Tips for Students on How to Identify Fake News
Throughout the 2016 U.S. election cycle, politicians and the media would frequently use the term “fake news.” Originally intended to describe the type of falsified, non-factual news content that was proliferating via social media, the term has taken on another meaning as President Donald Trump and other politicians shout “fake news” to attack and discredit reporting from media organizations running news stories the politicians don’t like, even though the reporting is factual and verified.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for students and other segments of the population to know how to identify fake news. A typical example of where fake news originates is a bogus website that looks similar to an actual news outlet, but was created by an individual or organization, often operating outside the U.S., to promote a particular opinion or political philosophy. The entity publishes articles on the site that contain false information in an attempt to attack opponents and promote their views in the guise of news reporting. The articles are shared among targeted users on social media as a way to spread the misinformation.
This form of fake news is usually intended to achieve a political goal, such as discrediting a certain candidate or legislator or to weaken support for a particular side of a contentious issue. Alternatively, creators of fake news may spread misinformation to foment unrest and divisiveness among people, or simply to be malicious.
It’s easy to see why fake news is a problem, but it’s harder to identify it and prevent it from spreading. Many social media users, including journalists and politicians, are aware of problems regarding fake news, yet they unknowingly give it credence by sharing misleading, incorrect, and downright fabricated “news” on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms.
As students progress in their education and begin their professional careers, they need to be able to distinguish bogus news stories from true, fact-checked journalism. These tips help teach students how to identify fake news to ensure the news they read and view is verified and accurate. Being able to spot misinformation disguised as legitimate news will enable students to combat the widespread distribution of harmful, misleading, and false information.
History of Fake News
The recent proliferation of fake news is largely due to the convergence of two trends, as described by Visual Capitalist. First, people are relying less on traditional media for news and increasingly on social media and other digital services. Second, four times as much fake news is spread via social media than is spread via well-known news sites.
Even though today’s digital media platforms have made it easier to spread misinformation, fake news existed in various forms long before the invention of social media.
Fake news: Almost as old as the printing press
In the U.S., instances of identifiable fake news can be seen as far back as the colonial period. On Smithsonian.com, Jackie Mansky cites historian David A. Copeland’s assertion that throughout England and colonial America since the 1640s, pamphlets were distributed in an attempt to promulgate partisan opinions. According to Copeland, these pamphlets were “setting precedents for what would become common practice in eighteenth-century England and America.”
George Washington, John Adams, and other Founding Fathers were displeased by how they were portrayed in newspapers, yet they still advocated for and defended freedom of the press. James Madison in particular understood the “power that public opinion wielded,” according to Mansky. In the eighteenth century, it was more difficult to verify whether the material a newspaper printed was true, and it was nearly impossible to undo the damage to public opinion after people had been wrongly manipulated by inaccurate, incomplete, or blatantly false information.
The owners of publishing platforms are far from the only people guilty of spreading fake news to achieve their goals. As mentioned above, political leaders have long depended on newspapers, and more recently on films, television, and other media, to spread misleading, falsified, or emotionally charged propaganda for their own often-nefarious ends.
Propaganda: Pushing our emotional buttons
Among several propaganda initiatives directed against Jewish people by Nazi Germany in the 1930s was a traveling exhibit that depicted negative stereotypes about Jewish culture. This and other hateful propaganda contributed to the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe. The BBC provides a timeline of the heinous crimes of Nazis against Jews from 1933 to 1946.
During World War II, propaganda was used as an effective tool to boost support for wartime causes in the media. Posters echoed beliefs and standpoints that promoted the valuable contributions to the war effort being made by women and men on the home front. Other propaganda shared negative stereotypes of America’s enemies, including posters and films that depicted Japanese people as having exaggerated physical features and speaking broken English. This material was seen as a way to increase public support for the war effort by establishing an immediate emotional connection with viewers.
The Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s is another example of the use of propaganda tools in the U.S. At that time, government agencies used film, radio, television, and print media with the intention of making citizens fearful about the rise of communism. The same tactics were used by public agencies and private interests against many other social, political, and economic causes that the established interests perceived as risks.
The creation of fake news to target unpopular, often anti-establishment social and political groups continued through the 1960s and persists in present day efforts to discriminate against people based on their religion or country of origin, among other purposes. The suffering that resulted from propaganda efforts of the past shows how damaging fake news can be as it spreads today. The messages evoke strong emotional responses in the people viewing them, just as the propagandists intended.
