What is Fake News & How Do You Spot It?

The age of fake news. The Brexit vote, the US Election, the terror attacks in France. The list goes on and on. In short, fake news is false information being presented as real news, which has resulted in people believing stories to be true that is in fact completely fabricated.

Fake news and the prevalence of “false equivalency in today’s media climate and the impact on our society is tremendous, and not something that we can simply shake off as something that doesn’t matter. This type of fabricated news has been around for a long time but never quite like now. Now it’s everywhere we look and it’s impossible to ignore.

Illustration by Samiah Bilal.

But the question remains: how do you spot fake news? This comprehensive piece will explain what fake news is, how to spot it, why we should care about it, and if there is anything that can be done about it in the future.

What is Fake News?

‘Fake News’ is a term that refers to misinformation, hoaxes and propaganda spread via traditional print and broadcast channels. The first common use of what we consider ‘Fake News’ was noted in 1710. The phrase entered the common parlance around the time of the US presidential election in 2016 when fabricated articles became widely circulated online. With no signs of slowing down after the election, it is important you know how to spot fake news.

It doesn’t mean that it’s not real news, just that a particular news source is publishing unverified or unverifiable information under the guise of journalism.

Why Is This Happening?

Fake news is not a new phenomenon, it’s been occurring since the first time that a human tried to make another one hear their point of view. However, this has become more frequent in the last couple of years because of technologies like Facebook, and the general idea that news needs to be validated by social media.

Mainstream news organizations (CNN, NBC, CBS…the usual) have lost a lot of credibility over the past two to three years which led us to a situation where anyone with access to a computer can start writing news. Throw in some half-decent graphics and you have yourself some viral fake news articles that were born just days before and read by millions of people making what was once an opinion, actionable.

The Roots of Fake News, from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 3.0-UNESCO.

One reason why this is happening is because of all the information available at our fingertips. It isn’t as difficult to find out something to prove someone wrong anymore as long as you are willing to do some digging around on Google and social media sites. This means there are multiple people out there spreading falsehoods to support their own agenda.

How Do You Spot Fake News?

Neither true nor false, fake news is fabricated by individuals and companies on social media to increase traffic to their sites.

The best way you can spot a fake headline is to look at the source of the article and see if it has a credible background. If you can’t find any information about the site or feel like the information seems exaggerated, it might be best not to trust it.

But it isn’t as easy as that. Some national newspapers and international television studios have been caught out. If you haven’t heard of the term ‘fake news’ before, you’re not alone. A study by The University of Oxford revealed that 60% of people in the United States had never heard of fake news. The report also stated that 24% of Americans believed that a real news agency published some or all fake news in their coverage.

It is everywhere, and it’s up to you to spend time and use your knowledge to understand what is the news and what is a lie.

“The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” — 1984, George Orwell.

How Do I Trust Anyone?

On the surface, fake news seems like an easy concept: if the story is made up, it’s fake. But what researchers and journalists have uncovered is that the spread of fake news isn’t as simple as fiction vs. reality. If you think about how our minds create memories and make sense of facts, how we learn and how we make decisions, you realize there are a lot of ways we can be influenced by false information without knowing it. This includes the subconscious and oftentimes emotional factors that influence us every day.

By using social media, hashtags, and fake users on Twitter and Instagram, you get people to believe the stories that they read or see on their feeds.

Fake news has overtaken social media, and the truth is — we have no idea what it will do to us. But we can limit our time spent on social media, who we follow, and how much emotional connection we give to what we see. Before the 1990’s the news only came through television, radio, and print media. Not that those sources weren’t biased or supported by different political agendas, but they are tied to laws. Social media profiles aren’t held to account for what they shared like The New York Times or The Independent are.

What Can We Do?

The issue is people can’t trust the news anymore, and this has a negative effect on society. We quickly need to start realizing this impact and take measures before it is too late.

Ipsos Mori

Fake news is a topic that continues to divide the world. In an age where media outlets have become increasingly partisan, and corporations seem to be hiring writers who push political agendas (see: The Huffington Post, Vox, Salon) or are willing to publish clickbait articles for hits over accuracy (see: CNN), fake news has become prevalent.

We can call out Fake News. We can ban the accounts and challenge the statements we believe to be spreading lies. Together we can tackle this. But for now, Fake News is here to stay.

What do you think? Let us know your thoughts on social media.

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