How to Detect Fake News
by Trey Poche | May 2021
The ACT-UP Method of Assessing Information
Acting as a critical consumer of information is the first defense against problematic news sources and misleading content. The ACT-UP method teaches us to be critical of all media content we consume.
Who is the author or creator? Do they have the qualifications or credentials to be speaking on this topic? What else have they written? Where else is the information published?
Fortunately, we live in the 21st century which means that we can figure most of this out by googling or reading website "About Us" sections. Even domain names (.com, .org, .gov, .edu) can tell us much about the organizations' legitimacy. Anyone can create a .com or .org site, so there is a higher chance you can be led astray here.
Watch out for inauthentic accounts and users that obscure their identity, the origin of content, or consistently promote unverified content from suspicious news websites.
When was the information written or disseminated? Is it out of date? When was it last revised?
It's fine for some information to be out of date, because history can be relevant to the present. However, in today's fast-moving world, a story from yesterday may not give you a full understanding of a topic.
Images are often recycled or manipulated to draw interest and provide "proof" for a fake news story. Legit photos usually carry the byline of the original photographer, or a watermark for a real company, like Getty Images.
If an image seems too convenient, unrealistic, out of date, or out of context, do a reverse image Google search to see where else it may have appeared.
The increasingly sophisticated methods of manipulating photo, video, and audio content has made it extremely difficult to decipher if what we see online is real or fake. Check out our page on deepfakes to learn more about advanced media manipulation.
Is the content laden with emotional language? Are the claims corroborated by other sources? What evidence do they present? How was the information discovered?
If the headline is outlandish and provocative, the story might be false. "Clickbait" headlines, or intentionally over-sensationalized headlines, attempt to draw attention and drive internet traffic to a particular site. Tabloid magazines and political satire websites routinely use clickbait headlines to draw an audience.
If you spot typos or grammar mistakes, the story was thrown together without care, which can mean that it's misleading, biased or even patently false.
If a story is important enough, it won't be covered by only one publication. Check other reputable news outlets to see if they are running the same story.
Identify the sources included in a news story. Does the author rely on credible individuals, experts or government officials for relevant facts? Scientific claims should be peer-reviewed and cited in a reputable scientific journal. Although many people who provide information to the news media operate under the veil of anonymity, their qualifications should be included, and, if possible, multiple sources should be present to corroborate their claims.
What is the author's purpose or aim? Are factual claims backed up with evidence? Does the author clearly separate fact and opinion?
Be aware of how your own biases impact how you evaluate the credibility or truth of a news report. Be willing to admit what is fact and what is opinion, and examine how the author reached their conclusions.
Information sources and news can also be biased. Develop your nose for:
- Political motivations: Some news outlets have ties with certain political parties, politicians, and policy goals.
- Financial motivations: Do you immediately trust the tech company that tells you that they developed the "best phone ever"? No, you recognize that their goal is to sell you phones. Approach news in a similar manner. It is beneficial to learn about the institutional and personal ties that news groups make: who funds the news, and what are the funders' political objectives. If you cannot find this financial information, you should be cautious.
Is there a lack of diversity in viewpoints or experiences in the authorship? Were all relevant sources included? Is any specific group being intentionally left out of the conversation? Is there a side to the story that isn’t being told? Look for news that exposes you to different perspectives.
While political news can be entertaining, its product -- policy-- affects all of us. Policy is of the utmost importance. A good news source recognizes this and platforms reporters who can find out how policy affects historically marginalized groups.
Digital Literacy "Life Hacks"
On social media, we are bombarded with information like never before and it can be easy to lose sight of the IMVAIN method. Because most information we consume is online, here are some ways to identify fake news.
Do they turn up elsewhere? To find out, copy and paste or type a colorful quote into an internet search and see if it's published elsewhere. If it doesn't turn up, there's a strong possibility it's a fake quote.
Have they been doctored? If the image seems unrealistic, double-check to make sure it is real. Google Images has a feature to search a picture. Just drag and drop to see if the photo has been used in other possible fake stories, or if it has been clearly manipulated.
Look carefully for attribution. Identify the original source. Double-check that information to see if it is legitimate, If you don't see the story on reputable news sites, the story might be fake.
Do they cite records or data to back it up? Are the sources and writer experts? Do they have the necessary information to report on the topic? Do these people know what they're talking about?
Are they (or you) speaking with bias or motive? Readers are more likely to put stock in information that confirms their personal opinions. Examine the article carefully to make sure it is fact before you share, like, or retweet.
Watch for similar URLs! Fake news sites may slightly alter a common web address to fool more readers. For example, ABC News URL is abc.go.com. A fake news website was listed as abc.com.co.
There should be an informational “about us” page that provides the contact information of key personnel, executives and their funding sources. If the site does not disclose this information, Google search the organization’s name accompanied with the word “fake.” Internet forums might be able to tell you if other people have similar suspicions about the site.
If you’ve just seen some online reporting that you aren’t sure of, see if any other good sources are reporting on it. Do a “news” Google search for some of the names or key terms in the article to see if anyone else is reporting on it. If the story is a big deal, more than one news outlet will be covering it.
“Deepfake” videos can be difficult to detect with the naked eye, but we introduce you to them on our deepfake page.
Resources For Detecting Fake News
NewsGuard makes trusting news easy. Learn how easy it is to get it on our NewsGuard page.
FactChecker (Washington Post)
Factitious is a game designed by American University that asks players to identify news articles and determine if they're real or fake.