How to Detect and Refute Fake News

It’s easier than ever for some to create a website and publish completely fictional stories that are becoming international headlines. This makes it harder to tell the truth from fiction or to share news with other people who may not be able to tell the difference either. Fortunately, fake news isn’t that hard to spot. Here’s how and how to filter it from your feeds.

Watch out for fake or “satirical” sites that contain completely false information

Whether or not you think fake news shaped the outcome of the 2016 election, it certainly influenced it. This year we have seen a rise in the number of sites designed to grab attention with completely fictional stories. At best, these sites misinform the people who read them, and at worst, they drown out credible news in a continuous stream of stories that need to be debunked. Often these sites will declare themselves “satire” or claim to be “for entertainment purposes,” although they may omit the disclaimer entirely. The authors of these sites do not strive for anything even close to authenticity.

A man named Paul Horner has created several of these sites. He owns several real-sounding URLs including nbc.com.co and abcnews.com.co. Note the extraneous “.co” at the end of these sites. None of them are in any way affiliated with the news organizations they are named after, but if you don’t look too closely at the link you click on, they appear to be legitimate. These sites offer completely fictional stories that may feel real if you’re not well informed or looking for something to support your worldview.

One of Horner’s websites claims that President Obama will run for a third presidential term. It is illegal under the 22nd amendment. Another claims that Obama signed an executive order to investigate the 2016 election results and schedule a “repeat vote” for December 19. This is also illegal and impossible. Despite the fact that these stories are clearly fake, the idea that they may be true makes people angry. They are still spread, used as ammunition for arguments, and viral bait for people looking for something to support their confirmation bias. As a result, these sites generate huge income for advertisers.

Horner himself said in an interview with The Washington Post that this is because his readers are not fact-checking. The New York Times similarly interviewed the owner of the fake news site, Beka Latsabidze , who said that creating fake stories “comes down to income, nothing more.” While both Horner and Latsabidze claim their sites act like “satire,” it’s no secret that if no one fell for the trick, their sites would have a harder time making money. To make matters worse, Facebook has a vested interest in showing readers the stories they love, even if they aren’t true. As reported by Gizmodo, Facebook has tools to shut down fake news sites , but they were unable to use them because they feared they would look biased. Instead, your friends or even Facebook’s trending news module could potentially provide you with completely false news, and Facebook will reward them as if they were true.

Completely fake news sites can be found all over the place, but they are also the easiest to avoid. Extensions like BS Detector will tell you when you are about to click a link from a questionable source. You can also check the site url. Most major news sites will redirect to a .com or .net domain, even if they own a different version of the URL. If you are reading a site that ends in less common domains like .co, search the Internet for the name of the news agency to find their real site first. If you can’t find the article you’re reading on a more trusted domain, don’t trust it. Finally, take a look at the site footer. Many sites will have a disclaimer stating that the site is “satire” or other distribution of claims that it is not legal.

Use fact-checking tools to check under-reported stories on legitimate news sites

It is relatively easy to detect news from fictional sources. However, some false stories can still appear on legitimate news outlets. In some cases, these sites jump on potential news without proper research or confirmation, and the result is a false story that goes viral. Even if a later post refutes it, it usually doesn’t achieve popularity. It is “fake news” in that the story is bogus even though the story’s release is real.

The New York Times gives a detailed example of how fake stories can be spread in this story . In this example, Twitter user Eric Tucker photographed several buses near the post-election protest, claiming the protests were “inorganic,” including the hashtag “#fakeprotests.” This story was picked up by several small news outlets. However, this statement was false.

Further investigation revealed that the buses were leased by Tableau Software for the conference. The buses never carried protesters and had nothing to do with politics. However, the story was shared thousands of times on social media, and by then the damage had already been done. While not covered by major news outlets, it did appear on smaller news sites like Right Wing News and The Gateway Pundit, especially those reaching out to the ends of the political spectrum, and was also disseminated by public figures including Joe the Plumber . The tweet that started the story was flawed and misinformed, but still created a story with no real basis.

