Why It’s So Hard to Spot Fake News & What You Can Do About It
Lately a story has been trending about a 1996 GQ article in which fantasy author Terry Pratchett interviewed tech billionaire Bill Gates about predictions for the future. One famous quote has people talking:
So a lot of people on Twitter found it hilarious how Gates went wrong predicting our current disinformation station, AKA, the information superhighway. Because let’s face it, today the friend who says, “Hey, go read this,” is either Google or another search engine. And that friend is being manipulated by Search Engine Optimization (SEO) to put certain results higher on the list of returns you get when you search for just about anything.
How this works is that large companies with deep pockets for marketing higher SEO experts to get their site ranked well by Google, usually by optimizing keywords and getting them high-quality backlinks. More information about SEO can be found here.
In one of my many freelance jobs, I once worked for an SEO expert. My job was to get high-quality backlinks, and I made $500 for each link. Backlinks are only one aspect of a comprehensive SEO strategy. SEO is not cheap.
So, your friend who tells you “Hey, go read this,” is now being jerked around by whoever has the most money and wants the term you were searching. But sometimes, if you look off to the side, you see another friend, maybe an acquaintance this time, waving their hands and yelling, “BUT LOOK AT THIS!”
That would be Search Engine Marketing, or SEM. If you run any Google search, off to the right side of your regular results, you’ll see a column of ads for whatever the hell you’ve searched for. Years ago, one of my friends from the reselling world got a good laugh at eBay’s tactics for cornering this market. He searched for “chronic diarrhea” and got an ad promising, “The lowest prices on chronic diarrhea are here on eBay!”
Hopefully by now eBay has learned how to stay out of the search results for medical problems, but you can see the issue here. What do we do? How do we know if we’re reading fake news?
Never share stuff online without looking at where it came from.
Yeah, you, the one who just shared that story promising to destroy the political career of the politician you hate the most. I know, it’s so tempting, but seriously, look at the website it links to. Have you ever heard of Raw Story or Breitbart winning a Pulitzer for its journalism prowess? Hell, have you heard of it at all? Is it associated with a reputable news source? No? Then you might want to fact check that shit before sharing. Politifact and Snopes are good places to start your fact checking. I like to run a search for “fact check HEADLINE TEXT HERE and see what comes up.
Stop trying to tell your friends those articles from The Onion are fake.
The only thing worse than failing to recognize fake news is failing to tell the difference between fake news and satire. The more outrageous/funny it is, the more likely it is to be satire, which is fake news intended to be funny and so exaggerated that the publisher assumes no one will be stupid enough to think it’s real.
Unfortunately, writers and publishers have been overestimating the intelligence of the public for years. Occasionally, they even overestimate the intelligence of other journalists. When I worked at a TV station, one of our reporters used a story she read in the paper about an escaped python named Monty in the area. Worse than that, she failed to even consider the date on the article, April 1. The newspaper ran a story about the TV station and “intrepid reporter” that fell for their April Fool’s Day joke article.
As a general rule, if you see something from The Onion, it’s satire and it’s meant to be funny, not accepted as truth. (Those are instructions for all my friends who keep telling me those Onion articles aren’t real. No shit, Sherlock! Can I interest you in a story about an escaped python named Monty?)
Of course, when you have a presidential candidate/elected official who actually says and does crazy shit all the time, like, I don’t know, someone who somehow got elected “president,” it can be hard to tell the difference with lesser-known sources. Again, if you’re not sure, fact check the damn thing, or Google the source website to see if it’s known for its brilliantly witty satire. Or lack of fact-checking.
DON’T SHARE SOMETHING JUST BECAUSE YOU WANT IT TO BE TRUE.
I understand the temptation, I really do. Every day I see articles screaming click-baity headlines like, “This Could Be the End of Donald Trump’s Career,” and holy SHIT do I wish that was real. HOWEVER, I am painfully aware of the vast gulf between what I want and what’s actually reality. (Case in point: My continued failure to win the lottery.)
HOW TO SPOT FAKE NEWS: HEADLINES
The fact is that real journalists don’t write sensationalist headlines. Now, I know this because I have degrees in both broadcast journalism and advertising/public relations, and have worked for TV stations, newspapers, and magazines. Unfortunately, the average news consumer doesn’t have that background.
As a general rule, any headline that starts with “You Won’t Believe…” should be disregarded. Any headline that promises the end of a prominent figure’s career should be viewed with heavy skepticism. (Especially considering that today we’ve all seen ample evidence that virtually nothing is the end of some people’s political careers.)
No real reporter would write such a vague headline, nor would a professional journalist make a call like “the end of someone’s career.” Even if they thought it was the end of Trump’s career, the headline would just tell you what he did/said specifically, and let the public decide. (And let’s face it, the chump’s already said and done a hundred things that should have ended his career, so clearly this guy is defying all standards for the behavior of public officials and a lot of people just don’t care.) If you turned in an article with such a vague, sensationalist headline in a Jouralism 101 class, you would get it back with red marks all over that headline.
These types of headlines are also too vague, plus not funny enough, for satire, so this is definitely faux news.
The source site is inevitably not a reliable news organization.
DON’T BELIEVE THINGS YOU HEAR ON TV AND REPEAT THEM ONLINE WITHOUT BOTHERING TO FACT CHECK.
What, did you think fake news was limited to click-baity headlines on Facebook? No way. Do not repeat stuff you heard on Faux News — er, Fox News — without fact-checking. Or any of the other cable networks, but especially Faux News.
Keep in mind that all twenty-four-hour news channels often have a lot of time to “fill” when there’s no huge breaking news story like a politician who pays people to pee on him or whatever. They often fill this time with commentators arguing about the issues.
Which is fine, as long as you remember that is the equivalent to the Opinion section in the paper, and each of those commentators has an agenda. Some of them might exaggerate or outright lie, and chances are whoever’s hosting the show isn’t fact-checking everything everyone says in real time, because then they couldn’t keep up with the conversation.
Again, wanting to believe something bad you hear about a politician you don’t like doesn’t make it true. Check your facts on Snopes or Politifact before blathering that story you heard about a presidential candidate running a kiddie porn ring at a pizzeria or fathering a child with a space alien or anything else that may or may not get accepted by The Enquirer.
If you can’t or won’t do any of the above better practices for evaluating “news,” please discontinue your usage of the internet until further notice.