Fake news has been a frequently discussed topic throughout this year’s presidential election. It has been cited in some cases as having had an influence on the election, and in other cases, it has led to real-life consequences, with people purportedly duped by fake-news reports acting on the false information contained in them.
Take, for example, the case of 28-year-old Edgar Welch of Salisbury, N.C. The father, former firefighter and occasional actor reportedly read a fake-news report that pointed to a Washington, D.C., family pizzeria as the center of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton, her campaign chief or the owner of the pizza place.
Welch, thinking he was doing a good thing and wanting to protect the children who may have been involuntarily involved in a sex ring, showed up, authorities said, at Comet Ping Pong on Dec. 4, armed with an AR-15 rifle, aiming to investigate and help save children who were “being harbored in the restaurant.” After not finding any children there, he peacefully surrendered to law enforcement, and no one was hurt in the incident.
So how do we know when a news story is fake, and how do we stop the spread of fake news and information across the internet?
In the book Mediactive, writer Dan Gillmor writes, “We’re in an age of information overload, and too much of what we watch, hear and read is mistaken, deceitful or even dangerous. Yet, you and I can take control and make media serve us—all of us—by being active consumers and participants.”
Becoming an active consumer and participant in media is key. Even on social networks, where fake news and information proliferate and spread like a virus, there are steps we can take to make sure we don’t fall victim to or, worse, become a perpetuator of the fake-news cycle.
As Gillmor notes, even the best and most ethical journalists make factual mistakes. Fact-check on your own. Use Google and do smart searches. Enclosing your search terms in quotations—that is, searching for “pizzagate rumors” as opposed to just pizzagate rumors—will yield you better results.
We are used to getting our news from sites like The Root, the New York Times and the Washington Post, but the popularity of Facebook, and the ability to easily share information on the platform with a click of a button, has led to the proliferation of fake-news sites with the main goal of getting page clicks and views. The information contained in them may not necessarily be harmful, but it is false nonetheless, and a good eye for identifying a fake-news site will serve everyone in the long run.
Look at the URL of a site. TMZ.com is the real site of the tabloid, but TMZNews.com is not. It baits people with its realistic-looking URL; most think it is the actual site, and it uses the similar-looking URL for just that reason—to trick people into thinking it’s real.
Many of these so-called fake-news sites actually label themselves as satire sites. If you read a story that sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Scroll to the bottom of the page and see if there is a note indicating that the site is a satire website. That will be your clue not to share the story with others who may believe it.
Most fake-news articles won’t have legitimate quotes in the story, and if they do, the sources of those quotes will be either vague or questionable. A reputable article will not only name the source of the quote but will give you information about the source that legitimizes their credibility on the topic.
For instance, “‘The suspects were arrested after the shooting,’ John Doe, chief of the ABC Police Department, said.” If you can’t Google a source and find out information about that person, chances are that he or she, along with the quote and the article it is contained in, is fake.
This cannot be stressed enough. A lot of times, people will reshare false information without verifying it simply because someone they trust shared it.
A good example of this is a recent tweet that incorrectly identified Daryl Davis as the first African-American member of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time of this writing, the tweet had been shared more than 3,000 times and had more than 2,000 likes. Even as people responded to the tweet and called out its inaccuracy, it continued to be shared as fact.
This is another concept brought up in Mediactive that is a truism about all media. There’s a reason behind every story or idea that is shared on the internet. When reading, ask yourself why. Why is this information being shared? Who stands to gain from this? What could be the motive behind it? Applying basic critical-thinking skills can help us discern what is real and what may just be hyperbole.
Know that there are certain media rumors that are simply not true, no matter how many times they are shared on the internet.
This one is free. The Willie Lynch letter is not real. Bill Cosby was not about to buy NBC. There was no conspiracy to keep people from seeing The Birth of a Nation. Black Friday is not an extension of the day all slaves went on sale for half price, etc.
Be your own judge. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Question it. Research it. But by all means, be an active consumer and participant in media. We will all be better for it.
Monique Judge is a freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter.