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Fake News & Disinformation

A guide to discerning fake news sources, including articles, videos, and links to other resources.

What Are "Fake News" And "Disinformation?"

Fake news is material disseminated online that is one or more of following:

  • Blatantly, intentionally false
  • Hyperpartisan (displaying extreme political bias)
  • Severely lacking in credible attribution or supporting evidence
  • Old, verified news presented or repackaged as brand-new
  • Satirical or patently absurd (The Onion is a prime example)

This guide is meant to explain how fake news has evolved, how it spreads, and how to recognize, avoid, and refute it as much as possible. Examples of fake news sites bearing the hallmarks listed above may be found in this CBS News gallery.

Disinformation is a broader term that encompasses all examples of deliberately false or misleading information. It differs from misinformation, which refers to information that is inaccurate but not necessarily maliciously so.

Recognizing Fake News

"How to Spot Fake News," a brief article from FactCheck.org by Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson, provides some good tips on spotting fake news. As it mentions, Snopes and PolitiFact are also handy resources. The article's tips include:

  • Examine the site's URL for oddities. ABCNews.com.co, for example, mimics the real ABC News website, but .co is the domain code for the country of Columbia. A guide to Internet domain codes may be found here. (Another obvious giveaway here is if the URL contains "wordpress." While an independent blogger might use a WordPress-based site to document or comment on real news on a modest scale, a professional news organization would not.)
  • If it seems like a joke, it probably is. Most satire news either features specific disclaimers about what it is or includes other obvious clues, like a source or author name that cannot be taken seriously. If unsure, follow the story back to its source and consider that source's array of stories as a whole.
  • Check the authorship. If an author is listed, you should be able to check his/her credentials. One way of doing this is by searching for the author on LinkedIn.

Other simple things you can do:

  • Search for the same story coming from other sources. Stories of more than very local or specialized importance are usually reported or commented on by more than one source; professional news is a very competitive industry.
  • Scan for spelling/grammatical errors. A story coming from a legitimate source may have one or two that got away from the editor, but they may be rife in a fake story. This is partly due to a lot of fake news being generated internationally.
  • Scan for language that deals heavily in superlatives and extreme figures of speech. A dead giveaway is the use of ALL CAPS, as respectable news sources only make use of it on rare occasions, such as in the context of a quote.
  • Check all links. A fake news writer may throw in a few to reputable sources, possibly assuming that most readers won't bother to investigate further. Clicking on these links may show them to be broken or leading back to another source without going directly to the page or story cited.

Some potentially fake news stories, such as those in video form, may call for more advanced tactics. CBS Senior Director of Editorial, Growth & Engagement Markham Nolan demonstrates verification techniques employed by professional journalists - and shares some interesting thoughts on the nature of truth - in the following TED Talks video:

Fake News & Social Media

Facebook, Google, and their contemporaries use algorithms to track user preferences (i.e., what they click on and what search terms they choose) and send them news, updates, and advertising that are consistent with those preferences. This has led to the emergence of "filter bubbles" and consequent "echo chambers" in online communities, in which consumption of particular kinds of Web content is constantly reinforced regardless of its quality. Internet activist Eli Pariser describes this phenomenon in the following TED Talks video:

Since it is not against the law to produce fake news, it is difficult to keep it from spreading. However, in 2017 Facebook and Google began to take steps to eliminate fake news from their users' feeds, starting in France and Germany, as described in a brief Reuters article, "Facebook, Google join drive against fake news in France," by Gwenaelle Barzic and Sudip Kar-Gupta. In 2018, Facebook discontinued its "trending topics" feature.

One way to avoid getting filtered results from Web searches is by using DuckDuckGo, a search engine that does not track user information.

Fake News as Business

Those who produce fake news may have any number of personal or political agendas. However, many if not most fake news writers are driven primarily by monetary gain. By running ads on their sites, they can potentially make a significant amount of money against the minor costs of starting a simple website. The following brief video explains how this works:

 

The following articles also illustrate the entrepreneurial aspect of fake news. (The statements of the writers interviewed should be taken with a grain of salt, though, for the simple reason that they produce fake news.)

Why Do People Believe Fake News?

It is important to recognize that fake news is not the problem of any one class or section of society. While education plays a major role in determining an individual's ability to analyze information, both well educated and poorly educated groups are made vulnerable to fake news by their own biases. 

Confirmation bias refers to the human tendency to seek out information that supports one's existing beliefs, and to reject, ignore, downplay, or reinterpret information that contradicts them (Heshmat, 2015). Because of this phenomenon, it may take more of an effort to refute fake news designed for consumption by people of one's own political persuasion.

Donald Trump & Fake News

Since taking office, President Trump has complicated the fake news issue by effectively co-opting the term itself, as he has repeatedly used it as a slur or epithet for mainstream news outlets (and individual reporters) whose coverage he finds objectionable, especially CNN. This is a problematic trend, both because it adds an extra step to debunking fake news stories and because it has the potential to blur the distinction between professional reporting and actual fake news production, at least in some people's minds.

No news outlets are entirely free of political bias (as no people are), and bias colors news stories, but a news institution that is guilty of mild-to-moderate bias but strives for factual accuracy is not "fake news." The following TED Talks video addresses these and other issues.