Thais got a taste of what “fake” news can do to you recently when Facebook got fooled by its own algorithm.
When the social network activated its Safety Check feature, a false security alert was triggered. A year-old article about a bomb blast in Bangkok (the 2015 Erawan Shrine attack) sent a jolt of panic across the world before it was deactivated an hour later.
The incident raised questions about how Thais consume news on the social media. Long before fake news became a big issue during the US presidential election campaign, many Thais were caught in their own drawn-out social media battle, posting news considered favourable to their political orientation – and disparaging stories that shed a negative light on their faction.
The general public, however, has to be armed with sufficient guidelines on how to detect news that is deliberately distorted or cooked up to paint an incident in a certain way.
I was drawn to the News Literacy Project in the US, which is focused on “vaccinating” citizens against fake news from a young age. The process has to start in the classroom, even before kids start using mobile phones.
In what is being dubbed a post-truth era, news literacy must start from the ground up.
The US project uses a virtual classroom and mobilises seasoned journalists to help students nationwide sort fact from fiction in the digital age.
It offers basic questions – the five W’s and one H – as guards against falling into the fake news trap:
WHO wrote the article? Is there a byline or author?
WHAT is the publication? Is it a credible or trusted news source?
WHERE do the sources inside come from? Are they named? Are they legit? Are they absent?
WHEN was it published? A missing date could raise a flag.
WHY did the writer create it? What was the motivation? Would you share it with someone?
HOW did it make you feel? Angry? Excited? Any other strong emotions? That could be another flag. Is it suspicious? To what degree can you fix it?
To the general public, guidelines given by Nick Robins-Early, a world news reporter for the Huffington Post, can also be very helpful in spotting a fake story.
1. Read past the headline.
One way that fake news gets amplified is that busy readers don’t look past the headline or opening paragraph before they decide to share an article. Fake news publishers sometimes exploit this tendency, writing the beginning of a story in a straightforward way before filling in the rest with obviously false information.
2. Check what news outlet
Unfamiliar websites plastered with ads and all-caps headlines should draw immediate scepticism. Googling a site’s name and checking out other articles it posts should also help determine whether it’s trustworthy.
Many fake news sites will outright say that they are satire or don’t contain factual information, but others are made to mimic major news outlets. Check the URL names of pages that look suspect, making sure that it’s not a hoax site that is pretending to be a trusted source.
3. Check the date and time of publication.
Another common element in fake news is that old articles or events can resurface and lead people to believe they just happened. Checking the publish time stamp is something readers can quickly do to prevent being misled.
4. Who is the author?
Looking at who wrote the article can reveal a lot of information about the news source. Searching through the author’s previous articles can show whether they are a legitimate journalist or have a history of hoaxing.
5. Look at what links and sources are used.
A lack of links or sources for claims in an article is an obvious warning sign. Fake sites may also provide numerous links to sites that appear to back up their claims, but are themselves spreading misinformation. Check to see that claims supported by links actually come from reliable sources.
6. Look out for questionable quotes and photos.
It’s incredibly easy for fake news writers to invent false quotes, even attributing them to major public figures. Be sceptical of shocking or suspicious quotes, and search to see if they have been reported elsewhere.
Likewise, it’s easy to take a photo from one event and say it’s from another. Images can also be altered for a certain story. Reverse image searches, either through Google or tools like TinEye, can help you find where an image originated.
7. Beware confirmation bias
People are often drawn to stories that reinforce the way they see the world and how they feel about certain issues. Fake news is no exception, and many of the articles that fall under its umbrella are designed to stir up emotion in readers and prey on their biases.
It’s important to check that news stories are based in fact, rather than sharing them because they support one side of an argument or bolster pre-existing political beliefs.
8. Search if other news outlets are reporting it
If a story looks suspicious or claims to reveal major news, search to see if other news outlets are also reporting the story. A single article from a suspicious source making a grand claim should be viewed with heavy scepticism. If no reliable news outlets are also reporting the story, then it’s likely fake.
Perhaps the most practical piece of advice is: Think before you share. That’s because fake news sites rely on readers to share and engage with their articles in order for them to spread. In extreme cases, these fake articles can balloon out of control and have unintended consequences for those involved in the stories.
With dwindling newsroom staff and shrinking financial resources, journalists increasingly rely on online sources for stories and breaking news. As such, there’s an even greater imperative for all editors to follow this exhaustive checklist to avoid falling victim to “fake journalism”.