What Is Fake News and How Can You Spot (and Outsmart) False Content?
Image: iStockphoto/BasSlabbers

Think you can spot a fake news story? Before you answer an assured “Yes,” try to pick which one of the following headlines is fake:

  1. Melania Trump’s Girl-on-Girl Photos from Racy Shoot Revealed
  2. I ran the C.I.A. and now I’m endorsing Hillary Clinton
  3. Pro-Russian Billboard Ad Celebrating Trump and Putin ‘Friendship’ Goes Viral
  4. Donald Trump Said Republicans are the ‘Dumbest Group of Voters’

If you answered “D,” you’re correct! The claim that Trump called Republicans dumb was a pro-Hillary fake headline that gained momentum this election season.

If you didn’t guess correctly, don’t fret. To help you develop your fake news detectors, we’ve collected examples of false news—from both right and left-wing sources—and grouped them into categories below, followed by general tips from a critical thinking professor to help guide your news consumption.

Fake News Type #1: Real Images Shared Out of Context for a False Impression

Not all fake news are outright lies. Instead, some stories will manipulate authentic media, such as images or sound clips, to be consumed out of context—leading to a false impression.

In early 2016, Donald Trump’s campaign released a commercial with video footage showing a swarm of migrants crossing a border. The footage was overlaid by text which said “Stop Illegal Immigration,” and audio promising the construction of a wall on America’s southern border.

“Stop Illegal Immigration”

According to the fact-checking organization PolitiFact, the footage isn’t from Mexico. The clip was posted by an Italian TV network in May 2014 and is of Moroccans going into Melilla, an autonomous North African enclave held by Spain.

The discrepancy was addressed by Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks, who said: “The use of this footage was intentional and selected to demonstrate the severe impact of an open border and the very real threat Americans face if we do not immediately build a wall and stop illegal immigration.”

NBC News reported that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski followed up, saying “No sh-- it’s not the Mexican border, but that's what our country is going to look like. This was 1,000 percent on purpose.”

However, the ad makes no such clarification. And, in the context of the video’s message along with this campaign’s previous statements, it’s our opinion that many viewers would conclude that the video shows the U.S.-Mexico border—not a border in Africa.

How to fight real media that’s shared out of context to create a fake impression?

Don’t take images at face value. Instead, double check context by:

  • Looking for attribution—any indication of when and where the photo was taken.
  • Performing a Google reverse image search to confirm the origin of the media and whether or not it’s been used out of context.

Fake News Type #2: Imposter Websites Designed to Mimic Trusted Sources

It’s easy to get caught up in excitement when you find an article that supports your views—so caught up that you forget to double-check the source. That’s a mistake Eric Trump made when he retweeted this fake ABC news site:

Eric Trump's tweet

If you look closely at the URL, you see it’s “Abc.com.co,” instead of the official ABC News domain which is “abcnews.go.com.”

That “.co” at the end implies that the copycat website is, in fact, from the country of Columbia. There’s even a site, Clone Zone, which makes copying an existing (and trusted) website easy to do.

As we mentioned in our article exposing fake news on Facebook, Eric Trump isn’t the only one to have been fooled by copycat news sites. The New York Times and Daily Mail have also recently been copied.

How to catch copycat websites?

Check the URL, then Google the name of the news source you think you’re visiting and compare to verify the trustworthiness of your source.

Fake News Type #3: Fake or Misleading News Articles

We’ve recently covered how the prevalence of fake news articles on Facebook has been subject to some serious scrutiny since the election.

Despite founder Mark Zuckerberg’s assertion that those responsible for the platform are taking this issue seriously, this screenshot of his statement framed by fake news ads speaks volumes:

Screenshot of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post

BuzzFeed journalist Craig Silverman recently wrote an analysis showing how much engagement fake news articles gathered on Facebook—and that it’s not just fake news websites, but some real sources pushing out faux truths.

According to Silverman’s research, three big right-wing Facebook pages published false or misleading information 38% of the time during the period analyzed, and three large left-wing pages did so in nearly 20% of posts. (You can read his the complete article here.)

However, it’s important to know that fake news isn’t a Facebook problem, it’s a problem everywhere.

How to stop falling for fake or misleading news?

Start by learning to identify biased news sources. Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, has created a public Google Doc listing news sites that distribute incorrect information.

The document, titled “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources,” lists over 140 different websites, organized into four main categories, to help you distinguish between different types of incorrect information:

  1. “Fake, false, regularly misleading sites” which rely on “outrage” using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits.” (Examples: Politicalo, AmericanNews.com)
  2. Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information. (Examples: ConsciousLifeNews.com, CountdownToZeroTime.com)
  3. Websites that sometimes use clickbait headlines in social media descriptions. (Examples: BipartisanReport.com, TheFreeThoughtProject.com)
  4. Purposefully fake satire/comedy sites that can offer critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news. (Examples: Christwire.org, TheOnion.com)

Fake News Type #4: Visual Aids Sharing Faux Facts and Quotes

False information is also frequently presented in easily-shared graphics, images, and video. For example, this fake pro-Hilary image claiming that people could stay at home and vote via text filled conservative news feeds days before the election.

