Matt Hammerton: How to tell if someone is faking it

This story is over

In the last few months there’s been a considerable increase in the number of people talking about fake news. But what is it and how can you spot it?

A fake news story is make-believe. It’s made up and published on websites, which do their best to resemble real, credible news-sites.

The publishers hope that they will attract large audiences, so that automated advertising services start to display fee-earning adverts on their site.

Fake news hit the headlines during the American election, but it’s nothing new.

However in today’s social media led, internet connected world, it can spread rapidly. The ease at which images can be manipulated and websites established, it’s very easy to create something that looks reputable.

Facebook and Google are so concerned about this increase in fake news that late last year they announced they would be cracking down on fake news sites.

It’s important to remember that some fake news is actually acceptable – satire, for example, has long been seen as humorous and acceptable.

In the latter stages of the American election, fake news appeared to become more sophisticated and believable, with the sites carrying the made-up stories looking convincingly like legitimate news websites.

So, how can you decide whether a news story is real or fake?

Look at the website’s address

Just like phishing emails, fake news sites sometimes try to emulate legitimate websites and their real addresses.

Look at the URL of the news site very carefully. Is it right? Should it be .com or .info? If it’s not or perhaps there’s a spelling error in the URL then it’s a fake site.

Is the website actually the online version of a real newspaper? In the US, lots of people started to believe stories published on The Boston Tribune’s website, assuming it to be a legitimate, real newspaper.

It’s not. There is no such newspaper.

Read beyond the headline

Newspaper headlines are there to grab your attention. Some papers are particularly good at producing humorous, engaging and often funny headlines – just look at the front and back pages of The Sun.

When it comes to online news, read beyond the headline. Does the full story appear legitimate? Are there any signs that the author is pulling your leg? Who’s quoted and what do they say? Are they quoting real people?

Who wrote the story?

Does the article have a by-line? Has someone put their name to the piece? If so, who? Check out their biography.

People publishing fake news often include something to give themselves away within their biography. The author of one fake news piece on one American site, abcnews.com, was Jimmy Rustling, who’s bio said he was a doctor and had won ‘a handful of Pulitzer Prizes’.

Are the facts substantiated?

Many fake news articles will contain links to other sites, which they claim substantiate the facts mentioned in the article.

For example, The Boston Tribune ran a story about President Obama’s mother-in-law receiving a government pension as she had looked after her grandchildren in the White House.

The website cited a government website when backing up the story. It even provided a link to the main government benefits website.

However, any search on that site about the regulations mentioned would not produce any corroborating information.

Unfortunately, a lot of people believe what they see and would not have taken the time to check out the facts, preferring to trust the site on face value and readily sharing the original story with their friends.

Check the date

Some fake news stories are not completely made up; they fabricate real news to add a political or satirical twist on them.

Sometimes the efforts fake news publishers go to are incredible. Some have copied legitimate website pages in amazing detail and then changed the headline or text of the article.

It then becomes very difficult to tell whether or not a story is true, especially when it is shared by people you trust on social media.

Is it biased?

A legitimate story, researched, written and published by a bona fide journalist will not be biased. It will look in detail at both sides of a story and present a balanced overview of events.

If you’re reading a story that is clearly favouring one side, then there’s a strong chance it’s fake news.

Fake news will probably become more and more sophisticated as it ultimately makes money for its publishers.

Facebook and Google will continue their efforts to limit its reach, but it could be impossible – especially if people blindly trust the websites they visit and the content their friends share online. Hopefully, these pointers will make it easier for you to differentiate between real and fake news.