In a similar situation, multiple tweets from a single Twitter user sparked a storm of reports that CNN had accidentally broadcast 30 minutes of porn. As reported by Gizmodo, this is unlikely . No one other than this Twitter user has seen the alleged porn, and CNN said it could find no evidence that its broadcast in Boston was interrupted. Despite inconclusive evidence – which could very well be a hoax or an isolated error – the story was picked up by The International Business Times , The Independent , Mashable, and others. Many of them used a headline that positioned the story as a question. “Did CNN actually broadcast porn for 30 minutes?” When stories have to use questions as headings, the answer is usually no . It’s also a clever way to tell a story without backing it up.

Stories like these are harder to fight because in some cases the truth is more difficult to establish and never have the same viral reach as lies. In this case, fact- checking sites such as Snopes , Politifact, and FactCheck.org can be helpful. In the case of buses, Snopes posted this article explaining the error. The downside is that these sites aren’t always fast enough to keep up with false stories. Snopes’ story about the bus was posted on November 11, two days after the original tweet and one day after articles about it hit the Internet.

It’s also important to remember that no fact-checking site is perfect. While they are useful for exposing obvious hoaxes or information known to be false, they are not intended to be exhaustive. If you come across a questionable claim in an article, check out the history (if any) on fact-checking sites, but remember to supplement your reading with additional analysis, both inside and outside your bubble .

Look for evidence to support accusation-only stories

In addition to people who make up online (intentionally or accidentally), political and corporate figures often muddy the news with accusations. In trying to promote “neutrality,” many news outlets are hesitant to claim that a public figure’s claim is blatantly false, even if it is clearly so. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls this accusatory reporting .

Prosecution-based reporting has a basic structure:

  1. Person A is indicting Person B.
  2. Person B denies the accusation.
  3. The news outlet reports that the accusation has been brought forward and denied, but does not offer any information to support or refute the accusation.
  4. The accusation itself, rather than the accuracy of the statement, is viewed as newsworthy.

Rosen says this contradicts the factual reports. In evidence-based reporting, the story should begin with information about the veracity of the accusation. If there is no evidence to support the accusation, this should be stated in the article. If there is evidence to refute the accusation, the article should say about this as well. Evidence must be presented in lieu of prosecution.

For example, President-elect Donald Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally , costing him a popular vote. According to Rosen , in reporting based on the allegations, the accusation will be held valid until it is refuted just because it was announced by the president-elect. An evidence-based report must have evidence before a story can be considered true. In this particular case, The Washington Post clarified that there was no compelling evidence of massive vote tampering on the scale cited by the president-elect. Attempts are being made in several states to recount, but until the recount is complete or the data is released, there is no evidence to rely on, only allegations.

While most news outlets at least report this information, many legitimate organizations publish headlines that simply quote the president-elect’s statement, giving the impression that the accusation is more credible than it really is. This practice presents a claim in a bombastic manner to attract readers, but sets a misleading tone from the outset.

This is especially problematic when readers are inundated with stories they need to check out. This places the burden on the reader of verifying each statement (including those in the title itself, which he just read), rather than making it as easy as possible to get accurate information. In the pursuit of sensational cliques, casual or busy readers can be misinformed. To make matters worse, stories based on accusations without evidence can greatly distract from legitimate stories that have evidence to study.

Unfortunately, this particular brand of fake news is one of the most widespread, and even the major media are to blame for this. To avoid falling victim to accusatory messages, consider how the story is structured and what evidence it offers. If the story simply repeats the accusations and defenses of the people involved, there is probably a better version of the story elsewhere. Once again, fact-checking and detailed reporting can be helpful in this area.

When misinformation spreads uncontrollably, it is easy to argue that there is no good journalism left in the world. In fact, it just drowns . For every long story that delves into the details of a complex and nuanced topic, there are hundreds of stories that repeat false statements or are simply made up. Meanwhile, social media and the tools we use to watch news allow us to choose the stories we like best . As a result, we can be inundated with fake stories and lose the ability to define what is real. We’re smart enough to talk about fake news, we just don’t have time to check every story. In the end, everything slips through the cracks, and we are left with the impression we get from unfounded claims.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one easy solution, but we can start by not sharing stories simply because they piss us off. Fake news and misleading stories thrive in anger. News rightly triggers our emotional uplift when the story is true, but when it’s a lie, that emotion can lend more strength to baseless accusations that make us less informed and more polarized. Neither one nor the other helps to improve the news we read.

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