How to spot a fake news story

Can you trust what you read in the news? Public confidence in a free and open press is one of the most important pillars of a functioning democracy. In recent years the media has been undermined by accusations of ‘fake news’ that are often made by politicians in bad faith. But what exactly is fake news – and how can we recognise it?

The term ‘fake news’ has become so widespread that Collins Dictionary declared it their word of the year for 2017. Collins defines fake news as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. This definition describes much of the disinformation that clogged up US citizens’ social media feeds in the lead-up to the 2016 US presidential election. Two recent reports commissioned by the US Senate found this type of fake news, much of it generated in Russia, helped elect Donald Trump president. Fake news is best understood as disinformation designed to confuse and mislead. It is the work of propagandists rather than journalists. Bad (or sloppy) journalism is one thing – fake news is something far more pernicious.

It’s important to realise that Trump, the person most responsible for the popularisation of the term ‘fake news’, does not use the Collins Dictionary definition. For Trump, news is deemed fake if it is critical of him. The publications in Trump’s crosshairs tend to be organisations like the New York Times and The Washington Post, which have closely (and often critically) reported his presidency. Trump made explicit his conflation of ‘fake’ and ‘negative’ news in a recent Tweet:

The Trump administration has even attacked the notion of ‘truth’ itself. Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway infamously described inflated crowd numbers given by former press secretary Sean Spicer as “alternative facts”. Trump himself told a convention in Kansas City on 24 July 2018 that “what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening”, prompting comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Later in the year Trump followed through on his threat to ‘take away credentials’ by temporarily removing CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s right to cover the White House.

Hostility towards the press is not limited to the US within the developed world. The UK placed a dismal 40th in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index, placing it behind countries like Uruguay, Samoa and Chile. In Australia former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Communications Mitch Fifield have been openly critical of the ABC, and successive Coalition governments have also reduced the funding of the public broadcaster. Current Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a history of using the term fake news for reports he wants to discredit, and more recently he has taken to deriding any news report he dislikes as being part of the so-called ‘Canberra bubble’. The good news is that Australian citizens do not seem to be as susceptible to dishonest politicians as their US counterparts. A study conducted by the University of Bristol found US citizens were unlikely to change their opinion about a politician when presented with a fact-check of their statements. Australian citizens, on the other hand, were ten times more likely to change their opinions. In an interview with New Scientist, University of Bristol team member Stephan Lewandowsky said there is now a lot of evidence that American voters “don’t really care about facts”. By contrast, Australians tend to dislike politicians if they find out they have been constantly lied to, he said. Institutional factors like compulsory voting and preferential voting could be part of the explanation, according to Mr Lewandowsky. “There are buffers against extremism in the Australian system that don’t exist in the US,” he said.

But just because Australians are more resilient doesn’t mean we can rest on our laurels. As consumers of news in a ‘post-truth’ environment we all need to start doing our homework. The days of accepting what we read in news articles at face value are long gone. In an era of fake news and disinformation it’s up to us to approach the news media in a more critical way. Here are five tips that will help you identify fake news stories.

Who is the publisher?

The first thing to establish when you come across a news article is pretty straightforward: who paid for it? Reputable news websites will have an ‘About Us’ section (or similar) on their home page that will tell you who owns the publication. It’s worth being sceptical if it’s not immediately clear who is responsible for what you’re reading.

Identify the political bias

Once you have established who the publisher is you should work out where they sit on the political spectrum. No one is completely free from bias, unconscious or otherwise. In fact, you should probably be sceptical of anyone who claims to be ‘unbiased’! A handy website is which rates news outlets on their political bias and accuracy. It’s also worthwhile to consider the bias of the publication itself as well as the individual author. Understanding bias is a good starting point to help you put the article in context.

How emotive is the article?

Is the headline deliberately exaggerated, written in capital letters and punctuated with several exclamation marks? Fake news articles are often framed in an emotive way to capture your interest and ‘hook’ you in. If a story sounds too ridiculous to be true it probably is.

Can you find another source?

If you are suspicious about the claims in a news story, don’t take them at face value – see if you can find a better source yourself. Take a second to put the claim into Google. If you can’t find a reputable website willing to repeat it you should be wary.

Be conscious of your own biases

Just as you should be aware of the author’s bias, it’s a good idea to be aware of your own biases – political or otherwise. ‘Confirmation bias’ is the tendency to give greater credence to news articles that reinforce our existing beliefs. It’s an easy trap to fall into – everyone likes to be proved right, after all. Try to expose yourself to opinions you disagree with, if only to better understand the other side’s arguments. It’s just one more way you can navigate what is fast becoming a ‘post-truth’ world.

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