Fake news goes to war against science, reason
Today’s fake news doesn’t just apply to events that have occurred recently. Many commonly held misbeliefs and misinterpretations fly in the face of facts regarding major historical events. In an article on Live Science, Jim Loewen, a historian and the best-selling author of “Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong,” claims that 60 percent to 75 percent of high school history teachers inaccurately tell their students that the South seceded from the Union because of states’ rights rather than the actual reason: to safeguard the wretched, inhumane practice of slavery upon which the Confederate States of America relied for their riches.
The same stubborn persistence of falsehoods applies to how fake news spreads today via social media: Once people have accepted a lie as true, such as the Civil War not being caused by the need to abolish the institution of slavery, it’s much more difficult to convince them of the truth and stop the spread of such misinformation.
Some countries attempt to delete all references to past news or historical items as a way to tighten their grip on power. For example, in 2013, North Korea erased 99 percent of its state news archive by deleting 35,000 articles from the Korean Central News Agency and 20,000 articles from the site of the ruling party’s official newspaper. An analyst cited by The Telegraph posits that the deletions were an attempt by then-new leader Kim Jong-un to “rewrite North Korean history.”
The challenges of preventing fake news proliferation via social media
Leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, social media was awash with identifiable fake news, yet little or nothing has been done to combat the problem because Facebook, Twitter, and other major web media firms are considered platforms or utilities rather than media. As such, the web giants are not subject to the same legal liabilities as U.S. media outlets.
In particular, older Facebook users are a major source of fake news proliferation. The journal Science Advances recently reported that people over age 65 are the most likely source of fake news stories circulating on Facebook, regardless of their political affiliation. The research also found that prior to the 2016 election, Republicans and independents were more likely to spread fake news stories than Democrats.
The researchers note that while the “vast majority of Facebook users in our data did not share any articles from fake news domains in 2016 at all,” the misinformation that does get shared has a negative impact on susceptible individuals (particularly the elderly), as well as on communities and the nation as a whole. Efforts to improve digital media literacy that at present tend to focus on students and young people need to be extended to reach older social-media users, according to the researchers.
It’s important to note that many content producers fabricate stories that initially look like news but are intended to satirize or poke fun at current events. One of the most popular satirical sites, The Onion, makes clear to its audience that its articles are satire only. Similarly, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah television program is famous for poking fun at people and events in the current news cycle.
Tips to Identify Fake News
Spotting fake news can be difficult. Even people who are aware of the damage that fake news can cause may not realize they’re reading or viewing fake news until a friend or a legitimate media outlet identifies the bogus report for them.
These tips will highlight the subtle indications of falsehoods students can look for in the news they consume and the vetting required to identify fake news and stop it from spreading. (For more tips for students and educators on spotting fake news, visit the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit group that works with media and schools to combat the spread of misinformation.)
Check the history and reputation of the author and publication
If an article is being shared on Facebook or Twitter, you can see immediately the publication where the article originated. Browse to the publication’s site to view past articles on the same or similar topics. Red flags are raised if the articles share a certain political viewpoint, if they are riddled with typos or grammatical errors, or if they are all written by the same author.
Most fake news sites are fly-by-night operations that have existed for only a few weeks or months. Knowing when a site’s domain was registered can help to identify fake news. Find out how long a site has been around by entering its address in the Domain Age Checker run by Website SEO Checker. If a site is sharing a popular article that is attempting to disgrace a politician running for office in 2020, for example, but the website itself has existed for a short time, it’s likely that the article and site are not trustworthy.
Determine whether other outlets are reporting the same news
When a big news event occurs, multiple media organizations will report it, even when they didn’t break the story. Search for other publications that have posted stories about the event or topic. If no other news outlets are reporting the story, be skeptical about the accuracy of the article or video.
Be leery of sensational headlines
Fake news is designed to strike an immediate emotional chord in audiences by using an alarming headline. Often people share such a story based solely on the headline, without even reading the article itself. If a headline attacks a newsworthy figure, seems outlandish, or simply lacks the ring of truth, search the internet for reliable sources that confirm the accuracy of the story and the headline (which are often written by two different people).
Carefully scrutinize photos and other media that accompany the stories
A favorite technique of fake news purveyors is the use of eye-catching images or videos. While a picture can be worth a thousand words, it is worthless — and potentially damaging — if the image is intended to mislead viewers rather than inform them.
