Spotting Fake News

by Mike Pepper

As we celebrate the launch of The Pawling Record, our own, real 21st century newspaper, the subject of “fake news” seems an appropriate topic for an inaugural column focused on tech matters and the Internet.

Fake news is a new term, still without an official definition in a major dictionary, but widely used as a phrase to refer to non-satirical, false, and purposefully misleading news stories, disguised as real news.

Fake news has no basis in fact, but it is carefully designed to seem like it is real. It is calculated to produce belief, and an emotional response in the reader.

Fake news can be created in traditional print and broadcast news media, but it usually comes from online sources in social media or on websites that specialize in fake news.

Fake news is expertly designed to look like it is real. It can be so well designed, in fact, that it can be very difficult to tell the fake stuff from the true. Here are some tips to help spot the fake stuff so that you can set it aside and go on about your day.

Be skeptical of provocative headlines. All headlines are supposed to be catchy, but if the headline is shocking and its claims sound unbelievable, they probably are.

Consider the source. Ensure that the story is written by a source that you trust and has a widely accepted reputation for accuracy. If the story comes from an unfamiliar organization, check their website “About” section to learn more.

Look closely at the online URL. Websites are cheap and easy to make, and if a URL is one that you’ve never heard of, there’s a good chance that it was created just to push fake news. Sometimes a fake news site will have a URL that mimics an authentic news source by making small changes to the URL. If the story is intriguing, check the URL to see if it is a known and reputable source.

Watch for sloppy work and SHOUTING. Fake news is pumped out on a massive scale, often in a hurry. It is not unusual for fake news to be rife with misspellings or awkward grammar. Read carefully if you see these signs. Reputable journalists are skillful and have pride in their craft – this is not a part of the fake news ethos.

Check the photos and graphics. Fake news often uses manipulated images, videos, or supporting artwork. Sometimes the photo is real, but the context is the lie. Tip: If you’re online, you can search for the photo or image to verify where it came from.

Check the evidence and look at the detail. Fake news authors will use fake sources and false details to make it seem like the story has merit. Search the “fact” or the source to see if you can find legitimate references. Look for dates that make no sense or timelines that must have been fabricated. Watch out especially for non-specific references. An expression like, “many sources say…” is a fake out. Unnamed sources should always be looked at askance.

Look for other reports Online, it is easy to search for other sources. Simply highlight a phrase, and then search for it in Google or Bing. If no other known and reputable news source is reporting the same story, then it is likely that the story is fake. If the story is reported by multiple sources that you know and trust, then it is more likely to be real news.

Is it satire? Unfortunately, fake news has muddied the environment for good old satire – which is often presented in the form of real news: The Daily Show and the “Weekend Update” on Saturday Night Live, for instance, or satirists like Andy Borowitz in The New Yorker. Borowitz has taken to overtly labeling his columns as fake news, but most satirists will assume that the consumer can tell the difference. Just check: Is the source known for parody, and/or do the story’s detail and tone suggest it may be just for fun? If it seems like it must be a joke, then it probably is.

MIKE PEPPER, the Computer Guy, has been providing software and hardware support in New York and Connecticut for more than 35 years. He can be reached at: