There’s a lot of money to be made upsetting you.
It’s true. Your outrage and surprise are what keeps a lot of businesses afloat and is why terms like “clickbait” and “fake news” were invented. We have all been upset about news stories, then shared and retweeted them only to find out a day or two later the story was based on a lie or half-truth.
So many businesses these days rely on the concept of “going viral” that they’re bending the rules of responsible journalism to create stories and articles which “sell”.
For the record, this isn’t a new concept; there’s a reasonably famous old Mark Twain quote which says, “A lie travels halfway across the world while the truth is putting its boots on.”
Funny thing is that quote is also a lie, invented in 1919 and propagated for more than a hundred years. Mark Twain never actually said or wrote it, though in his capacity as a journalist it’s almost certain he would have agreed with the sentiment. The origin of the quote is much older and comes from Jonathan Swift – the author of Gulliver’s Travels – who wrote in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it”.
So, it’s been well understood for more than 300 years that “fake news” sells.
The major difference between Jonathan Swift’s day and ours is the completely ludicrous speed with which fake news stories can propagate. These days a lie can travel ten times around the world while the truth is deciding which shoes best match its outfit, and that velocity is due to people like you and me sharing and retweeting stories which are false.
We (waves hand) need to be better. We need to get better at identifying online falsehood, and we need to get better at sharing it around. Or not, you know what I mean.
At its essence, it is easy to spot (most) fake news:
1. Read the whole article.
Don’t trust the headline, and check to see whether the lede is buried.
2. Quality check.
Check the 5 Ws and form an opinion. Is this article suspicious, trustworthy, or bullshit?
3. Dig a bit.
Confirm your suspicion by cross-checking some of the information in the article.
4. Act accordingly.
Don’t be part of the problem: only share trustworthy articles.
It’s as simple as that, but there’s (obviously) (a lot) more to it than that. Please keep reading …
Read the whole article
Don’t share, retweet or like an article until you’ve read the whole thing.
Clickbait is such a well-known term nowadays that my six-year-old is able to explain the concept much more confidently than he would be able to tie his own shoelaces. Pretty extraordinary then considering the word wasn’t even invented until 2006 (by Jay Geiger, in a blog post). Though it was originally understood to apply more to articles where the headline is sensationalist or “bends” the truth, these days it’s not terribly uncommon for headlines to actually straight up lie about the content of an article to try and entice you to click through to read it. It’s no accident that many large “news” organisations are registered as entertainment organisations for legal purposes – so they don’t have to uphold journalistic standards, and to protect them from being sued!
Reading the whole article will also give you a clear(er) picture of whether an article is satire, something which can be quite difficult to determine based purely on a headline.
By suggesting you read the entire article, please note we’re not telling you to read every single article that comes across your timeline, that would be impossible. The simple point we’re making here is that you aren’t able to determine whether an article is “fake news” or not until you have read the whole thing. And if something is worth sharing then it must be worth reading first, right?
Once you’ve read the article, you’ll need to make a quick assessment of its quality to form a preliminary opinion on whether it’s rubbish, suspicious, or trustworthy. This is, again, a massively complex topic – there are literally university degrees you can obtain about “quality journalism”, but we’ll keep it brief here for the sake of your time and sanity. In the context of this blog post the “quality” we’re verifying here is a simple low/medium/high assessment of the “truthiness” of an article. Whether it smells like bullshit or roses.
The 5 Ws is one of the basic and most fundamental concepts in information gathering and, as such, is a cornerstone of journalism, research, and police investigations. In almost all cases you can consider a news article incomplete unless it clearly and directly answers the 5 Ws: Who, What, When, Where, and Why.
If an article is poorly written or being intentionally misleading it will try to sneak at least one or two of the Ws past you without an answer, usually by being intentionally vague. An article cannot be considered complete or trustworthy unless it has answered all 5.
Let’s consider – as an example – an imaginary article that talks about the release of a new report on climate change, and run it through the 5 Ws:
Who exactly is the article about? Who compiled the climate change report? Does the article name names? Be very suspicious of articles which are vague about the “who”, containing sentences like “A group of leading scientists” without going on to tell you exactly which scientists.
What is the title of the report? What exactly did the report say? Does the article contain actual quotes from the report, or does it simply give you its opinion on what the report contained? Does the article link to the actual (original) report itself, allowing you to read it in its entirety?
When exactly was the report released? How long did it take to write? Temporal information is important too. Some unethical sites will even report on a twenty-year-old stock market crash as if it happened yesterday.
Vagueness is, again, the enemy. Where exactly was the report released? At a press conference? Which city, in which country?
The “why” can sometimes be difficult to pin down, but it is important as it can help paint a fuller picture. Was our climate change report, for example, paid for by an oil company by any chance?
Specific detail is the lifeblood of good journalism, and vagueness is the enemy.
