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How to spot fake news

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Fake news: it’s been around since the dawn of language, although most of us around today will remember it as outrageous headlines in the Sunday paper or on tabloid magazine covers that make you do a double-take.

While fake news is certainly old news, it’s taken on a whole new form in the digital world as social media and news websites have become a staple activity in everyday life. This ‘sharing’ aspect of news stories has brought about an interesting social change: not only are we discussing news more often with more people who may not necessarily be part of our immediate social circle, we’re also receiving news from a far wider range of sources than the newspapers and free-to-air news channels of old. With all this variety, some of it is bound to be a little bit sketchy when it comes to the facts.

If you’ve ever been caught out by a Facebook news post that you thought was real, this one’s for you: we’ve put together some handy hints to help you take a step back and assess a piece of news before you choose whether or not to react to it.

It’s all fun and games until someone takes it seriously

Of course, this isn’t just about dodgy fact-checking: there’s also a booming business in satirical and joke news, which is basically popular because it’s funny. Why spend time writing a dull political update when an incredibly sarcastic lampoon will end up being a thousand times more popular with readers?

A prime example of satire would be the great “avocado toast” debacle of 2017, which reached worldwide notoriety after a millionaire made comments on 60 Minutes about younger generations buying avocado toast instead of saving for mortgages. The sentiment of these comments resonated badly with a lot of people, leading to spoof articles such as this very literal piece from The Shovel.

While entertaining, this approach to news can get hairy when someone who isn’t in on the joke comes across it, especially where politics are involved. Rest assured that if a piece of news is coming from any of these popular satire sites, it shouldn’t be taken too seriously (fair warning for anyone reading at work: many of these sites use profanity):

… and that’s just a few of them. You can check out a longer list on Wikipedia.

Six quick tips to spot a fake

Sadly, not all fake news stories are so obvious or even intended as satire or jokes. Misinformation campaigns and dangerous hoaxes are as old as time (just ask the Business Insider) so it’s important to be prepared to do a little fact-checking. Here’s some things to consider when you encounter a news story on the internet:

  • Consider all the content: Headlines are often alarming on purpose to entice you to click them and read more – this is known as “clickbait”. While it may not necessarily mean the story is fake, headlines can often grossly misrepresent the actual content of the story, so you should always read before you react.
  • Check for sources: Remember when you had to write references for your school reports? It’s the same for journalism. Whenever a news article uses a statistic or makes a claim like “6 out of 10 Australians prefer tea to coffee”, it should be backed up a link to a credible scientific study or expert report. If that’s missing, something may be fishy.
  • Look at where it’s coming from: If it’s not a satire or joke site, take a careful look at the website where the news story is posted. Even if the website looks familiar, take a closer look at the URL in your browser. Some particularly dodgy dealers may have copied the logos and website layouts of well-established news companies such as the BBC, but the URL could be something completely off the mark, like “http://maple.he/BBC”.
  • Check the date: Thanks to the internet, news is archived and accessible for years after it’s posted. An old news story may be doing the rounds on social media, but that doesn’t mean it’s relevant to current events.
  • Google the author: It’s pretty easy to create a fake identity on the internet, so it’s worth running a quick search on the author of a news story. If they really are a professional journalist, you should be able to find lots of other article they’ve written. If nothing comes up, there’s a good chance that the so-called “author” may just be a fake name and a stolen photograph.
  • Look it up on a reliable fact-checking site: Fortunately there are a number of people who are dedicated to shining the light on fake news to make sure that the public has access to the truth. Websites such as Snopes and RMIT ABC Fact Check have good reputations for reporting on the accuracy of current news stories.

If you believe a story is fake, some social media sites (such as Facebook) may have a “Report” function so that you can flag it and help get it removed. If not, at least you can ignore it and save yourself the bother of getting riled up about something that’s not real.

Do you have a top tip for spotting fake news? Share it with us in the comments.

16 comments

  1. John Salmon says:

    I have been getting calls from a make believe NAB person. A search says the calling number is not connected. How do I find that number?

    • Leo Yarnold says:

      Hi John,

      Unless you have caller ID on your phone enabled, its likely that the number is hidden. If the calls continue, you can request a Malicious Call Trace (MCT) so that the number can be identified and passed on to law enforcement.

      – Leo

  2. Peter Chester says:

    Copy the opening sentence, of most of it, then paste it into Google preceded by and followed by ” marks. (Double quotation) Google will quickly take you to the source(s).

  3. Peter Chester says:

    “or most of it” sorry!

  4. Mike Hore says:

    Fake news on Facebook often has a hysterical tone to get your attention, and tells you to share this earth-shattering news with all your friends. This should automatically make you suspicious.

    — Mike.

  5. TTOZ says:

    Sorry but snopes is completely biased only one way (left wing), and suggesting that be trusted as a fact checking site is as fake as fake news itself.

  6. John Smith says:

    Fake news? Just read the newspaper or turn on the TV at election time. About as fake as you could ever get with the right wing media running its propaganda campaign to get its side of politics back in.

  7. Graeme says:

    Snopes is a proven unreliable source and has a political bias. A far more reliable site is Truth or Fiction at https://www.truthorfiction.com/

  8. Kim Olsson says:

    Beware that sometimes established media outlets peddle fake news. Always check a variety of news sources that are not politically aligned. I.e. if you read a story on CNN, check the same story of Fox News. Also, be aware that search engines like Google might filter out results that does not fit their ‘progressive’ agenda, use Duck Duck Go instead.

  9. Donald Duckham says:

    Alomt any Murdoch paper is at least 75% false news, either blatantly braised in favor of their appointees or sponsored content, ie advertising pretending to be news

  10. Daniel Thorpe says:

    Just look for the CNN logo to check if it’s fake news.

  11. Lynette Payne says:

    Is the MTC good for all scam calls? I am over 70 and receive quite a few, some quite scary. I never reply or ring back but worry about other older citizens.

    • Leo Yarnold says:

      Hi Lynette,

      MCT can be useful for this but its not a cure-all. If the scam calls continue, sometimes the only way to beat them is to not answer the call (using Caller ID) or changing your number.

      – Leo

  12. Wayne Botting says:

    If you didn’t care what happened to me,
    And I didn’t care for you,
    We would zig zag our way through the boredom and pain
    Occasionally glancing up through the rain.
    Wondering which of the buggars to blame
    And watching for pigs on the wing.

  13. Michael says:

    “Snopes.com is an excellent site that has become an authoritative source for information about urban legends and forwarded emails. We regard David and Barbara Mikkelson, the founders and operators of Snopes.com, as colleagues and professional researchers who have earned a good reputation for what they do.”

  14. Mike Hunt says:

    I am very thankful for this site. it has taught me so much about fake news.

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