It’s somewhat ironic that even as we’re seeing traditional news being labeled “fake news” at an increasing rate (thanks, 2016 election cycle), real fake news is spreading at an even faster rate.
Maybe it’s because I have more than my fair share of Facebook friends, but there isn’t a day that goes by that fake news doesn’t pop up in my feed because one or more of my friends has shared it.
It’s not always easy to discern between real news and fake news. Because news is my business, I know what signs to look for…and I’m always on alert, especially if the news site is one I don’t immediately recognize. Still, there have been times that I’ve read all the way to the end of stories before being completely convinced they were fake, so it’s easy to fall prey to these hoaxers. And as these fake stories are shared on Facebook, they spread like wildfire.
So how do you know that news is fake? Let’s take this one, about the supposed death of former The Price is Right host Bob Barker. It has been shared more than 600,000 times on Facebook this week.
The first thing to look for, before ever clicking on the link, is the originating website, which Facebook displays at the bottom of each external link. If it’s something that would be a major news story — and Barker’s death certainly would be — why would it come from an obscure website? A story like this would be reported by People magazine or US Weekly, in addition to the more mainstream news sources.
Of course, ActionNews3.com also sounds like a TV station — and, if you’re like me, you can’t name all the TV stations in the SoCal area right off the top of your head — so let’s click through and see where it takes us.
This is often the easiest way to tell that a purported news site is fake, and there are several dead giveaways here. First, fake news sites often do not have a logo, or “masthead,” because their publishers are using cheap (read: free) templates while spending their time churning out fake content. They don’t have the resources to create graphics. Most TV stations, which ActionNews3.com is attempting to portray itself as, feature photos of their on-screen news talent (their evening newscasters, or meteorologists, or a combination thereof) in their header along with their logo. Or they’ll use a panoramic skyline photo of the city they’re located in. Something, anything, to give their website an aesthetically-pleasing feel. This site has none of that, and displays its name using simple text with a little CSS coding. That screams “fake news.”
The second thing to look at is the menu. Legitimate news sites will almost always have their content divided by categories: News, sports, weather, etc. News itself will be divided by regional news, national news, and so forth. Fake news sites almost never have a menu because they almost never have separate categories. This is because, again, they aren’t putting any effort into programming their website. As you can see, this “news site” includes just one link: “CONTACT US.” This also screams “fake news.”
Finally, look at other stories that have been published by the website. This list will usually be displayed near the top of the page. In this case, it simply reads “RECENT POSTS.” That’s a generic approach that just happens to be the default of WordPress, which is the world’s most popular content management systems for website. Few self-respecting news organizations would leave this list entitled “Recent Posts.” More importantly, look at the stories themselves. Are they all outlandish? Then you’re almost certainly looking at a fake website. In real life, the news is just as often mundane as it is dramatic. Not every story can be about rat meat being sold in grocery stores as chicken wings, or about Blac Chyna going nude.
This is a bit more subtle, but take a look at what websites refer to as metadata — the author’s name, the date the story was published, etc. This is usually located just above the start of the story. In this case, there is no author, which is a red flag but not necessarily a sign that it’s fake. (For example, many stories on our website, ihoneida.com, simply list “IH Staff” as the author.)
Much more importantly, there is no date. How many news stories have you seen without a date? The date of the story is important because news must always be fresh. There are two types of content on the web: dated content, like news, and what publishers refer to as evergreen content. Evergreen content is just what its name suggests: content that will be just as relevant one year from now as it is today. If you go to eHow.com or WebMD.com, you’re going to find lots of stories that are evergreen, and they won’t be dated. News stories — real news stories — will always be dated. Because if you’re looking for news, you’re looking for today’s news, not something that happened two weeks ago. For the publishers of fake news, though, every story is an evergreen story because it isn’t real news. They want it to be just as relevant in two years, when some unsuspecting reader stumbles across it and shares it to Facebook all over again, as it is today.
This is the most subtle clue of all, and one that won’t be recognized by most lay readers, but pay close attention to the writing style. The dateline on this particular story from ActionNews3.com indicates that the story originated in San Francisco, CA. But almost all news organizations adhere to AP style, which uses abbreviations for states rather than the two-letter postal codes. So if this story were from a legitimate news organization, the dateline would probably read, “San Francisco, Calif.”
There are other clues, as well. Often, the stories will not quote sources (it’s easier to avoid a libel lawsuit that way), or the writing will look as if it hasn’t seen the wary eye of an editor — because, in fact, it hasn’t. ActionNews3.com stories are actually fairly well written and do include source quotes, which makes them appear more legitimate. But there are other ways to tell. This story about rat meat, for example, consists of just eight paragraphs. Suffice to say, if the FDA were raising red flags about rat meat being sold to consumers in the U.S., the story would be more more in-depth. No reporter would turn in a story as brief as this one because his editors (or producers, as the case may be) would demand such a major story be more fleshed out.
There are other clues to watch for, as well. For example, the footer of the ActionNews3.com site reads that it is Copyright 2017 by . . . ? It doesn’t list a publishing company or media organization. And it displays the text that is placed by the designers of the free template it’s using — MH Purity lite WordPress Theme by MH Themes. No self-respecting news organization would allow such an author credit. They would choose a commercial theme that could be branded as their own.
Fake news may sometimes look like real news, but there are always ways to tell it apart. The best approach? Stick to trusted news organizations. And if you think those organizations are too biased, there is always an alternative. For every New York Times, there’s a New York Post. For every Washington Post, there’s a Washington Times. And for every CNN, there’s a Fox News Channel.