Best Ways to Identify Fake News Online

May 2017

Decades before there was fake news there were urban legends: amazing stories often propagating by word of mouth. Big alligators in the sewers of New York City that originated as pets flushed down toilets. False. A traveler in a foreign country wakes up in a tub of ice to discover thieves stole one of his kidneys. False. Two grandsons of John Tyler, the 10th president of the U.S., are still living. True!

One of the early popular websites on the internet was Snopes.com. Every time you ran across one of these urban legends, now more commonly propagating via email, you could go to Snopes and find out if it was true. Usually a bit of research could separate fact from the fantastic.

And Snopes tells me that in fact it's true that John Tyler, who was born in 1790 and was president from 1841–1845, has two living grandchildren. At the age of 63, in 1853, he fathered Lyon Tyler, who then fathered two sons when he was in his 70s, both of whom were born in the 1920s and are still living.

For years Snopes was fun, but now it's serious business. The proliferation of fake news online has made the site more necessary than ever before. And it's been joined by a bunch of others: Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, Fullfact.org, and more. Also, Hoaxy is an interesting tool that lets you visualize the origin and spread of any particular bit of fake news. In addition, the site also tracks the number of fact-checks by websites such as Factcheck.org.

Fortunately, top websites have begun taking steps to stem the spread of fake news. Facebook, for example, now alerts users who are about to share content that has been found to be fake. If they click the "post anyway" link, then the post appears on Facebook timelines with a label saying that the content is disputed and links to relevant pages on sites such as Snopes.

In addition to these tools, there's much you can do yourself to ferret out what's fake, according to a helpful article by Wynne Davis on the NPR website.

First, look at the URL. Many fake news sites use URLs that are similar to major news organizations. For example, websites that originated a lot of fake news during the election often used the suffix "co," such as ABCNews.com.co. That website had 6 of the top 50 fake news hits in 2016, including a widely circulated article claiming that Obama had banned the pledge of allegiance in schools. Another common suffix on fake sites is "lo." Be wary, too, of odd domain names.

In addition, be sure to check the "About Us" link on websites. When I went to a news story on ABCNews.com.co, the About Us tab gave the owner's residential address and actually had a picture of his house. This obviously wasn't the headquarters for the ABC News organization. Some fake news websites, including one that was raking in $10,000 per month, simply acknowledge on the About Us page that they're publishing satire.

Also, pay attention to the style. Fake news will often use amateurish typography, such as all caps, bold, and underlining in order to sensationalize the material. You may also notice issues with grammar and spelling, and poor website design, as well as eye-catching click-bait images.

It's also important to look for corroborating information. If a website is making an extraordinary claim, and if that claim is true, then it's likely that other news organizations will also be reporting it.

In addition, fake news sites tend to "borrow" their photos, since they likely don't have their own source. You can use Google to see where else a particular photo is being used. If it's being used to illustrate a variety of stories on different topics, that suggests that the fake news site simply grabbed it from some other website to make their news look more legitimate

To access this feature, go the images.google.com, and click on the camera icon. Then either enter the link to the photo or save the photo to your computer and click on the tab to upload it to Google.

Interestingly, you can't always completely trust some legitimate news sites, because some of them will let a wide range of contributors blog for them. For example, Forbes.com has a network of over 1,500 bloggers. Forbes probably isn't going to accept bloggers who post sensational fake news, but in general, the posts by the bloggers don't receive the same sort of editorial scrutiny and fact checking as the staff writers.

If there's a silver lining to fake news, it's that we're being forced to be more discriminative regarding what we read online. That may be a good thing.


© 2017 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen