Decoding the news: understanding the authenticity of what you read online

If you are in any doubt about what a disruptive force fake news has become, consider this: for the past three years, different dictionaries have chosen terms related to fake news as their word of the year.

Just recently, Dictionary.com announced its 2018 Word of the Year to be ‘misinformation’; in 2017, The American Dialect Society’s was ‘fake news’. Just a year before that, the Oxford Dictionary named its Word of the Year ‘post-truth’. The fact that these kinds of phrases have made their way into places such as the Oxford Dictionary shows what a pervasive issue fake news has become.

According to Google Trends (a tool which analyzes the popularity of the top search queries in Google Search across various regions and languages), by mid-January 2018 the term ‘fake news’ had hit 100 in the popularity rating worldwide. While most people had been Googling it at the start of the year, the hype surrounding fake news was still going strong 10 months later.

In October last year, it had a popularity score of 73 on Google Trends. That means its search popularity dropped only 27 percent in October, compared with its record-high search popularity in January 2018. Fake news is alive and well, and people are still interested in finding out more about it.

Being well-informed is crucial in this era where news travels at the speed of light. In fact, the time it takes for an event to become a news story may actually have contributed to the rise in fake news.

Just so we’re all on the same page before we begin, when we refer to fake news, we’re not just referencing deliberately made-up stories. Articles which contain factual errors as a consequence of a rush to report can be just as ‘fake’ – and damaging – as intentionally fabricated ones.

Main types of fake news

This online definition of fake news is pretty simple: Fake News is information that cannot be verified, is without sources and is possibly untrue.

That’s a good place to start, but it’s important to differentiate between misinformation and disinformation.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is mistakenly or inadvertently created or spread; the intent is not to deceive.

Disinformation, however, is false information that is deliberately created and spread “in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at classifying fake news by type. Ready? Let’s begin.

Made up stories

The main type of fake news stories are the ones which are deliberately made up with the intention to disinform. They are usually found on obscure websites, and they are often about politics and crime.

These are the types of stories that remain synonymous with the term ‘fake news’, and are the kind made famous during the last US Presidential election campaign. The effects of possible fake news on political life rumble on, and an Ohio State University study shows that fake news probably played a significant role in depressing Hillary Clinton’s support on Election Day in 2016.

But why bother? Typically, the goals are either to make an article go viral and make money from the huge number of clicks or to promote a certain political agenda and even try to mislead supporters of a certain political party.

The important thing to note about these types of fake stories is that while some of them are completely made up, others start with a true story, and then a big part of the narrative is warped to suit a certain cause.

Sloppy journalism

These are the stories that are just done badly.

How many times have you come across a headline that says one thing – only to click through and discover there is no trace of it in the story below? Clickbait isn’t just annoying, it’s another kind of fake news, plain and simple.

It’s not just misleading headlines: fake news may also materialize through sloppy journalistic practice. In the drive to get clicks, some media outlets, such as tabloids, may build stories around an actual fact, even though this ‘anchoring’ fact can’t support all of the claims made in the article. Unnamed sources pose a similar problem: when they’re the ones driving a powerful story forward, it’s troubling if their credentials remain hidden.

Putting information into a false context can also fall into this category.

Satire and parody

If you’ve heard of The Onion – ‘America’s finest news source’ – or The Daily Mash, then chances are you’re familiar with satirical news. In previous years, we’ve come across many similar websites or social media pages that serve the same purpose: to entertain.

The stories on these sites are as fake as it gets, but at least they don’t pretend they’re not. The main difference between satirical content and fake news stories is that the former are made up to be fun and mock people’s habits and stereotypes – and the audience are supposed to be in on the joke. That said, satirical news has been around for almost as long as the news itself – and people have been mistaking it for the real deal for just as long. Regardless of the intention, the consequences can be just as damaging.

How do they spread?

So, how do fake stories spread across the online universe? Not many people have obscure websites in their browser’s bookmarks, right? It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that the main aggregator of fake news traffic is social media. Where stories have gone viral, they have often done so in the news feeds of social media users. One genius study conducted by scholars at MIT actually proved that fake news spreads across Twitter faster than real stories – and by a substantial margin.

