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Fake news outlets purposely attempt to mislead or misinform their audiences in order to damage a person, organization or idea. They include hoaxes and propaganda.
A distinction must be made between fake news and satire. While satirical sites such as The Onion publish made-up stories, they do so to entertain their audiences rather than mislead them. They do not try to obscure the fact that they are satirical. In fact, The Onion’s motto at one point was “Tu stultus es” (translation: “You’re an idiot”). Fake news outlets, however, try to seem legitimate although they are not.
When you are looking at the news, especially content shared through social media, pay attention for the following red flags that indicate a story could be fake news.
Clickbait Headlines: These headlines try to pique your curiosity by making outlandish claims or using emotional language such as, “You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next.” They provide just enough information to get you interested, but not enough to understand the article without clicking on it. Legitimate news organizations also try to write headlines that will entice the audience to read on. However, in fake news articles, the reader often feels “duped” because the content of the article does not support or live up to the promise of the headline. Many news sites also feature “sponsored content” that relies on the clickbait approach. This can be especially confusing because the sponsored content may be featured alongside legitimate articles published by the news outlet.
Unusual URLs such as abcnews.com.co. As reported by CBS and other outlets, abcnews.com.co is a fake news site. The real ABC News uses the URL abcnews.go.com. Some fake news sites try to mimic the appearance of legitimate news outlets, but the URLS often contain unusual characters like “.co” or “lo” rather than the typical .com or .org affiliation.
Typos, Grammatical Errors or Misspellings: Even reputable news organizations make mistakes. However, if you are reading an article littered with errors, this could be a sign that the article is fake news. If the outlet fails to meet the most basic publishing standards, it calls their reporting and fact-checking abilities into question. The Baltimore Gazette was a real newspaper that published between 1862 and 1875. However, in 2016, the name popped up again, this time as a site that published fake news. The deception was pointed out by the Baltimore City Paper, a legitimate news outlet in the city. Although the Baltimore Gazette no longer seems to publish fake news about Baltimore, it now contains advertorial and lifestyle content. Many of the posts contain grammatical and spelling errors.
Lack of Links or Sources: If an article makes claims, uses data or refers to the results of a study, it should mention the sources and/or provide links for these claims. If it does not, be very wary.
Lack of Quotes or Questionable Quotes: Real articles generally contain quotes from knowledgeable people including academic or professional experts or witnesses to an event. Beware of articles that don’t contain any quotes. At the same time, it is easy for writers of fake news to make up quotes. If an article contains shocking or suspicious quotes, you should investigate further to see if the article is fake news or satire. For example, in this satirical article about a study on feminism, one of the author’s of the study is quoted as saying, ‘“The stereotype of overweight, unattractive, bitter, resentful hags with a chip on their shoulder isn’t really too far from the truth,” said Sheila Baker, director of the Garrison Institute located in Langford, Mississippi.’ Consider whether or not this is how scientists, academics or experts usually speak.
Stories that Originate from Social Media Sources: Anyone can make any claim on social media. If an article is quoting from sources on Twitter or other social media platforms, it should also include independent verification of the claims being made. According to the New York Times, a Texas man helped to start a national conspiracy theory in 2016 when he tweeted an unfounded assumption to his 40 followers. On a day of protests in Austin, TX, the man saw a series of parked buses. He assumed that the protestors had been paid and bused in from another area. Without any further investigation, he tweeted this theory as a fact. The message was shared thousands of times on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook. The problem? The buses had nothing to do with protests. They were hired by a company called Tableau Software for a professional conference the company was hosting.
Likewise, be wary of any post on Twitter or Facebook that refers to a news story without providing a link or screenshot of the actual article.