If you see a shocking or particularly engaging photo or video in an article, take a moment to determine whether the media pertains to the main gist of the story or is intended solely to incite an emotional reaction in readers. Use a service such as TinEye to conduct a reverse image search. This search will show where else on the web the image appears, and it will indicate whether the image has been tampered with. For many video clips that go viral, there is additional video footage that either isn’t shown or hasn’t yet been published that tells a different story. Photos that support a certain stance or viewpoint are sometimes staged or digitally edited to misrepresent the true content. In both instances it can be difficult to tell real from unreal.
Evaluate the trustworthiness of the immediate source of the image, the person who shared the media, and the outlet where it was originally published. A little time spent researching might show whether any of these sources has a particular agenda, or whether the person who captured or shared the photo could be spreading misinformation, intentionally or unintentionally.
Consider the reasons why this person is sharing this news with you at this time
One of the wonders of the digital age is that it has brought people with like-minded ideas and values together across communities, across the country, and across the world. However, digital technology has also led to a digital bubble for many people, who receive news and information only from sources that reinforce their existing biases and beliefs.
Social media users with strong political leanings may not immediately recognize that their Facebook friends who echo those viewpoints are spreading fake news. Just as with people over age 65 being the most susceptible to sharing fake news, it’s possible that individuals who share your worldview might be knee-jerk sharing without properly vetting the source of the information.
Make sure the story isn’t intended to be humorous
As previously stated, The Onion is widely known as a humor site that has pilloried politicians and celebrities for decades, first as a print publication established in 1988, and since 1996 on the web. However, many people may not be aware that The Onion is satirical, so they may share its articles believing them to be real and failing to identify them as satire.
Before sharing a questionable or suspicious looking news item, consider that it may be intended to be satirical or humorous.
Do some research to determine whether there are any facts to support bold claims you hear on TV
Although fake news is closely identified with social media, television remains a powerful tool for spreading misinformation. Regardless of how well trusted a TV news source or network may be, look deeper into questionable facts or statements espoused on the medium before accepting the information as true.
The vast majority of the journalists and publishing professionals at print and broadcast media organizations are hard-working and talented individuals, but they are still prone to occasional mistakes that require corrections and retractions. Take the time to make sure that the news presented by these sources is corroborated and verifiable.
Be a voice that helps stop the spread of fake news
Raise awareness within your digital circle of family, friends, and associates about the dangers of fake news. If you notice that someone is sharing fake news, speak up. Alert the person and their audience that the “news” item they posted or shared is false. Tell them about the tips and resources in this guide so they will know how to identify fake news and help combat it.
Combatting Your Own Media Biases and Opinions
Beyond identifying fake news on media platforms, students must recognize that their own biases and opinions can influence their response to reliable information as well as to material whose authenticity is questionable.
Be aware of your own political biases when trying to spot fake news
Imagine a military conflict erupts between two countries in Europe. A person from one of those countries might find themselves engaging only in media that supports their own viewpoint. Even someone who is well educated may find their news consumption is one-sided, and thus they may fail to understand the full-scope of the conflict.
Every person has biases, from the political parties and causes they support, to preferences over which news sources and media outlets they favor. Recognizing their own biases can help students effectively spot fake news.
Know that even the most reputable news organizations have biases and commit errors
Fox News is conservative. MSNBC is liberal. Every media source has some bias, but this doesn’t mean they are reporting fake news. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who break big stories that accurately inform the world about important events and issues have some biases. While these beliefs make them more susceptible to occasional errors and create blind spots in their perception of a story, it doesn’t rise to the level of fake news, which is created with the intent to deceive by using misinformation or downright lies.
The key is how quickly a media outlet responds when a report is erroneous and the steps it takes to set the record straight. Students should be aware that even though reputable news organizations occasionally make mistakes, they are still trustworthy. A news organization that fails to acknowledge and correct its mistakes will cause all of its reporting to come into question.
Expand your digital horizons to include diverse voices and opinions
Students need to seek out reliable sources that express diverse opinions and represent varied perspectives on current events to educate themselves about different viewpoints on issues. Sometimes these sources aren’t digital, but flesh-and-blood.
In the digital era, when students’ attention bounces from one screen to the next, it is imperative that they strive to connect with classmates, faculty, and others in real life. Face-to-face remains the most effective way to share new ideas and political perspectives. Being trained to seek out the full spectrum of facts and opinions on a matter makes students better prepared to identify and stop fake news.
To learn more, visit University of North Dakota’s Online Master of Science in Cybersecurity page.