Why is that, you may be asking?

“False news is more novel than true news, and that may be why we share the false much faster and more widely,” writes Paul Chadwick in an article for The Guardian, based on the aforementioned research.

“Prominent responses to false news include surprise, fear and disgust. True news tends to be met with sadness, joy, anticipation, and trust.”

Another insight from the same study showed that humans were more likely to be responsible for the spread of fake news than automated processes.

Well, that’s a thing to think about, isn’t it?

How to spot a fake story

If you’re wondering whether it’s possible you have read a fake news story, the answer is – it’s highly likely.


The kind of sensationalism attached to fake stories often makes them very visible online, so exactly how should people distinguish between the real and the fake when the line is often blurred?

Who published the story?

The first steps to take on the path to spotting fake news is to find out which organization published the story and who the author was. This may sound like News Literacy 101, but it’s surprisingly easy to get deceived because fake news websites often use names which are very similar to famous and trusted news outlets.

Probably the best example of this was a website called ABCnews.com.co, which was obviously made to resemble ABC news.  Even the logo on that fake website was similar to the real logo used by the ABC news.

ABCnews.com.co may seem legit, but typing ABC news into a search engine will show you that the address of the real ABC news is different.

If the story is published on the website of a news organization you’ve never heard of, alarm bells should start ringing.

If you have never heard of it, or it’s not ranked highly when you type its name into a search engine, it’s likely the story is not true. What you can do is visit some of the big and trusted media sites, because – if the story is legit – it’s likely they will be reporting on it too.

As if that weren’t tricky enough, sometimes a big story will break, but lots of false ones will rise along behind it. Here, it is necessary to unpick the truths and lies even further.

A great example of this was the Roy Moore case, as reported by The Washington Post. Republican Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused by a woman of attempted sexual contact with minors. As the story unfolded, fake news websites weighed in, reporting that WP reporters called people and offered money for dirty information on Moore, in an attempt to throw shade on the case and discredit the Post’s reporting.

It didn’t stop there: another fake news website reported that the woman who’d accused Moore has been arrested for lying, which was also not true.

This raises a question: when we have an important story developing in front of us, how can we distinguish which pieces about it are true, and which are not?

Well, that requires a little bit more work, but it’s fairly easy to separate real information from lies. One way to be sure is to revisit the media that published the story in the first place. Is there a follow-up article? It’s rare for credible outlets to report a standalone story without subsequent articles providing updates, so if there aren’t any those alarm bells should be ringing again.

In the case of the fake article about the reporter bribing contacts, The Post reported on it in an attempt to discredit the fakery and show readers their commitment to transparency and due process. That’s a good sign too.

While we’re talking about name recognition, check whether the news organization has an ‘about us’ section, where you can find more information. Even though you may have not heard of a small investigative outlet, it doesn’t mean their work isn’t legit (and it may just broaden your reading list!). Fake news outlets usually don’t have an ‘about us’ section, but satirical sites will often give an inkling of their remit.

The design

Sometimes, an easy way to spot a fake news outlet is the way their website is designed. Many of them are graphically simple when compared with big online news outlets. Others my seem unprofessional in terms of design, and you’ll be able to see their creators didn’t pay a lot of attention to the website design. The same thing applies to the website logo, which is usually simple and crudely designed.

Where has the news come from?

By this, we don’t mean the organization reporting the news, but rather the source of a story for you, the reader. Where did you see it?

Often, the answer is in your social media feed. It may be a link leading to the story, but it could also be a tweet that’s spreading the disinformation.

A case study published by The New York Times shows us just how fast a fake news tweet went viral on Twitter.

Just to get a sense of what happened, around election day in 2016, a man in Austin tweeted a photograph of a row of buses in the city. Noting that this was unusual – and having read something about anti-Trump protests that were occurring in the city on the same day – he put two and two together, made five and tweeted his conclusion. The resultant tweet suggested that this protest was not a naturally occurring event, but the result of a more dubious plot and the tweet went viral, garnering 16,000 shares. It also appeared on Facebook, and was shared a staggering 350,000 times. Those buses, it transpired, had been in the city for the much less sinister reason of transporting delegates to a conference that was being held in Austin, and, although the Twitterstorm was not intended as a deliberate hoax, it had an inflammatory result.

