Have you ever read a news story that was unbelievable, literally?
As the internet and social media have clouded the distinction between traditional journalism and campaign blogging, so it has blurred the line between objective fact and partial opinion or even “alternative facts”, aka untruths.
And navigating the maze of information is complicated by the shades of grey. Defining “fake” news can sometimes be a matter of opinion. Where should the line be drawn and how can traps be avoided?
Adopt good habits
Speaking about the power that drives fake news, fact-checker Eliot Higgins speaks of the “four Ps” – Passion, Politics, Propaganda, and Payment.
Is the website or source seemingly hell-bent on “hot button” issues, like migrants, the LGBT community, or the evils of capitalism? How unchained are the expressed positions, and how colourful is the language? How graphic is the video and picture content? These may all be signs that passion, not precision guides the editorial hand.
Politics is a big subject. Really big. It is so indescribably big that it involves not just the burning buzzy issues of the day and the great unresolved conflicts of mankind, but also the nitty-gritty of the everyday, like rubbish disposal, childcare, tax policy or commercial regulation. Is your news source keen to take on these subjects or does it focus on the big sexy stuff like “conflict politics” like terror, Islam, feminists, Brexit, Trump, the EU, pacifists, “experts”, evil capitalists or minorities?
If so at the very least they are picking an easy fight and not willing to roll up their sleeves and do some heavy lifting. They are likely to be agenda-driven, and have only a shallow sounding of the global waters they are muddying.
Propaganda is as old as the hills, but we are beyond the age of mechanical reproduction now and propaganda has broken free of those limits in time and space. Popaganda is now near-instantaneous, fitting events perfectly with its viral rates of propagation, and ignoring national frontiers, rippling outwards, filling the popular space as never before.
Many state-controlled news providers have spent resources on building a strong web presence where the control or nation of origin is masked, allowing them to flex soft power both within and without their countries. Some of these news providers even have the financial clout to open agencies in foreign countries to help pursue their national interests.
Well before the scandal around the US election came to light, Ukraine had its own taste of fake news with a mission as Russian media doctored images and fabricated witnesses to invent stories. The internet lapped it up, and the Kremlin established a billion-dollar new budget line for digital and media information warfare.
In the Ukraine conflict the Russian official media’s response to the conflict was so severe and presented such a distorted view of the reality a unit was set up almost immediately to counter it, the Kyiv Mohyla Journalism School’s Stopfake.org.
Faced with the increased reach of new sites promoting anti-EU, pro-Russian viewpoints benefiting from shadowy income streams or grants some governments, the Czechs being the latest, are considering or setting up anti-fake news units of their own.
The big payoff
At least you don’t have to pay for any of this junk, right? Well, probably not-
With the revenue every click provides via advertisers as long as the consumers come through the door they don’t have to buy. That encourages all sorts of data-mining based activities, and the growth in what are called content farms, production-line writing using low-paid staff churning out content of little value, but with artfully crafted headlines to attract our butterfly minds. It is clutter, basically.
All someone with a computer needs to do is latch onto a trend and ensure they write as much about it as possible. That led to the curious case of more than 100 pro-Donald Trump websites being located in Macedonia where tech-savvy teenagers found a way of making money from their rooms under the parents’ radar, harvesting millions of clicks during the US elections. The more money there is to be made, the more clutter has to be generated.
The payoff in all this is that fake news, in alliance with social media, is strangling the genuine media industry. Fake stories shared and given personal approval on social media sites spread like wildfire. This study shows how, in the most recent US election, fake news stories were read more and got more exposure than real news stories on Facebook.
Facebook has faced severe criticism for its policies of allowing a near free-for-all on its pages and appearing not to be overly concerned with preventing anti-semitic or other manifestations of hate crime to appear, or by promoting fringe articles alongside serious mainstream pieces of journalism. Its policies have been compared unfavourably to Google, which has begun to weed out the worst offenders. It recently reacted by announcing projects to tackle the issue.
The tell-tale signs
Apart from the four ps there is a certain common-sense approach that won’t steer you far wrong, along with a set procedure worth following. Be sure of your source, and check the facts.
Watch out for website names or address tags featuring “lo”, or “.com.co”, the latter often pretending to be an established big name. Odd, overly-funky domain names are often dodgy, too. If you haven’t heard of a news brand, be sceptical.
Is what you are reading provoking an extreme reaction? Is the story being followed by other more mainstream sources? If the answer is yes to the first, and no then apply extreme caution. Try a Snopes check.
Click on the website’s “About Us” button. Is the outlet transparent with an experienced, qualified staff? What is its editorial policy? Who are its owners? A reputable company should not be shy about these things. Look in its archive to see how long it has been publishing for. Good media tend to outlast bad media.
Is the story signed? A by-line identifies the writer, but can they be contacted? What sort of web profile do they have? Who else do they work for?
A scientific approach
Some people are attempting to make internet users’ lives easier by creating apps to filter out either fake news or spam stories, blocking them from your browser .
Others busily compile names and shame the sites in lists, but of course that opens up arguments when websites protest against their classification established by someone else’s prejudice. It is an approach we have rejected.
Another method is to use more graphic representations of where news outlets stand, like a much-shared venn diagram that recently appeared. A little more fluid, but ultimately as debateable. Others try to quantify truthfullness attributing points factors in an attempt to rank websites’ reliability.
Last, but not least, for comprehensive advice on spotting fake news, for professional journalists as well as interested readers check out Firstdraftnews.com