Though we’ve been debating the validity and consequences of partisan news since the dawn of cable television, it seemed the concept of “fake news” —and a tangible, almost viral fear of it—sprung up almost overnight during the final throes of the presidential campaign.
Some people credit fake news for cinching the presidency for Donald Trump after a BuzzFeed News investigation showed that made-up news stories got more engagement on Facebook in the final three months leading to the election than did stories from the top news sources in the country. (Facebook’s COO denies this had anything to do with the election results.) The Washington Post profiled a man who writes viral fake news for a living and believes “Donald Trump is in the White House because of me.” And of course our news feeds were filled recently with the cautionary tale of the man who was so outraged by the fake news story he had read about Hillary Clinton running a child sex ring out of a pizza place in Washington, D.C., he went to the restaurant and fired an assault rifle inside of it. (Nobody was hurt.)
But what does the buzzword “fake news” actually mean, and where is the news coming from?
Well, there are sites out there that pose as real news sites, even going as far as adopting the looks, logos and names of mainstream news organizations (CNN.com.de and ABCNews.com.co, for example). They make money from the advertisements they host on their sites, just like other websites do. And they make up news stories outrageous enough to elicit an emotional response in the reader that makes them want to share it on social media.
“I think people have a propensity to share stuff that they find outrageous, that kind of fires them up,” said Patrick Meirick, associate professor of communication and director of the Political Communication Center at the University of Oklahoma.
People are willing to believe fake news because it often plays into pre-existing feelings or stereotypes they hold about the person or group of people the news is about, Meirick said. A study published by BuzzFeed News this week showed that adult news consumers in the U.S. were fooled by fake headlines 75 percent of the time.
Another contributing factor is a rising distrust in what’s considered the mainstream media, Meirick said, a feeling that has come and gone over the country’s political history. There’s a sense among some media consumers that the most popular news sources in the country are hiding important pieces of information, he said.
“That absolutely does feed into people’s willingness to say well, ‘I can’t trust the mainstream media, so maybe I can trust the people who say not to trust the mainstream media, that had information you won’t find other places,'” Meirick said.
Whether you blame our hyperpolitical, hyperpolarized mediascape or the lack of humans running Facebook’s news function for the fake news phenomenon, here are some tips to for being a savvy news consumer and avoiding the click bait.
If you click on an article from a source you’ve never heard of, do a quick Google search for the content of the article. If no other news site has reported the information, alarm bells should go off in your head, Meirick said. On the other hand, if a few other sources have reported the information, look into what those sources are, as well, he said. Where did the information in the article originally come from? Who reported it first? Often news sources will pick up articles from other sites, so it’s best to trace the content to the original source.
If you’re not satisfied by those results, try typing the headline along with “fact check” or “Snopes” into Google.
“More often than not, there will be (a fact check) up if (the article has) been out for more than a couple days,” Meirick said. “If it’s brand new, you might be relying a little bit more on your instincts.”
Never heard of the website you’re reading? Do a Google search for it and find out what its reputation is by reading what other websites, like Wikipedia or nonpartisan news sites, have to say about it. A lot of fake news websites name themselves things that sound reputable, like the “Denver Guardian” or “The Political Insider,” Meirick said.
But be forewarned—a lot of fake news sites have tricky names. If the article you’re reading appears to come from a mainstream news source but the story seems too sensational to be true, check its URL. You might find that there are extra letters there—.co or .de, for example—and it’s not the site it appears to be. You can also click onto its homepage and see if it’s populated with other news or just a bunch of fake space filler designed to look like news content. If you click into these space-filler stories, you’ll often find that the headline doesn’t match the text and the photos have nothing to do with the article. Fake news alert.
If you see fake news making the rounds on Facebook, you can report it, Meirick said. Click on the little “v” in the top right corner of a the offending news story on your Facebook feed. Then click “Report post,” followed by “I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook.” Finally, click “It’s a fake news story.”
“That might help to change the business model from the Facebook side of things, if enough people do that,” Meirick said.
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.