“Fake news” is making headlines this year, but online hoaxes are nothing new. They’ve existed for as long as the internet has been around.
In the 1990s, computer-virus warnings and missing-child hoaxes invaded the web, mostly via email and text-based websites. Then came the rise of online photos and videos, which spurred a new wave of phony stories with outrageous claims of the “woman gives birth to kitten” variety. And, later, the social-media revolution made it easier for lies to spread online. Misinformation proliferated in the political sphere during the 2008 US presidential election.
But fake news really came into its own in politics last year when a group of teens from Macedonia and many others discovered they could earn real money by selling ads on sites with viral hoaxes. Some say this fake news fueled populist election upsets like the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s US president win.
“We’d always covered political stuff, but that last election made it overwhelming,” said David Mikkelson, founder of the fact-checking service Snopes. He started the site in 1994 to debunk online hoaxes, and said most of the political ones he used to encounter were spread for partisan or ideological reasons. “But this was the one when people realized they could make money from it.”
Now, Mikkelson says, the bulk of the claims Snopes fact checks are related to politics.
With so much misinformation traversing the internet—sometimes disguised as fact—how can the casual reader spot the fiction? Social networks like Facebook, which works with Snopes, have new tools and guides to help users verify information on their platforms.
There’s no perfect science. Even professionals can be duped by fake news. But basic information gathering and critical thinking can help readers spot the red flags.
Quartz gathered some tips from the folks who fight fake news for a living: Snopes; Storyful, a News Corporation-owned company that verifies social posts for news outlets; and Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist who wrote the book, Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era.
Use fact checkers. Readers are busy. They don’t always have time to vet every piece of news they encounter. That’s why there are dozens of fact-checking sites around the world that do so, including Snopes. The Duke Reporters’ Lab counted 114 dedicated fact-checking teams in 47 countries this year, up from 44 in 2014.
Sometimes, even these sites can’t conclusively say whether something is true or false. But a good fact-checking service will lay out its verification process and explain which information you should take with a grain of salt, and why.
Vet the URLs. Lots of fake-news sites resemble real outlets or local news media, like the domain TMZWorldStarNews.com, which looks like actual entertainment gossip sites, and The Sacramento Dispatch, a phony news site set up to promote the horror movie A Cure for Wellness. Look closely at the URL , and be wary of odd domain names or additional domains after the “.com” (NBC.com.co, for instance), says Mandy Jenkins, head of news at Storyful.
Follow the links. If the news is aggregated from other outlets, follow the links in the story back to the original reporting source and see what else they’ve published. Is it mostly fringe opinion pieces? Then there might be an obvious slant in the coverage. The story may also have originated in satire and been mistaken for fact, like news of an alleged Hollywood strike that called for Trump’s resignation, which was first published on the news satire site The Rightists. If you can’t find the original reporting source at all, that should be a red flag, too.
Search key phrases in the story. Information that sounds too outrageous probably isn’t true, or should be treated with suspicion, says Mikkelson at Snopes. Plug a few keys phrases from the story into Google or another search engine to see if the news was reported by any other credible sources, keeping the above tips in mind. Hoaxes can proliferate far and wide, but a quick search may also yield hits that debunk the news.
Location, location, location. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social posts are often geo-tagged. Enter the locations into Google Maps to see where they’re coming from, says Jenkins at Storyful, which specializes in vetting social posts. If the person claims to be on the ground during a terrorist attack, see if the geo-tag corroborates that. But be aware that this can be gamed, too—VPN software can make devices appear to be in places they’re not.
Check the dateline and timestamps, too. Does the timeline match up? Does it connect to the story? The information could be true, but based on an old news story that’s taken out of context.
Look for visual cues. Checking the timestamp gets tricky with photos and videos, because anyone can take an image at one place and time and upload it at another. Stories, whether false or not, can be misleading if they contain imagery that has been altered or taken out of context.
But there are clues to look for, says Jenkins: Is it raining when the sky should be clear? Is it sunny out when it should be nighttime? Has the photo been manipulated? Or is it missing some context, like this New York Times tweet that went viral without giving all the facts:
Patriots' turnout for President Obama in 2015 vs. Patriots' turnout for President Trump today: https://t.co/OxMEOqZonI pic.twitter.com/pLmJWhOw1j
— NYT Sports (@NYTSports) April 19, 2017
These photos lack context. Facts: In 2015, over 40 football staff were on the stairs. In 2017, they were seated on the South Lawn. https://t.co/iIYtV0hR6Y
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) April 20, 2017
Be skeptical of data and charts. We often take data as fact, but it can be misleading, too. Numbers can be manipulated or more complicated than they appear, Levitin points out in Weaponized Lies. It may be true that there were more commercial aviation deaths in 2014 than in 1955. But if you want to assess how likely you are to die on a flight, what you really want to know is the number of plane crashes as a proportion of the number of flights, he says. Ask yourself, are the numbers plausible? Are they relevant? Are they the best way to get at the information?
There’s fake news and then there’s just bad journalism, says Mikkelson. Trump uses “fake news” to describe outlets such as the New York Times and CNN, which publish stories he says are inaccurate. But even if his claims have a basis, what he’s describing is not “fake news”—it’s mistakes, bias, or other forms of bad journalism.
Fake news, while difficult to define, generally has no basis in fact. It could mean satirical stories on sites like the Onion that are presented as parody—but sometimes confused for truth, like the one about the mysterious note White House press secretary Sean Spicer allegedly received during a briefing with the media. Then there are stories that are mistakenly or maliciously shared as real news, such as Pizzagate, in which a DC-area pizzeria was falsely tied up in a made-up child-sex ring. It drove a man to shoot up the restaurant in a misguided attempt to rescue the supposed child sex slaves.
Fake news isn’t the only thing readers should be concerned about, of course. Bad or biased journalism can misrepresent the facts. And pieces of factual news can be distorted when they’re shared, like in a game of telephone. That’s what happened with reports that Chelsea Clinton would be receiving a lifetime-achievement award. In reality, she received an achievement award from Lifetime, the TV network, in partnership with Variety.
Think before you share. Only you can prevent the spread of fake news.
Feature image by Wendy via Flickr, licensed under CC-BY-SA-2.0.