Opinion: Fake news and how to spot it


A characteristic of fake news is that it is distributed rapidly and widely through social media, usually by unsuspecting internet users.   It is the global popularity of Facebook, Twitter and Google that has allowed phony news to flow into people’s homes so easily, to be re-posted so rapidly, and to maintain anonymity for the originator.   

By Dr Catherine Strong

We are only a few weeks into 2017, but already it seems the phrase of the year might very well be the “F” one.   Fake news.

The phrase is identified as a possible engineer of the American election outcomes, but the definition is getting muddied. The confusion is led by politicians who bleat out “fake news” for any media item they don’t like or is uncomplimentary of them. 

Fake news is fabricated articles produced with the specific aim of fooling as many people as possible. This is different from non-news, which in reality can be a single source puffery piece, or erroneous news, which is just plain wrong, often because of errors or lack of checking by news agencies.

A characteristic of fake news is that it is distributed rapidly and widely through social media, usually by unsuspecting internet users.   It is the global popularity of Facebook, Twitter and Google that has allowed phony news to flow into people’s homes so easily, to be re-posted so rapidly, and to maintain anonymity for the originator.   

You have probably seen how it works.  You “like” some news-looking article a friend posted on your Facebook site, and immediately a lot of similar posts show up.  Advertisers paid to get those to you.

The reason people produce fake news websites is easy –it’s mainly for the money.

Internet-savvy teens in Macedonia tried different topics and discovered that Facebook users are more likely to share a fake news story about a supposed health cure  or is pro Trump.  So the teens set up the false news-looking websites, crank out the stories, and get paid per share – up to $3000 a day.

But anyone can produce fake news.  One example is the American who set up a website with the trusty name of ChristianTimesNewspaper, wrote a phoney anti-Hillary Clinton story and was surprised to earn $1000 from the huge number of hits he got in a week.   So he continued putting out false anti-Clinton stories to pay off his student loan. 

Others do it for the thrill of seeing how many people they can con, and getting extra thrills for conning the real media. 

Kiwis were the subject of this type of fake news when some reports said the entire country was evacuated after the Kaikoura earthquakes. 

There was also a flood of YouTube videos purporting to be live coverage of the quake damage, except they were shot in clear daylight, when Kiwis know the quake was at midnight. 

Also, some of the fake news videos showed fleeing Kaikoura victims screaming in Chinese instead of English.  Dead giveaway!  YouTube removed them within two days. 

I’ve seen fake posts spread by people who are educated but unfamiliar with news processes. They see a headline they like – they want to believe—and quickly hit the share button.    No attempt is made to verify the veracity of the story. 

Columbia University research that found 59% of people who “liked” a Facebook news story never clicked onto it to read the actual article.  Simply from a headline, they spread fake news.

News consumers have a responsibility to support real news and back those journalists who strive to report truthfully and fairly.  They should try to stem the flow of fake news by not sharing or liking a Facebook post before checking out its validity.   These tips will also help you avoid being conned.

  1. See if the originating website is a reputable news site, one that you know, and the story is reported by two or more reputable news sites.
  2. See if the URL of the so-called news site looks real (such as  Dompost.co.nz, instead of the a fake address like  dompost.com; or Dompost.ae)
  3. Look for precision journalism, where the news article gives the full name and titles of people quoted, gives both sides of the story, gives city and place names.  
  4. Look at the website itself for fuzzy photos, misspelled masthead, poor colouration,  all-capital letters in headlines and other dodgy-looking stories.  
  5. If it is an international story, go to one of the new sites set up to expose fake news, such as FactCheck.org. or Snopes.com.

New Zealanders benefit from “real news” produced by good journalism whereby we know what is really going on in the world. Media-savvy news consumers can tip the scales away from fake news by giving a compliment and credit to news stories that are well reported and accurate.

Dr Catherine Strong is a senior lecturer at Massey University's  School of Communication, Journalism and Marketing who specialises in issues around convergence media.

 

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