Fake news has been around for a long time, but it is now an online plague. It so pervasive that some surveys say fake stories get more clicks than real ones, and some people fear that fake news determined the outcome of the recent presidential election.
Fake news isn't just about politics. Many fake stories involve medicine, nutrition, celebrity gossip, heartwarming human interest stories, and even information about fashion and art. If the creators of fake news think they can get our attention, they'll put it out there.
I was drawn in by a story about canned pumpkin.
There are now some browser add-ins that are intended to help users identify fake news. I tried a couple of them with mixed results. Some work only on mobile devices. Some are limited to analyzing stories on Facebook.
I found one that would work on my desktop machine, called Fake News Alert. It puts a subtle warning banner at the very top of the page if it identifies a likely fake news site. So subtle, unfortunately, that some people might not see it. What we need is a big, red pop-up. However, that's a problem, too, since there are a lot of fake virus warnings that use red or yellow pop-ups to make you think something is wrong when it isn't. The whole thing is exhausting.
No matter how well they work, these browser extensions will not actually block fake news sites. Reading or not reading a website is your choice. And it will be impossible for them to identify every false story. We still have to rely on our own brains, and that can be tough.
CNN has published a very helpful article with basic tips on spotting fake news stories.
Keep in mind:
- If a website has a political agenda, read it skeptically (or not at all). This is especially true if it is the political agenda you like, since we are all more likely to believe things that confirm what we already think, even when those things are wrong.
- If the website looks like a mainstream news site but the url ends in com.co (instead of just .com) assume it is completely fake. There are many of these sites that are set up to imitate the real news sites and intentionally spread lies.
- If something is posted as a "meme" treat it with extra skepticism. These convenient images often contain fake quotes and fake "facts".
- If someone tells you an anecdote that is supposedly something that really happened, ask them what their sources are. Check the sources.
- If a story is extreme (accuses people of outrageous behavior or horrible crimes) treat it with extra skepticism.
- If it's too good to be true - that is, it confirms exactly what you suspected all along - start by assuming it's probably wrong.
- If it is sent in an email that has been forwarded to many people many times, assume it's wrong.
- Check with mainstream news sites and with fact checkers like Snopes or Factcheck.
- Quick Google searches probably will not help you determine truth, because they typically find more fake stories than real ones. However, these searches can be helpful because they will often reveal that the same fake story has been recycled many times, often about different people or different groups and events.
If you want the truth, you have to dig deeper, and you have to use critical thinking skills. Most of us were not taught how to think critically, and it can be a real challenge, but it is possible to train yourself by asking questions. Be willing to admit that you might be wrong.