Fight Fake News
By Christina Georgacopoulos, Grayce Mores and Trey Poché | August 2020
Fighting fake news is not only about fact checking the stories you hear, it is also about holding the information you consume and the people or places you hear it from accountable. Acting as a critical consumer of information is the first defense against problematic news sources and misleading content. Check out the following tried and true methods for detecting fake news below.
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NewsGuard is a one-of-its-kind media literacy tool that aids internet news consumers to navigate through reliable and unreliable news sources online.
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- Find out how you can incorporate NewsGuard into your classroom experience at NewsGuard.com.
Quick Fact-Checking Websites:
The ACT-Up Method of Assessing Information
Who is the author? Do they have the qualifications or credentials to be writing 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.
Russian bots are known to make fake online personas to push fake news stories. Search an author's name to see what else they have written and whether they are part of a reputable news agency, or whether they exist at all!
Especially on social media, watch out for inauthentic accounts and users that obscure their identity, the origin of content, or consistently promote unverified content from suspicious news websites.
Typo-squatting is a method of deception bad actors use to lure internet users to fake news websites for hacking and malicious purposes under false pretenses. Typo-squatting counts on the likelihood that users accidentally type in an incorrect web-address, such as faceboook.com instead of facebook.com, which automatically redirects the user to a fake website.
Check out how social media companies are combating inauthentic activity and fake news ahead of the 2020 election.
When was the information written? Is it out of date?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It's fine for some information to be out of date, because history can be relevant to the present.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 story 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.
"Leaking" is a notorious political tactic for sources to provide confidential or sensitive information to the media anonymously at opportune moments. Although much of leaked information can be true, information coming from anonymous sources should be properly vetted.
Wikileaks.com is notorious for publishing leaked, or stolen, classified information.
What is the author's purpose or aim of the story? Are factual claims backed up with evidence? Does the author clearly separate fact and opinion?
Be aware of confirmation bias. Audiences are more likely to trust and believe information that may not be true but that confirms their personal beliefs. Evidence should always accompany factual claims.
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.
We are all biased. We learn about the world around us and form our own opinions and theories about events and people. This is a human, natural thing to do. However, our biases become problematic when we fail to remain mindful of them.
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.
Learn about why we believe conspiracy theories, and how confirmation bias may have led to the NASCAR noose controversy.
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? 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.
"IMVAIN" Method for Source Evaluation
What is the author's motive in writing the story? Whose interests are represented? Consider who owns the news outlet.
It is well-know that Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, owns The Washington Post. Although Bezos has stated he has no interest in micro-managing the paper, and the executive editor confirmed that he does not take direction from Bezos on editorial matters, the Post is unable to dispel a sense that it goes easy on its' owners multi-billion dollar company. The most recent controversy surround the USPS, vote-by-mail, and whether Amazon facilitated financial hardships at the Postal Service, has thrust Amazon back into the negative spotlight. Some critics say The Post downplayed Amazon's role in the controversy, and in contrast with other news reports, did not say that that the financially strapped Postal Service is losing money because Amazon takes advantage of its low shipping rates. Learn more about The Post's coverage of Amazon.
Six media corporations control 90% of all media that Americans consume. Learn about how concentration of media ownership is a bad thing.
Does the story include quotes? How many sources does the author include? Does the author include a wide range of opinions and perspectives on the issue? Is the source included the closest individual to the issue at hand? Is there someone else more qualified?
Direct quotes can add clarity, credibility, accountability and unique expressions to a story. But quotes can also be weaponized to misrepresent a point of view, or be placed out of context to bolster false claims. Especially during periods of intense partisanship and political polarization, more extreme viewpoints are often amplified in news stories for shock value to attract attention.
Political ads frequently take quotes out of context in order to better attack the opponent. For instance, during the 2008 presidential election, John McCain’s campaign team ran an ad attacking Barack Obama for his position on the U.S. war in the Middle East. The ad started with: Narrator: “Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are…” Obama: “...just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.” Narrator: “How dishonorable. Congressional liberals voted repeatedly to cut off funding to our active troops, increasing the risk on their lives. How dangerous.”
Obama’s full quote, which was made during a campaign event the year before, addressed whether he would move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan: “We’ve got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we’re not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there.”
Does the article use evidence, examples, and data to support the story? Do sources in the news story simple assert their opinion, or do they make factual claims backed by evidence? Does the article provide access to original information for readers to verify themselves?
Conspiracy theories attract such wide attention because they provide convincing narratives that can be believed if a reader wants to believe, but have no real basis in fact--many outlandish conspiracies cannot be falsified due to the nature of the evidence provided.
Certain conspiracies are more blatantly obvious than others, such as whether or not
aliens exist, and whether or not vote-by-mail will lead to “widespread voter fraud.” Because appeals to conspiracies are based in insufficient evidence, a sure sign of
if someone is pushing a conspiracy theory is whether verifiable facts are included.
Despite claims that vote-by-mail will lead to the “biggest election disaster in history,” President Trump has not been able to find evidence to support this claim.
What is the type of evidence an article presents? Does the author include expert opinion? Scientific claims should be backed by credible scientific institutions, such as the CDC, or FDA.
