18 Sneaky Signs You’re Actually Reading Fake News
While a wise man once said, “there’s a sucker born every minute,” you don’t have to be the sucker when it comes to fake news if you follow these tips from our savviest media experts.
Real news versus fake news
“The purpose of real news reporting is to inform,” says Jonathan Anzalone, PhD, a journalism professor at SUNY Stony Brook. Real news is truthful and unbiased. Here’s what real news is not about:
- Manipulating your opinion via melodrama or misinformation.
- Generating clicks (e.g., stories that don’t deliver on their headlines).
- Entertainment (e.g., April Fools articles and satire sites like The Onion, which aren’t fake news but aren’t real news).
To avoid getting sucked in, look for these red flags (and when on Facebook, be sure to use this new fake-news-spotting feature).
Hyperbole in the headline
Look for over exaggerations in your headlines, advises Holly Zink, a tech expert and writer for Digital Addicts. Beware of headlines that are super-exaggerated or unbelievably heartwrenching. Articles with headlines that trade in this sort of “excess” are a big red flag and shouldn’t be shared without further investigation. A recent example is the Mississippi Herald article, “Husband and wife discover they are biological twins after IVF clinic performs routine DNA test.” “The exaggerated title tricked over 32,500 people into sharing it on Facebook,” Zink says. “However, after closer inspection, it was clear the publication wasn’t real and the article lacked medical details and sources.” Want real health news? Here’s your go-to guide for the best (and worst) health news sources on the web.
You know those gross close-ups of inchworms and mushrooms that have nothing to do with the content of a story? Yeah, those are huge red flags. But in-context photos can be red flags too when they’re so horrific they veer into “advocacy,” according to Harvard’s Neiman Foundation. Even reputable outlets have used photos to inflame and argue a point (for example, in 2010 TIME used a photo in what Neiman says may have been a call to supporting military action), so even with trusted outlets, take a moment to ask yourself if that photo is informative versus provocative.
Faux photos accompanying a story mean, best case scenario, that the news outlet didn’t engage in rigorous fact-checking. Worst case scenario? The news outlet is deliberately misleading you. But one thing is certain: once you realize a photo’s been doctored, it’s a sure sign the story it goes with falls somewhere on the fake spectrum. Trouble is, it’s not always obvious. For example, all these photos have been doctored… could you tell? Here is a “foolproof” way to make sure you never get fooled by a fake photo again.
A dubious domain name
“Check the domain name. It’s common for sites to impersonate or pretend to be real news channels or networks,” Zink advises. “For example, a website called ‘nbcnews’ could be a fake news outlet if it has an abnormal top-level domain like ‘.com.co.’” Similarly, a foreign URL on a national story is a red flag. Foreign URLs are also red flags for fake shopping sites. Here are some other signs that shopping site’s about to steal your money.
No “About Us” page or an “About Us” page about nothing
“Most sites will have a lot of information about the news outlet, the company that runs it, members of leadership, and the mission and ethics statement behind an organization,” notes NPR. If the language in the “About Us” section of the outlet’s website seems melodramatic or overblown, that’s a red flag. In addition, you should be able to find out more info about the organization than from just their website.
The outlet has a reputation for being less than trustworthy
Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock
When you read a story published by an outlet with a known agenda, you’re already stepping into fake news territory, so tread carefully. If the story perfectly dovetails with an outlet’s agenda, it’s worth investigating, according to the BBC. Please note: even reputable new outlets will sometimes aggregate a story that has dubious content, so it’s worth paying attention to which outlet originally published the story, and not which outlet is publishing it now.
A baloney byline
Journalists with credentials don’t write fake news. If you have any doubt as to a story’s authenticity, search for the author online and check their credentials, suggests communications expert Chris Allieri. In addition, a seemingly silly byline is a good way to suss out whether the story that follows is nothing more than a joke, a satire, or an April Fool’s hoax.
No experts are quoted
Rob Holmes, an intelligence expert for more than two decades, tells Reader’s Digest he uses this rule of thumb: “When reading a news article, I immediately look for a reference to the source of the claim being made.” And if the online source references another source, then Holmes checks that source too. “Unless there is a verifiable named source where I can confirm the claim, I do not consider it real news.”
Experts are quoted without links
When an “expert” is quoted—but without a link—you can verify the expert actually exists with a quick Internet search, advises Whitney Joy Smith, president of The Smith Investigation Agency. If you can’t find this expert on the Internet, there’s a strong likelihood they don’t exist and the news you’re reading is fake.