Bear in mind there may be good reasons a news article is unable to establish a direct and clear answer to all of the Ws mentioned above, but it should always tell you when that is the case. If, for example, an article on a recent murder indicates the “Why” is not known it should say that it is not known: “The motive is not yet known”, or something to that effect.
Once you’ve formed an opinion on the quality of an article you should be able to determine whether you think it’s low quality rubbish, whether it appears trustworthy, or whether it’s somewhere in between (to be treated with caution). Accurately categorizing an article in this way is a skill that does take some practice, so be patient while you hone it.
If you believe the article to be rubbish then close it and forget about it, otherwise progress to the next and final step.
Dig a bit
Now that you have an initial opinion on the trustworthiness of an article you should dig a bit deeper, to test whether your opinion is correct or not.
Check the source
First, check the website address. If you don’t know the site, have a quick look at its “About” page to see whether they list a physical address and “real” e-mail addresses. A site with a PO Box and a contact us listing only a gmail address can be considered very suspicious. The “About” page may also tell you more about the site itself – for legal reasons they may feel compelled to mention they’re a “fantasy news service” (yup, those exist!) or satire site.
If the about page looks legitimate, have a quick look at other news stories the website has published. If it has run with “Lady Diana eloped with Bigfoot” and “Obama is the Antichrist” you may have a problem.
If you do know (and trust) the site, double-check the domain name to ensure it’s correct – certain seedy operators have been buying up common typos of popular websites, for example.
Check the author
The by-line of an article can give you easily verifiable information to see whether an article can be trusted or not. Journalists are usually quite good at spreading themselves around online, so should be easy to find on LinkedIn or Twitter, and their qualifications and awards are usually quick and easy to double-check. If the article was written by John Doe who has won the Pulitzer 29 times just close the page and move on.
Stop, corroborate and listen
As the saying goes, “To trust is good, to verify is better.” The final step in the dig is to spot check a few verifiable facts mentioned in the article itself. The less trustworthy you consider an article – based on your quality check above – the more spot checking is advisable. Try to independently verify at least 3 data points in an article if it is from an unknown source and author. There shouldn’t be much thinking required at this point – just do a quick check to see whether what the article says is corroborated by other (preferably primary) sources.
An effective first check is to follow links to see if they go where the article says they would. In our example above, does a link to the climate change report open a climate change report which has the title we would expect? Fake news articles will often brazenly link to incorrect pages, relying on you to not click through.
Another effective check is to drop quotations from the article into your favourite search engine. When searching online, wrap your search in quotation marks to only return exact matches.
Do some snooping on specific people mentioned in the article. Can you find them on twitter? Does their LinkedIn profile match the title given to them by the article?
When corroborating or cross-checking an article, be cynical. Act as if you have been lied to, and as if it’s only a matter of time until the lie is uncovered. If your article fails at the corroboration point it is possible that you’ve found an innocent mistake, but even if that is the case consider treating the entire piece as a lie – life’s too short to have to sift through truths and half-truths, if the article itself is based on reality it will show up on your timeline again, perhaps with the mistakes corrected this time.
At this stage you should have a clear opinion whether the article in question is accurate or not. If it’s not accurate, then be brutal – just ignore it and move on, don’t share or retweet fake news even if it is with a “this is nonsense” description. Fake news needs oxygen to survive, don’t give it any.
Ok, that takes care of the rubbish – but what about the articles that look alright? The ones which appear believable and trustworthy? Before you decide to share or retweet, there are a few things to consider.
Check your bias
Before you share a news story take a moment to check your bias. Did you follow all the steps above carefully, or did you perhaps skim over a few because you like what the article has to say?
As humans we tend to favour information that strengthens our previously held beliefs. Conversely, we tend to discount or even ignore information that weakens our previously held beliefs. This “confirmation bias” can lead to us fact checking the hell out of stories we disagree with, and only vaguely checking stories we do agree with. Don’t fall into this trap!
It might still be fake
The checks above will catch a fair amount of fake news red-handed, but there’s still a chance the news you’ve read is untrue. Before you share it with your friends or followers, consider the impact if it does end up being false?
Being able to identify fake news online is a great first step, but there is more that can be done. Friends don’t let friends share fake news – if you have friends or contacts online who tend to regularly share fake news please consider helping them towards the light by sharing this article with them.
And if they continue to regularly share fake news with you once you’ve shown them the light, consider showing them the door instead. Seriously. Don’t be afraid to unfriend or unfollow someone who regularly shares fake news: they are wasting your time and wasting your attention.
Gabrielle is an evidence-based vegan coach who believes that health transformation begins when you switch to a plant-based diet. Her mission is to help midlife women eat in alignment with who they are and what they value so that they can lead a happier, healthier and more fulfilling life.
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Written by Gabrielle (hi!), these e-mails will help you on your plant-based journey with useful tips, tricks, facts and inspiration – and perhaps the occasional inappropriate joke thrown in for good measure.