No about or contact information
Again, this also has to do with anonymity. If the website does not have a link to a about page, then perhaps it is trying to hide the authors identity, which is a very strong sign they might be making fake news.
A serious news outlet would want you to know who was behind the website, since it would be part of their branding.
I would be very careful about trusting or resharing anything from a site with missing about info.
Extremely ugly website design
A serious website would care about branding, meaning good design practices would be applied.
The technical details are irrelevant since it will be quite obvious, even to the untrained eye.
I work with web- design and development, so this is something I notice. It is rarely an issue, but when something is off with the design, it is typically really off on fake news sites.
Does the website have a history of producing fake news?
This is one of the best signals, by far. You can get a good idea about a websites history by checking with Wikipedia and fact checkers.
If there is a Wikipedia article discussing the news outlet, there will often be a section discussing past controversies. It is of course important to check the sources, since Wikipedia is a public platform where everyone can edit.
Fact checkers might have written about past articles, which may help give you an idea about the site's trustworthiness.
Check forum discussions
Sensationalist headlines and controversial subjects tend to generate discussions around the internet, and it can be useful to tap into those to save time, since someone else might already have fact checked a given story.
In the discussions, look for sources and evidence. Someone might dispute a story, linking to a page that debunks the story or documents how the news outlet has behaved in the past.
Check what experts are saying
There are usually experts on a given topic. For example, if you happen to encounter a story covering circumstances in a far-away country that is poorly covered by mainstream news, you might still be able to find an expert on the area.
This is almost a last resort, and probably will not bring you to a conclusion. But, it can be a good way to better understand a situation. You can also have the expert point you to relevant sources.
Release of huge amount of data
This is one of the hardest to discern, because sometimes even mainstream news will do this in support of irrational and biased opinions. I.e. (Facebook is bad for society). But, such generalizations are meaningless and does not prove anything.
Concrete examples are needed to support a claim. Releasing a huge amount of data, typically in the form of leaked e-mails or documents is not really evidence at all, (IMO) unless every single e-mail/document is in some way relevant or supporting the claim. Point is, concrete examples should be mandatory.
If a website does this, then you can be fairly sure they in fact have no concrete evidence, and so they try to draw the "let people see for themselves card". This is not just lazy and irresponsible, it is also a indication of journalistic incompetence, especially when they claim to have reached an evidence based conclusion!
The question is if such laziness belong in journalism at all. I do not think it does.