How to Spot Fake News – For Real

With so much going wrong in the world (wars, pandemics, climate change, to name a few) and netizens playing an ever-greater role in shaping the public narrative and political response to real-world events, combatting fake news and getting to ground truth is more urgent than ever.

In a recent in-depth study on fake news by Tidio, a customer service bot platform, researchers collected answers from 470 respondents on Reddit to get a clearer picture of the phenomenon.

They found fake news is pervasive – 87% of respondents said they had encountered disinformation bots on social media. What's worse, most people don't know how to handle it. A clear majority (67%) had difficulty identifying the real from the fake among sample posts provided in the Tidio survey.

Thankfully, spotting fake news is a learnable skill. Based on their findings, the team also used several methods to spot the fake news when it pops up on your feed.

Keep the following myth-busting hacks in mind while browsing online content.

Step-by-Step

First, check the source. Any quote, stat, or fact that cannot be found in a reputable news outlet is likely fabricated. Verification is just a quick Google search away. Type in the keywords or phrases along with the name of a respectable publication (Al Jazeera, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, etc.) If there are no results in any credible media, that's a clue something is amiss.

Next, give the post a look over. Does it use a lot of emojis? Are there overly-precise hashtags that push a specific political goal? (for example, #scrapIrandeal) These are telltale signs of a fake news bot.

Also, look at the way the content is presented. For example, many fake posts pretend to share information some authority (the government, the media, or just an ominous “they”) want to keep secret. This creates a sense of intimacy with the reader that they are letting you in on something exclusive. Such posts also lean heavily on anecdotes and personal experience to lend credibility to their claims.

If the content is dodgy, it's now time to check the profile to see if it's a bot. Look for the following red flags: a faceless profile photo, a made-up pseudonym instead of a regular name, a low number of followers, and very little personal information (for example, their profession, education, etc.).

Also, don't be fooled if their photo gallery is filled with pics of children and animals. This tactic is often used to make fake profiles appear more genuine, per Tidio.

If still unsure, leverage an online fact-checking tool to get a second read. Websites such as FactCheck.orgWashington Post Fact CheckerPolitiFact, and Snopes are made for this purpose and give the background context to many half-truth memes that spread online.

For suspect photos, try Google Lens. This app does a reverse image search to check if the picture has been published in the past, revealing if the poster is misappropriating it as “evidence” for their fake news story.

Once you're sure it's a fake post, it's time to report it. Reporting on fake news is like picking up litter – a simple form of public service. If everyone bent down to pick up every empty container they come across, the streets would be pristine.

Fake bots have the numerical advantage – outnumbering real users almost two to one on Facebook. So join the good fight and go the extra mile to clean up the social media landscape.

Going Deeper

While these hacks are a useful starting point, fake news offers us the chance to use a more profound faculty – critical thinking.

Applying a critical frame of mind helps counter fake news and identifies articles that may be fact-based but are nonetheless highly skewed or biased. Critical thinking has become a mark of sophistication in an era of political and cultural polarization and will help you rise above the noise.

A group of experts on the subject interviewed by Warren Berger recommended asking the four following questions when deconstructing an argument.

1. How Strong Is The Evidence?

Rather than just checking the source, critical thinkers weigh up the competing evidence for and against a claim. They can then make a judgment call: “There are three strong reasons this is true, and one shaky reason it is false; therefore, I'll consider it true.”

2. What Are They Not Telling Me?

Critical thinkers are always aware that the information being presented is incomplete. Behind every published piece of content is an unseen editing process with potentially important information forever kept in the dark, left on the cutting room floor, so to speak. By thinking laterally and reading widely, critical thinkers can identify these holes, expose weak arguments and avoid their hidden pitfalls.

3. Does “B” Really Follow “A”?

Watch out for poorly constructed arguments that jump to false conclusions. These “logical fallacies” give the façade of believability, but they don't stand up to the light of reason on closer inspection. Critical thinkers are attuned to the gamut of these fallacies, from those that rely on authority (“I'm the leader, so you should believe me”), to excluded middles (“you're with us or against us”), and many others. Carl Sagan has identified twenty.

4. What Is The Other Side?

Critical thinkers strive to be responsible for their own bias and how this colors their worldview. To do this, proactively consider opposing positions and be persuadable by others. This helps broaden one's perspective and become a better debater too.

The Great Debate

While individuals can train themselves to become less susceptible to the pull of fake news, tackling the roots of the problem will require solutions at the societal level.

Social media platforms could cut down on the number of bots and fake accounts they host through user verification, but this would compromise user privacy. Less than half of those interviewed by Tidio (42%) see this as a constructive solution.

There is strong support for tools to flag fake news. Over 65% of those interviewed by Tidio agree that social media platforms should add features for reporting fake news, disinformation, and war propaganda.

Yet some see this as opening the door to wholesale censorship. They fear the cure could be worse than the disease.

“If in doubt, let the speech, let it exist,” Elon Musk said recently. “If it's a gray area, I would say let the tweet exist.”

Musk, who is bidding to buy Twitter outright, views censorship as the platform's core problem and advocates a lighter approach to moderating content. However, opponents see this as a dangerous approach that could greenlight sexist, racist, and homophobic hate speech.

There is little consensus between the government and the private sector over regulatory solutions.

In the meantime, we can educate ourselves and inform our friends and family about how to spot fake news and think more critically about online content. This can help minimize the impact of fake news on your life and those around you.

When those around us are aware of the problem, there is less chance they will send fake news our way. This helps create a more reliable, fact-based information ecosystem to thrive in.

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Credit: Unsplash.


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Liam Gibson is a journalist based in Taiwan who regularly publishes in Al Jazeera, Nikkei Asia Review, Straits Times, and other international outlets. He also runs Policy People, a podcast and online content platform for think tank experts.