Fake news 101: A guide to help sniff out the truth

Why We Wrote This

Sifting fact from fiction can seem bewildering in our increasingly fragmented media landscape. But it doesn’t need to be.

Karen Norris/Staff

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Want to be more discerning in your news intake, but don’t know where to start? It’s understandable. We’re a long way away from the day when Americans would hunker down to watch Walter Cronkite. In addition to the splintering of our media landscape into hundreds of outlets, you’re probably also aware of the swirling misinformation (inaccurate information shared unwittingly) and disinformation (information shared with an intent to mislead) on the internet. 

Whether it’s a news outlet you’ve never heard of, or a Facebook post written by your best friend, some key questions can help you better assess online information.

  • Where is it coming from, who is paying for it, and what do they want to accomplish?
  • What is their track record and how transparent are they about past mistakes?
  • Is their claim something I can verify with an original source, reputable news outlet, and/or fact-checking website such as PolitiFact or Snopes?

Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab has compiled a list of 237 fact-checking sites in 80 countries – a nearly 26% increase since last year. So even as misinformation and disinformation proliferate, so do the “fact cops” determined to stop them in their tracks.

Concerns around the proliferation of disinformation and so-called fake news have gained new urgency with the World Health Organization declaring an “infodemic” around COVID-19. Here are some key questions to consider while reading news or social media posts.

What is misinformation vs. disinformation?

Misinformation is information that is misleading or wrong, but not intentionally. It includes everything from a factoid your friend reposted on Facebook to assertions made by officials or, yes, even journalists.

Disinformation is more deliberate and is distributed with the intent to confuse, disturb, or provoke. It also includes plausible information shared through devious means, such as a fake Twitter account; done en masse, this can create a skewed impression of popular opinion. A particularly deceptive form of disinformation are “deepfake” videos, with imperceptible alterations in the footage making it appear that someone said or did something that he or she never said or did.

Be particularly on guard against misinformation and disinformation during crises, which provide fertile ground for exploiting fear, anger, and other emotions. 

How can I tell which news sources are credible?

Here are a few points to consider:

Standards: What information does this outlet provide about who they are, their mission, and their fact-checking process or standards?

Show me the money: Who is paying for their work, and why? Is this news outlet’s business model dependent to some degree on generating “clicks”? If so, how might that have influenced this story?

Track record: Does this outlet publish corrections to errors in stories, indicating transparency and accountability? Have they been recognized for journalistic excellence?

None of these methods are fool-proof, but together they will provide a more informed understanding of the sources.

How can I fact-check a particular claim?

Fact-checking sites are cropping up all over the internet to help you do just this. Duke University’s Reporters’ Lab, run by the creator of PolitiFact, has compiled a list of such sites. Their database includes more than 237 fact-checkers in nearly 80 countries – a 26% increase in less than a year. Some of these specialize in exposing online hoaxes and disinformation.

You can go directly to one of these sites and search for the claim you’re researching, or type the claim into Google along with the name of a recommended site, to see if any of them have looked into it. If you don’t see the claim you’re researching on your preferred fact-checking site, look for a place to submit a claim for investigation, such as these pages on PolitiFact and Snopes.

If it’s a photo you’re trying to verify, a reverse image search on Google can help to pinpoint its origin. Sometimes photos are reposted out of context, or with false captions about the year, place, and event at which they were taken.

What about bias?

As the media has become more polarized, more bias has seeped into the news – but it has also become easier to spot. Here are some questions to ask yourself as you read an article:

Angle: What discrete aspect of this topic does this article attempt to address, and what does that say about the news organization’s priorities and/or worldview?

Scope: Does this do a reasonable job of addressing all relevant points given the space allotted? What is the timeframe, geographical reach, and diversity of people included in terms of age, gender, race, cultural background, professional expertise, political views, etc.?

Sources: Who are the sources, what is their expertise, and how does their background and work inform their approach to this topic? What is the relative emphasis placed on each source? Who is quoted most, first, and last?

Author: Who is the author? What did they study, and where? What do they normally write about? What do they post on Twitter? Do they have any affiliations (past or present) that might affect how they approach this topic?

Yourself: This might be the hardest of all! If you’re reading a map and want to follow the blue trail, but don’t realize you’re wearing red-tinted glasses, you might end up following the purple trail without realizing it. So it’s worth asking: What is coloring the way I see this news source, issue, and/or article?

Where can I find more resources on media literacy?

Oxford Internet Institute’s Computational Propaganda Project offers a host of resources on disinformation designed for civil society groups, but relevant to individuals as well.

Data & Society, an independent nonprofit, explains the phenomena of misinformation and disinformation in great depth in this report.

The Poynter Institute provides a detailed Verification Handbook and also runs the International Fact-Checking Network, which publishes a weekly newsletter and many online resources.

UNESCO compiled a seven-module course for teaching about journalism, fake news, and disinformation. It’s geared toward educators, but is a good template for self-instruction as well. The Center for Media Literacy and the News Literacy Project are also great resources for teachers.

The Enoch Free Pratt Library in Maryland has put together a concise guide for spotting fake news.

There are also online courses, such as the Great Courses’ “Fighting Misinformation: Digital Media Literary,” offered in partnership with IREX.

Once you feel like you’re getting the hang of media literacy, you can test yourself with this fun online game, “Factitious,” developed by American University Game Lab to see if you can tell the difference between real and fake news.

Editor’s note: The original version of this story misidentified the developer of Factitious.

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