The moral of the story? Check the person who posted the content.

A tweet that goes viral, despite the original poster having only a handful of questionable followers, is suspicious. Just looking at the size – and quality – of someone’s audience can be a sign towards seeing whether they’re actually putting out genuine content. A look at their followers and who they’re following, as well as their posting history, can give you some clue as to whether they have an agenda that’s supported by the story they’re sharing.

Many journalists today, especially on Twitter, have verified accounts (that small check mark near their name). This tells you it’s a real person and not a ‘bot’ that could be generating fake news, or someone posting in someone else’s name in an attempt to amuse, deceive or distract.

When it comes to news outlets, only follow their verified pages on social media. That way, you can avoid ending up on websites such as ‘ABCnews.com.co’ or ‘breaking-cnn.com’.

Who’s the source?

Identifying whether something is fake or real isn’t always tricky. One of the easiest ways to check the authenticity of a piece is through the sources it cites.

Where does the main information come from? Who is providing it? If the main source is a person, are they identified? Or is the story based on a document?

Sometimes, the use of an anonymous source is necessary. Ask yourself whether the information the source is sharing is sensitive enough to justify their name being withheld.

Misuse of anonymous sources can indicate that a story is indeed fake.

If the source is a person who is named or a document that’s cited, it’s still worth doing some fact checking.

If you suspect a quote is fake, Google it to see if it appears on any other websites and, if so, which ones.

Journalists frequently use public documents as a source for stories. You can just Google them and see whether they’re telling the same story as the article.

How often do they report?

Another thing you can do to avoid fake news is to check when the story was reported and at what time, and how often the outlet publishes in general. You can scroll the site to see when the first stories were published, and, if it’s within a few weeks or months, this could indicate the site’s been set up for a certain purpose.

It can also be telling to take a closer look at how often the site covers a specific type of story – for example, a news outlet which has only reported on politics a few times is highly unlikely to break a huge political scandal.

Another thing you can check is who its authors are. If a lot of the stories are written by an editorial team or are just taken from news agencies with very little content produced by actual authors, that could mean it’s fake.

Why should we be able to spot fake news?

So, why is it important to properly understand what we’re reading and the way we’re being informed?

The first thing is, of course, that being well-informed and knowing the truth is useful. But the fact is that fake news affects our lives – and not in a good way.

We’ve even come up with a term for times we live in. It’s called the ‘post-truth era’.

Cries of ‘fake news!’ punctuating the 2016 US elections and questionable claims made by the ‘Leave’ campaign in the UK’s Brexit referendum are just two of the more high-profile examples of misinformation having a dramatic impact on broader political issues. At the opposite end of the scale, the blurring line between real and fake news has allowed the likes of Trump to claim reports by credible news outlets, such as CNN, are fake – a move that has worked to chip away at supporters’ trust in the mainstream media.

But it’s not all about politics, from health reports to science, fake news is infiltrating many aspects of reporting. Take this, for example, fake news actually made people think stress caused cancer.

Why is all this happening?

Because we don’t pay enough attention to the news we consume. The truth is, many of us don’t even remember what news outlets we are following. A recent survey by The Pew Research Center showed that almost half of the people who read the news online each week couldn’t remember which sites they got their news from.

What raises more concerns it that as many as 10 percent of people named ‘Facebook’ as the ‘news outlet’ from which the pieces they read came from.

This sends us back to the question of who is the main aggregator of traffic for fake news. It’s social media – remember?

The real key to being better-informed lies with news literacy. You don’t have to know all of the fake news websites, but you can follow some of our tips and quickly find out whether something is true or false. (You can find more on news literacy here).

There are some organizations that are on a mission to debunk fake news. Even though their numbers are growing, they can’t check all of the news out there, but they do usually analyze big stories. Politico’s ‘Is this true?’ section is one of my favorite, but I would also recommend Poynter’s fact-checking section for finding out how people around the world fight fake news, as well as a website called Factcheck, where you can find plenty of fake stories dismantled.

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