What is fake news?
There are four broad categories of fake news, according to media professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College.
CATEGORY ONE: Fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. Some of these websites may rely on outrage by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares and profits on social media.
CATEGORY TWO: Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information.
CATEGORY THREE: Websites which sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions.
CATEGORY FOUR: Satire/comedy sites, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news.
No single topic falls under a single category. For example, false or misleading medical news may be entirely fabricated (Category One), may intentionally misinterpret facts or misrepresent data (Category Two), may be accurate or partially accurate but use an alarmist title to get your attention (Category Three) or may be a critique on modern medical practice (Category Four). Some articles fall under more than one category. It is up to you to do the legwork to make sure your information is good.
Why should you care?
1: You deserve the truth. You are smart enough to make up your own mind - as long as you have the real facts in front of you. You have every right to be insulted when you read fake news, because you are in essence being treated like an idiot.
2: Fake news destroys your credibility. If your arguments are built on bad information, it will be much more difficult for people to believe you in the future.
3: Fake news can hurt you, and a lot of other people. Bogus data was used to link vaccines with autism, igniting an anti-vaccine campaign. A photo misidentifying the alleged perpetrator of the 2018 Parkland school shooting spread on social media and the internet, leading to a wave of online harassment directed at the individual in the photograph, who was not involved with the shooting. Purveyors of fake and misleading medical advice help perpetuate myths like HIV and AIDS aren't related. These sites are heavily visited and their lies are dangerous.
4: Real news can benefit you. If you want to buy stock in a company, you want to read accurate articles about that company so you can invest wisely. If you are planning on voting in an election, you want to read as much good information on a candidate so you can vote for the person who best represents your ideas and beliefs. Fake news will not help you make money or make the world a better place, but real news can.
Adapted from Fake News (Campus Library, Indiana University East), licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Tips for spotting fake news
- Read beyond the headline.
Fake news sites often use attention-grabbing headlines. Read the entire story.
- Investigate the website or source the story appeared in.
What is its mission? Who is the publisher? Is it a respected news outlet? Or is it a personal website or blog? Pay attention to the URL. Some websites ending in “com.co” are actually fake versions of legitimate news sites.
- Check the author.
Do a Google search or check LinkedIn. Is the author credible? What are his/her credentials?
- Look at the sources.
Does the article reference outside sources to support its claims? Are they trustworthy?
- Check the date.
Does the article take an older story but give it a new headline and pretend it just happened? Click through the links to find the actual date.
- Beware of bias including your own.
Is the article skewed toward a particular point of view? Are you more likely to believe it simply because it reinforces your own beliefs?
- Do other news sites or outlets report the same story?
If not, it’s probably fake.
- Is it a joke?
Some sites intentionally publish satirical news articles which are sometimes mistakenly taken as fact.
- Ask the experts.
Check with a librarian or consult a fact-checking site.
What does non-fake news look like?
Michael Schnudson, a professor at the Columbia Journalism School, identifies the following earmarks of journalistic quality:
- Willingness to retract, correct, and implicitly or explicitly apologize for misstatements in a timely manner.
- An interest in contrary evidence.
- Follow the story regardless of its political implication.
- Be calm and declarative. No hyperventilating.
- Present multiple positions or viewpoints within a story if the topic is controversial.
- Identify your sources whenever possible.
- Use commonly accepted data and reliable authorities.
- Pursue evidence and leads that run counter to your hunches, passions, and preferences and, when the evidence pans out, give it appropriate attention in your story.
For a discussion, see Michael Schudson. "Here's What Non-Fake News Looks Like." Columbia Journalism Review, 23 Feb. 2017.
Want more tips?
Avoid fake news
Avoid fake news by only using sources you know are reputable. Do not rely on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Reputable news sources include the Associated Press and Reuters.
You can also search MCC's library databases which contain articles from thousands of vetted sources.