Fake news has been a major talking point for years, though the definition has changed over time. Made-up news stories used to conjure images of Bat Boys and aliens smiling on the cover of the Weekly World News. These days, pseudo-news has more insidious connotations.

False stories used to be obviously fake and usually funny. Today, made-up stories masquerade as real stories to swing political opinion. Often, they’ll imply danger or a crime. It’s so bad that experts now believe that these hoaxes significantly affected the 2016 presidential election.

To combat this, there’s been a concerted effort to identify and stop made-up stories. How can you spot fake news?

What’s the Source?

The first clue is taking a look at both the outlet and the person sharing the story with you. Has this person shared clear hoaxes in the past, or do they have a known agenda this story is pushing? That can be a hint that it may not be 100% true.

A quick Google search for “[the source] reputable” can help you know what’s safe to trust and what’s not.

The publisher of the story can also be disreputable. Does the source have a history of making stories up? This can be difficult to determine on your own, but a quick Google search for “[the source] reputable” can be enlightening. Be warned, some of the results you get may be fake themselves, so don’t let this be your only determining factor.

You’ll also want to verify whether the source has a bias too. This can help you to identify exaggerated or twisted information. This type of fake news can be difficult to identify, since parts are true, but the bias twists and distorts the facts. This is how the same story can be very different on the Huffington Post and Fox News.

Even some prominent news outlets from around the world are disreputable or clearly biased, like the UK’s the Sun, the National Enquirer, or the Daily Kos.

Even some prominent news outlets from around the world are disreputable or clearly biased. Examples of these would be the UK’s the Sun, the National Enquirer, or the Daily Kos. All sources have biases, and these influence what’s trustworthy or not. Identifying those biases is essential to staying informed.

Finally, look at the URL (the web address) of the source. One tactic fake news writers use to trick readers is to mimic a reputable news site. Not only are the URL’s similar, the look and setups are almost identical. Famously, ABC News had an imposter who would post false stories while pretending to be ABC.

One tactic fake news writers use to trick readers is to mimic a reputable news site.

The only way you could be certain that the two sites were different were the URLs. ABC News’ real URL was https://abcnews.go.com/. The imposter’s URL is http://abcnews.com.co/. Notice the slight difference. This has allowed the fake site to fool a lot of people. So, when you see a suspicious news story from what seems to be a reputable source, check the URL.

With Fake News, Content and Context are Kings

Fake news clues don’t stop at the source, either. There are plenty of hints hidden in the content of the story too. That’s why reading past the headline is essential to identifying a piece of pseudo-news. Once you get past the headline, frequent spelling or grammatical errors are dead giveaways. Most reputable outlets will have an editor who will look over and correct mistakes like this. The occasional error may slip through, but if they’re consistent, that’s a red flag.

Since fake news stories are written to go viral, they are often outrageous or bombastic to grab your attention.

Another sign of a false story you can find in the content is how outrageous a story is. Since fake stories are written to go viral, they will often aim to make the article as bombastic as possible. Funny or bizarre stories are also more likely to get clicks. If you’re reading an article that just seems too weird, take a step back and look into it.

Another habit of reputable sources is to include quotes or links to evidence that back up their stories. These supplementary materials establish where the writer got their information. Direct quotes are especially reliable since they’re firsthand accounts from experts or witnesses. If the article doesn’t include any outgoing links or quotes, it’s a good sign you’re reading fake news.

Even if there are quotes, check the validity of those, since quotes are easy to fake.

Even if there are links or quotes, check the validity of those. Quotes can be easy to manipulate, so Google it to see if the quote is real and used in the correct context. You should check any supporting sources too, since bogus news can be used to “verify” other false stories.

As you’re reading through the article, note any bias that the article may have. If an article is only telling one side of the story or editorializing, there’s a good chance the information is being twisted. Most reputable new sources will use Opinion labels in headlines or titles to identify if it’s editorial content and not strictly reporting.

The most difficult ally of hoax stories to defeat is ourselves. Every reader has their own biases regardless of what side of the political spectrum they fall. This leaves us open to duping by pseudo-news stories. That’s because false news stories target everyone, not just conservatives or liberals. This is a concept of motivated reasoning.

“If you’re motivated to believe negative things about Hillary Clinton, you’re more likely to trust outrageous stories about her that might not be true. Over time, motivated reasoning can lead to a false social consensus,” Adam Waytz, Association Professor of Management & Organizations at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

This is when being aware of your own bias is important. It can allow you to take a step back and see any of the signs of untruth that your bias would otherwise cover.

Outside of the Article

If you suspect a story of being fake, your first stop should be to check other, more reputable sources. Traditional media may not be perfect, but their reports undergo the greatest scrutiny. Many have spent years building a good reputation. So, if none of those sites are reporting a story, there’s a good chance that it’s fake.

Another way to verify news stories is to check a site like Snopes, Politifact, or FactCheck.org.

Another avenue to verify a news story is to consult a fact-checking website. Websites like Snopes, Politifact, or FactCheck.org have made careers out of verifying the truth in stories and myths. With each of these, let’s discuss the elephant in the room: Accusations of bias.

Each has received these accusations (usually from the parties they’re fact-checking), and each has addressed them in their own way. Snopes published accusations of bias from both conservatives and liberals. Politifact published an in-depth article about their beliefs and fact-checking process. FactCheck is a “nonpartisan, nonprofit” that offers a transparency into their research process.

Even if you’re not convinced these sites are completely unbiased, each site shows the evidence behind their fact-checking. This allows readers to do their own research and decide for themselves.

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Ultimately, deciding for yourself is the best thing you can do. Research as much as you can, but it’ll always come down to you critically looking at the article.

If you’ve stumbled upon a fake news story, you have a few options to counter it. You can inform a person who shared it that you believe it’s a disreputable story and why. Another option would be to report the article. Regardless of what you do, learning how to not be fooled by fake news stories is an essential skill to being an informed citizen.

Oh, and if you’re reading a website called The Onion, that’s not real. The Onion is a parody website that is often confused for real news.

Further Reading

Common Sense Media — How to Spot Fake News (and Teach Kids to Be Media-Savvy)
Politico — How I Became Fake News
Politifact — PolitiFact’s guide to fake news websites and what they peddle