How to spot fake news

Fact-check — sort fact from fiction 

Scrutinise the story

Read the story carefully and ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the story sound believable to you?
  • Has the story been reported anywhere else?  On the radio, TV or in the newspapers?
  • Where has it come from?
  • How much evidence do you have?
  • Who’s telling you this story?
  • Does it all add up when you look into the details?
  • Check for spelling or grammatical errors. Well-researched articles are typically read and re-read before publishing.

Remember mixed in with all the fair, factual, and well-researched reporting may be something more sinister: fake news or information that seems accurate, but is in fact downright false. Half truths can be more deceitful than outright lies.

Consider the publisher

Play detective and do your research

  • What is the name of the organisation creating or hosting the content?
  • Is the source one that you recognise and trust?
  • Investigate the site, its mission or “About us” section, and its contact info.
  • Ensure the story comes from a publisher with a reputation for accuracy.

Look closely at the URL

Be cautious of website URLs that are made to look official or real. A splashy looking website can contain fake news.

Some individuals trick users by using domain names to imitate a reputable organisation. Fact-checked fake news from “abcnews.com.co” is not the actual URL for the division of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

  • Do a bit of searching:
  • Is this one you recognise and trust?
  • Are there any other web addresses sharing this story?

Look beyond the headline

Be sceptical of catchy headlines. Fake news headlines are often dressed up to grab attention.  So, be wary of those that contain lots of capital letters and exclamation marks. If claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they usually are.

  • Doubt outrageous headlines.
  • Look at the language people are using.
  • Watch for unusual formatting.
    Are there lots of capital letters, exclamation marks, random characters?

Many fake news stories often contain spelling and grammar errors, as well as an awkward looking layout.

  • Read beyond the headline.
    If a provocative headline draws your attention, read a little further before passing on fake news. Even in legitimate news stories, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story.
  • Does the headline match the content of the article?
    A headline should provide you with an idea of what the entire article is about or arouse your interest in a genuine story. But it can also be used to persuade you to believe something without reading the full article.

Check the author

Do a background search on the author. Check for the author’s name. Is the name available or is it missing? Most authors who put time into a well-researched article will likely have their name attached to it. So…

  • Who is the writer?
  • What is their occupation?
  • Are they credible?
  • Have they written articles before?
  • Are the articles well-researched?
  • What is their track record like?
  • What are their credentials and qualifications?
  • Does the author work at a reputable organisation?
  • Are they an expert in the field?
  • Could the person involved in the story have been there at the time?

Look at other reports

Validate a story is by comparing it to similar stories broadcast by other agencies.  If no other news source is reporting the same story, it could indicate that it is false.

  • Search to see if there are similar articles written by other news organisations.
  • Read multiple news sources to see how it is being reported.

If no other major news organisation is reporting this big shocking story, you might want to be careful.

Scrutinise pictures and photographs

False news stories often contain manipulated images. Also, a photo may be authentic but taken out of context.

  • Search the internet to find out where the image came from.
  • Check the source.
  • Who’s posted it?
  • Where and when was it posted?
  • How many times has that picture been used before?
    If it’s been used many times, it may not be an original.  It might even have even been used for another story.
  • If the news item includes a video, check this out too.
  • Does the photo or video look normal?

Check supporting sources

Look carefully at any named sources in the story.  Lack of evidence, or a reliance on unnamed experts may indicate false news.

  • Check the author’s sources to confirm they are accurate.
  • Click on any supporting links.
  • Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
  • Check the evidence.

Check the date

Do the dates match real events?  Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events. Some false stories aren’t completely fake, but rather distortions of real events. These deceitful claims can take a legitimate news story and twist what it says — or even claim that something that happened long ago is related to current events.

  • Check the date.
  • Do the dates add up?
  • How important is the date? Does the date match the published article?
  • Check the timelines make sense and have not been modified.

Is it a joke?

Is it satire?  If the text is too outlandish, it might be. But satire and fake news are not the same thing. When it’s satirical, fake news can include several revealing signs. Even so, some readers may believe a satirical article is real. So, is the story just a joke?

  • Research the site and its author. Check whether the source is known for parody.
  • Do the story details and tone suggest its humour is simply for amusement?

Satire is a form of humour which uses exaggeration or irony to expose hypocrisy, abuse and other shortcomings.  It’s usually funny. Fake news is that abuse, and no one is laughing

Who benefits?

Be on the lookout for bias. What is the purpose of the information? To inform, to persuade or to sell?

  • Is the article informative in some way?
  • What information is it giving you?
  • Think critically about the information you’re receiving and be sceptical.
  • Can you verify the facts?
  • Are sources offered? If so, can you evaluate them?
  • If there are links on the page, where do they take you?
  • Is the article trying to sell you something? What looks like a news article might actually be an advertisement.
  • Is the author trying to persuade you to believe a particular point of view?
  • Ask yourself why the author might hold this point of view. Is it objective? Is it biased?
  • Who benefits from you thinking that way?
  • Are there any other reasons why someone might want to spread information, or misinformation?

Check your own biases

This can be testing.  Are your own views or beliefs affecting your judgement of a news report?

Bias leads people to put more stock in information that confirms their beliefs, and discount that which doesn’t. They tend to select stories that reinforce their cherished beliefs.  We thrive on propaganda when it suits our purposes but seethe with indignation when other views run counter to our pet prejudices. So, be sceptical and take time to check out yourself.

  • Consider if your beliefs could affect your own judgement
  • Listen to others
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Analyse the situation

Ask yourself are you sharing something because it’s really true or just because you want it to be? Make your views informed by the facts rather than the other way round.

Consult the experts

Yes, you’re busy, and rigorous fact checking takes time.  People, bombarded by loads of information, find it impossible to see everything that comes into their news feed, let alone fact-check every item.

So, here are some useful fact-checking sites:

  • FactCheck.org  is a non-profit website which monitors the accuracy of U.S. political stories.
  • PolitiFact verifies political news stories.
  • Snopes fact-checks internet rumours and stories. For instance, their checks could determine whether that post your cousin shared on Facebook about the diagnosis of coronavirus has any merit. Indeed, on 5 March 2020, Snopes warned of an incorrect assertion about the diagnosis of COVID-19. It had gone viral on Facebook and was “potentially dangerous”.
  • BBC Reality Check. In 2017 the BBC set up team to debunk to fact check and debunk deliberately misleading and false stories.
  • FactCheck is run by UK’s Channel 4 News and was launched as a blog in 2010
  • The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) is dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. The IFCN which sets a code of ethics for fact-checking organisations. It reviews fact-checkers to ensure they comply with its code.
  • And finally, your local library. Remember library databases can also be good resources for confirming the credibility of information.

Keep searching for the facts

As Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

Traditional media operate on an uneven playing field.  Reputable journalists cannot take refuge in anonymity. By comparison, those who publish fake news can hide behind fake websites and ignore libel laws.

If people are inundated with inaccurate and untruthful news stories, how can they fully understand the world around them?

Without critical thought, people perceive reliable journalism as being no better than made-up stories. When people fail to distinguish between the two, it becomes an easy descent into a cynical way of thinking that nothing can be relied upon and everything is false, and that’s okay.