President Trump has come under intense scrutiny for his use of presidential press briefings as a forum for discussing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus and potential cures. This poses a serious problem for journalists who, on the one hand, have a duty to report what the president is saying to the public, especially if it involves information about potential life-saving medicine, and on the other hand, have a duty to report facts that will help American’s navigate the current public health crisis.
Public attention has been focused on the debate surrounding the antimalarial drug Hydroxychloroquine since President Trump endorsed the drug in a press conference in early 2020, basing his claim on a small study conducted in France that suggested it could be an effective treatment for coronavirus. Clinical trials have shown the drug had no benefit for patients hospitalized with the virus, but that hasn't stopped the Trump administration from launching an observational study to attempt to demonstrate the drug’s effectiveness.
According to the Brooking’s institute: “The debate over hydroxychloroquine has become deeply politicized, which has obscured more nuanced debates within the scientific community over what constitutes actionable evidence. With social media platforms acting as key arbiters in the circulation of health information, these nuances are particularly important for the major platforms to understand. By framing decisions around removing content related to hydroxychloroquine as a choice between harmful medical misinformation vs. science, platforms may be closing off space for inquiry and debate and incentivizing the consumption of more medical misinformation instead of less. We advocate an approach that gives voice to experts and allows dialogue on different approaches to medical uncertainty.”
Reputable news agencies provide up-to-date information. Does the article present the most recent information, and is it updated to reflect changing circumstances? Does the author break down complex issues effectively and accurately?
In the new media landscape news stories written by trained, professional journalists often appear alongside news generated by self-professed citizen journalists, or just casual social media users who happen to come across a news worthy event. Personal accounts of events can be useful, but they also increase the likelihood of errant reporting and mischaracterizations of circumstances.
In the new media landscape news stories written by trained, professional journalists often appear alongside news generated by self-professed citizen journalists, or just casual social media users who happen to come across a newsworthy event. Personal accounts of events can be useful, but they also increase the likelihood of errant reporting and mischaracterizations of circumstances.
A number of citizen journalists have appeared in Portland, Oregon in the wake of social unrest and violent riots that have plagued the city for more than 90 days. For example, Twitter user @MrAndyNgo posts near hourly updates on protesting and other related activity in Portland, including content from other Twitter users at the scene. But Ngo often comes in conflict with official reports, and adds biased commentary to posts. Ngo, and others like him, offer interesting dialogue and perspective of on-going events, however, their accounts of events often fail to capture the totality of events. Providing an accurate description of protests is a difficult task for seasoned journalists as well. But institutional safeguards keep journalists accountable to the public, and decrease the chances that highly selective versions of events are presented.
Is the author of the article named? Most credible journalists are contactable and are able to be held publicly accountable. Are sources speaking on the record, or under the guise of anonymity? Was the information leaked?
In September 2018, The New York Times notoriously published an anonymous letter allegedly written by a senior official in the Trump administration who asserted members of the administration had "vowed to thwart part of [the president's] agenda." The Times included a statement on the op-ed, which read:
"The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous Op-Ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers."
Protecting anonymity of sources is an important ethical consideration for journalists, but anonymity can allow critics to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the source. The president immediately demanded to know who penned the letter in hopes of revealing the supposed "quiet resistance" in his administration. The letter generated so much debate, that the Times discussed the issue in a podcast, which you can listen to here.
Help Others Affected by Misinformation
Content adapted from: Sara & Jack Gorman - Psychology Today, 2020
No one is immune from persuasion and manipulation in the age of misinformation. Often people in your immediate social network who you communicate with regularly can be misinformed, like friends, family, and colleagues. Fortunately, there are some tricks to lead misinformed people to accept new, more accurate information information, and turn away from manipulative news sources. However, providing the right information is not always the best strategy. Here are three methods to use when talking to someone who might be misinformed and situated in a belief system based on false information:
Beware of the Continued Influence Effect
The Problem: The continued influence effect explains why some people cling to certain attitudes or opinions, even after someone provides contrary information. It is difficult to reverse errant thought processes once someone forms their opinions and attitudes on the basis of bad information.
Solution 1: It is better to provide alternative explanations for something rather than simply saying that the person is wrong. These explanations help people build a new mental model that can overcome or overwrite their existing beliefs and thought processes.
Solution 2: Before you set out to debunk information (topic rebuttal) or question the methods used to create that viewpoint (technique rebuttal), first warn them that you are about to do some debunking. "Just as vaccines work by exposing people to small amounts of inactivated virus in order to mount an immune response, it is thought to be the case that a similar type of 'inoculation' might work to debunk misinformation," Gorman states. The person might feel less threatened and more open-minded if you use this solution.
Solution 3: Although this technique is requires a lot of time and energy from you, there is reason to believe that empathetically dialoguing with someone in order to determine how he or she arrived at their views can help them be more open to different perspectives.
Test Your Ability to Fact Check:
Try the News Literacy Group's quiz to see if you can spot false or misleading stories.
Factitious is a game designed by American University that asks players to identify news articles and determine if they're real or fake.