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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.

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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).

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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.

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Inflammatory photos

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.

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Doctored photos

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.

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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.

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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.

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The outlet has a reputation for being less than trustworthy

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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Links go nowhere

Sobering fact: this fake news article was cited more than 400 times on the web, and it doesn’t even exist. While reputable news sites might inadvertently link to content that is or becomes extinct/otherwise unavailable on any server, it’s a sign that the story has either not been adequately fact-checked or was once possibly accurate but no longer is. So, when an “expert” is quoted with a link, but when you click on the link, you get a “404” error or a similar error indicating that you’ve landed on a website that doesn’t exist, that’s a sign that what you’re reading might not be actual news.

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The links take you to questionable sites/content

When you click on a link in a supposed news story only to get an immediate “security” or “virus” warning, that’s a big red flag. Carefully click on the “X” and back away because you might have stumbled upon not only a fake news story but also a website that may be geared toward stealing your personal info. Here are other genius ways to prevent identity theft.

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The links don’t support the points made

If the links do lead to a legitimate source, it’s still important to scan the links. “Even fake news sites will site legitimate sources,” points out Andrew Selepek, PhD, a professor of telecommunications and director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida. But the sources may not actually back up the points made in the story. If the sources don’t support the points made, the news may well be fake.

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The links support the points but something seems “off”

Maybe you’ve gone as far as to check that the linked sources exist and are saying what the news story is claiming they’re saying. But that’s not the end of the story, Bruce Bartlett, author of The Truth Matters, a book about fake news points out to Reader’s Digest. For example, when a news story cites a survey, take a look at what the survey actually consists of. Is it a large survey with hundreds of thousands of participants? Or did it involve “four out of five dentists”? If it makes your spidey senses tingle, then pay heed. Here are clues that someone is lying in real life.

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The comments are accusatory

Sometimes the comments section reveals everything you need to know about a news story. When comments point “fake news” fingers at the story, its author, or the news outlet, it’s a red flag. It doesn’t mean the story is fake. But it certainly means that others perceive it as fake. And that merits your further investigation. That said, comments on a website can also mislead you, so always proceed with caution.

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It’s the only “news” on the topic

When in doubt, a quick way to check whether a story is legit is to search for it on Google, under the “news” tab,” advises Adam Chiara, applied assistant professor of communications at the University of Hartford. “If there are no other outlets reporting it, congratulations—you didn’t fall victim to fake news!” Here’s how not to fall victim to phone call scams.

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It gives you a serious case of “the feels”

As Anzalone points out, real news doesn’t tell you what to do, what to think, or how to feel. So if the tone of a news story incites an unusually strong emotional response in you or seems to be calling for action of some kind on your part, then it’s wise to consider whether what you’re reading is less than credible as a news story. The more urgent your desire to share the news? The more likely it’s fake!

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It doesn’t hold up on Snopes

Before you rely on the news by believing it or sharing it, check it against one of the reputable fact-checking sites, advises Steven J.J. Weisman, Esq., an attorney and professor of Media Law at Bentley University. Along with Snopes.com and FactCheck.org, which are also endorsed by Dr. Selepek, Weisman recommends MediaBiasFactCheck.com. For example, none of these stories that were shared over and over on the Internet held up on those fact-checking websites!