What exactly is fake news and how to spot it
‘FAKE NEWS! DISHONEST MEDIA! SAD.’
No prizes for guessing who this is. Sure, fake news has been around since before Trump got in – even helped Trump get in – but there ain’t no one who loves to use and abuse the phrase more than the President. Problem is, he uses it to discredit real news – true news, or trews, as Russell Brand likes to call it. So too do a scary number of other politicians and organisations across the rest of the world.
In fact, so prolific is the spread of fake news and alternative facts, some bigwigs claim that, after the Information Age of the 20th and early 21st century, we’re entering a new age: the Age of Misinformation. So how do you know, when you’re scrolling through Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, Insta, Reddit or wherever it is you get your news from, how to tell fact from the fiction; illusion from reality; the truth from ‘the truth according to [insert name]’?
Well, firstly you need to know – what even is fake news?
Misinformation – deliberate misinformation. All media outlets have an agenda, of course (and some more dodge than others) but this is misinformation published for nefarious, aka sus, ends. Most often these are reputational damage: to an organisation, political party, person or cause – but it could be for financial purposes also. The more clicks, the more cashish: the more sensational the story, the more clicks; the more exaggeration, the more sensation. Thus even if the original story had some grounding in reality, it will have been massively altered to encourage as many clicks as possible: from Theresa May miscalculated the cost of pensions by £167 to THERESEA MAY ROBS PENSIONERS; from Taylor Swift as snapped with a resting bitch face expression at the Grammy’s to TAYLOR GIVES SHADE TO SHEERAN AT GRAMMY’S. And so on.
Where has this news come from? Is it a reputable media outlet?
If it’s not a national or regional news organisation – BBC, Sky, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent, Evening Standard, Northern Echo, the Mirror, the Mail (within reason) and American equivalents like the New York Times and Washington Post – then think twice before clicking on it, and think THRICE before sharing it. Take note of the site’s URL – fake news sites will often have strange URLs, just like spam emails often have very long or weird looking addresses.
Read beyond the headline – especially if you are considering sharing it
A study last year by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute showed that, of the many stories shared on social media, 59 percent of them didn’t receive clicks: i.e. people were reading the headlines and sharing them without having any idea of what they contained. Babes, this is how racial, sexist and anti-Semitic sh*t gets spread about without you realising. If only to save yourself the hot water you might find yourself in if you share something like that, stop, look and read before you hit share.
Be particularly careful with social media
If there’s a link, check the link. If it’s a story without a link, then wait. That story could be unconfirmed. If you share it, and it turns out not to be true, not only do you look a bit of a wally, but you contribute toward a rumour mill the world really doesn’t need right now. There’s enough BS in the world without spreading BS that ain’t true.
Look for source material
Any news story worth its salt will have quotes from the people involved and informed, relevant experts who can provide insight on the story, and links to reports and documents where necessary. Follow these links through. Look the experts up if they sound a bit sus. It takes two seconds to Google Prof. Terry Izim, professor of terrorism from the University of Lyme Regis. He doesn’t exist.
Use your common sense and intuition
I know anything seems possible in an age of Trump and Brexit but, broadly speaking, if it sounds too good or bad to be true… it probably ain’t.