Fake pro-Hilary image

Often so creative and convincing to the point that those who come across them don’t think to question their authenticity.

And, since they often come in the form of images, graphs, or videos, these memes are highly shareable, and quickly fill up news feeds.

Because of their format, some who might attempt to verify the information don’t know when or how to check their authenticity.

How to verify visual aides sharing potentially-faux facts and quotes?

You might not be able to search the text within an image by copy-and-pasting. However, verifying the information it conveys is often as simple as entering the quote or statistic into Google search.

Additionally, check other sources and search to find the story reported elsewhere. If you’re reading info that makes your jaw drop, but can’t find it reported elsewhere, you’re likely reading false news.

See Also: How to Check Facts & Never Fall for False Information Again

How to Spot (and Outsmart) Fake News

Now that you’re familiar with a few different types of fake news formats, what rules of thumb can you use to outsmart fake news stories?

We spoke with Jennifer Hancock, a professor of critical thinking at Humanist Learning Systems, for her guidelines:

1. “Is the website mostly click bait?” is the first question you should ask. To help determine whether or not the answer is yes, consider their other headlines. “For instance, this might be a political story—but if the other headlines are ridiculous or there are lots of articles regarding bizarre health claims, it's not a real news site,” Jennifer says.

2. Look at the about section. According to Jennifer, “Fake news sites are often surprisingly honest about the fact they are fake.” For example, Abcnews.com.co has information on how to create fake news, fake press releases, and how to link to other sites that look real so it looks like your article is real.

3. Look at the name of the person who wrote the article. Then, see what other articles they have written by searching Google. Try to determine if they’re using a real name and have experience, or if it’s a pseudonym, which means the article is likely fake news.

4. Use the website Whois.net to search the domain name. “Real news sites have real listings and don't hide their identity,” Jennifer says.

5. Make sure to read the article, especially before you share it! Many times, the information in a fake news article doesn’t support the headline claim. While this is done to get your attention, it’s an obvious indicator of the article’s lack of integrity.

6. If it is an article opinion on another article, Jennifer states that it’s important to click through to the originating material to see if they are quoting it properly. “If the click doesn't go to another article—it's fake,” she says. “If it does, you then have the ability to read the original source material to see if the opinion is supported by actual journalism or not.”

7. Look for proof. “If they don't quote anyone but say someone said something—they likely didn’t,” says Jennifer. “If they make assertions but don’t give you any evidence—it’s probably fake.”

8. “If no major news outlet is covering the story—and it’s really scandalous—it probably didn’t happen,” says Jennifer. All news outlets are vying for viewership including the mainstream news outlets. They aren’t going to not cover a scandalous story if it is real. They might spin it to fit their political narrative, but they will cover it if there is evidence for it.

9. Demand evidence. Don’t just accept a claim as real because they link through to some source material. Be sure to actually read the source material and find out if you agree with their conclusions. “For example, the stories regarding Hillary’s WikiLeaks were almost never supported by the actual leaked emails,” says Jennifer. “However, that didn’t stop stories from being based on strawman arguments and flimsy evidence.”

10. Finally, check your pulse. If it’s making you really upset, question whether it’s real. “Click bait is designed to upset you or scare you or excite you in an extreme way so you will share it,” says Jennifer. The more outraged, upset or giddy you feel, the more likely what you just saw is click bait and not real.

Why Bother Battling Fake News Stories

When you’re passionate about a topic it’s really satisfying to share those feelings and opinions with others. The problem is that—in and of themselves—opinions are profoundly unpersuasive things. It feels great to share them, but they’re almost never convincing.

See Also: Post-Election Stress: How to Save Friendships, Stay Calm and Be Heard

That’s where fake news in the form of political clickbait comes in: These hyper partisan or completely fake stories make the person sharing feel like they have the power to actually convince a person of their views: “See,” you can say to a friend or announce on your Facebook feed, “I knew so-and-so was a crook all along!”

However, allowing enthusiasm to trump facts seems damaging for the future of our country in terms of our ability to progress as a sane, fact-driven society.

And, if that isn’t motive enough to start checking facts, consider that every time a fake headline is forwarded, it’s another ad dollar in some Macedonian fake news writer’s pocket.

Whether it’s a photograph that’s possibly altered or a quote that’s used out of context, try to be open to opposing viewpoints and fact check information from both sides equally often.

Sign up for Snopes newsletter to stay on top of stories, real and fake, daily. Also sign up for updates by The Skimm, BBC, PBS. Diversify your sources.

Instead of seeking out news and views that only support your own, consider being open to challenging viewpoints. Then, reach across the aisle and have a conversation—just make sure you have your facts straight first.

Read Next: Post-Election Stress: How to Help Your Kids Manage the Controversy and Conflict


Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.


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