5 Useful Tools to Help You Spot Fake News

In March of 2018 a group of MIT data scientists published a study which found that that humans and bots share fake news on Twitter at about the same rate, but the robots aren’t necessarily outsmarting us – we’re just playing along. The study, among other findings, showed that false news spread up to six times more quickly than real news and that it spread to more people: the top 1% of fake news reached 1,000 to 100,000 people, while real news rarely went above 1,000.

If you want to keep your social media profile credible, though, there are some steps you can take to double-check your news.

fake-news-definition

“Fake news” has become a heavily politicized term, but the common-sense definition still applies: “any news that contains intentionally misleading information.” It often spreads quickly because it appears more interesting than real news, and it often provokes a quick reaction by appealing to our negative, defensive emotions, like fear and disgust. Ideally, you would be able to tell real from fake at a glance, but some of it can look quite believable, and it’s hard to have your shields up all the time.

So what can you use to detect it?

fake-news-brain

Fake news is designed to trip the switches that control your instinctual “fight-or-flight” responses. If you read a headline or article that is clearly trying to elicit a strong reaction from you, especially if it’s slanted heavily towards one side of a debate, it’s probably fake. For example:

  • Fake: Social media is destroying truth: MIT scientists find evidence of humans and robots sharing so many lies that you can’t believe anything you read on Twitter! Lizard-people are now the only safe source of news.
  • Real: “On Twitter, fake news spreads faster than truth, an MIT study says.” – Hanna Kozlowska, Quartz

Your brain is your first line of defense, so if you can get some practice identifying fake news, you’ll be better able to identify it on your own. The best way to learn is to do, and short of starting your own fake news site, these games are the closest you’ll get.

Factitious: a game that presents you with articles that are either real or fake and asks you to choose. It doesn’t take long and gives you good insights into what to look for.

fake-news-game-factitious

Bad News: a game that puts you in charge of a fake news publication. You will learn about what goes into successful bad news and how people manipulate it for their benefit. It takes ten or fifteen minutes and might leave you wanting to play it again.

fake-news-game-bad-news

Fake It to Make It: This game takes significantly longer than the games above (1+ hours), but it puts you right into the mindset of someone who is manipulating social media purely for profit.

fake-news-fakeitmakeit

fake-news-bs-detector

This browser extension works on Chrome, Opera, Firefox, Safari, and Edge, and gives you warnings when you are on a page that contains possible fake news. It analyzes the links to check for unreliable sources, then tells you why a particular site was flagged.

fake-news-mediabiasfactcheck

This Chrome extension is powered by the MediaBiasFactCheck database, and it not only alerts you when you are browsing a fake news site but will clue you into the political biases of legitimate sites as well. Accurate facts do not guarantee truth, after all; different presentations can leave you with very different ideas.

fake-news-fakenewsai

This Chrome extension is actually built on a neural network, using machine learning to predict whether the website you are visiting is spreading fake news or not. It only runs when you ask it to, which some users may appreciate. Not a Chrome user? You can visit the AI’s portal website and manually enter the web address you want to check. It’s last on the list because it’s not all that accurate, though: in my testing it reported RealClearPolitics and The Intercept as fake news — both sites that definitely have some bias, but are not at all fake.

While ultimately it is up to the user to assess the news they read and make choices about it, some of the larger companies that control your news diet are making efforts to clean things up as well. Facebook, Google, and other tech/media companies are experimenting with ways to de-prioritize or flag possibly untrue content, though none of them has yet implemented such a system.

Algorithm tweaks and other solutions may have had some success, but no matter what the big tech companies do, fake news can never really go away without severely limiting the ability of users to freely express themselves. For the foreseeable future, then, the best strategy is just to rely on your own assessments and research. You don’t need to be a journalist to recognize falsehood – just make sure you look for overly-dramatic language, fact-check articles you aren’t sure about, and if you’re still not sure, just “be sweet, don’t retweet.”

Image credit: Thomas Schultz via Wikimedia

9 comments

  1. The problem with the fact checkers is they all have their own bias. Whatever happened to people having critical thinking skills and their own BS meter?

    • What happened? Just as people are relying on others to feed them pre-digested news bytes, they are relying on the same sources to tell them what is and is not “fake news”.

    • Media bias is definitely a problem–I’d recommend checking out AllSides (https://www.allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news) to check out their bias ratings. They’re compiled using a lot of different methods and sources, so they’re probably the closest you can get to an accurate assessment of media bias.

      As to how big of a problem it is, though, fake news is a very different beast from media bias. Biased media, no matter how much spin they put on the facts, generally won’t outright report false information. Fact checking might not be very helpful for sorting out bias, but for a story like “Trump Executes Obama-Pardoned Turkey” a simple Google search will turn up enough sources debunking it that their bias really doesn’t matter.

      The problem with fake news isn’t necessarily that people don’t have critical thinking skills–it’s that our daily information diet is so much more massive and diverse than it used to be that ferreting out the true and the false isn’t as straightforward as just checking it against your own knowledge. I don’t know what happens to turkeys at the White House–if I see a headline about one, my only option is to go check around and gather enough information about the subject that I can predict with a high level of certainty whether or not the news is true. If one uncredible source says it’s true and a credible source says it’s false, I’ll probably pick the credible source; if multiple credible sources agree, even better!

      One great thing about fake news is that it does tend to be quite recognizable, as demonstrated by the applications above–some are well-crafted to be very believable, but if you have a large enough bank of credible sources and headlines stored away in your head, you can usually tell the difference.

  2. “Fake news” has been with us since humans learn how to lie. Only lately has it become a cause celebre. Until recently most people were able to distinguish between bovine excrement and real news.

    • Were they really able to make the distinction? I remember all the way back to the Army McCarthy Hearings. To this day some people think the House Unamerican Activities Committee should never have been disbanded, and that Hollywood is a haven for Communist Jews. (Their words, not mine.) Fake News has been believed for as long as it has existed. And that is a very, very long time!

      • HUAC was an institutionalized witch hunt. But so are the hearings into Cambridge Analytica and Russians influencing American elections.

        “Hollywood is a haven for Communist Jews”
        Maybe not Jews but there are many super-rich, extreme left leaning individuals out there. :-)

  3. Thanks for this article, Andrew. As a librarian, I and my colleagues have long helped students and patrons develop skills to effectively evaluate the authority of information. In the highly politicized culture of fake news rhetoric, our mission to educate has become even more important. I have linked to your article on a Fake News guide that provides tips and resources to help discern fake from real. See: http://guides.stlcc.edu/fakenews and feel free to share, copy, and use.

    • Hey Sharon! That’s a very nicely put-together guide, and I’m glad I could make a contribution to it :) I would definitely agree about the growing importance of information evaluation. Now that we have an almost infinite amount of data a few clicks away, the biggest challenge is learning how to effectively process it all.

      Best of luck with that guide–I’ll keep it handy for if/when I revisit this topic.

    • Sharon,
      Maybe you can use the following quote from ex-Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan:
      “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”

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