The term “fake news” has been used to mean so many different things that it has become almost meaningless. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be wary of sites that feature fabricated content created specifically to make money.
The people behind these sites have learned what types of stories make people feel angry or smug. They take advantage of people’s emotions by pairing persuasive headlines with eye-catching images because they know these stories are more likely to spread on social media. Every time someone clicks on the link, creators make easy ad money.
In almost all cases, there are ways to quickly discern whether a site falls into the “fake news” category. But because we usually find individual stories on our social media feeds rather than going directly to a website, it can be difficult to differentiate the real from the fabricated. Our brains are overwhelmed by information coming at us from all directions, and we have trouble differentiating between sources on social media. We need to constantly remind ourselves to stop and analyze before we share a story.
1. Check the web address. If you see a web address (also known as a URL) that you rarely see, be suspicious. In this example, the URL is abcnews.com.co — a tweaked version of the genuine news site abcnews.go.com.
2. Research the name of the site. Fake news websites often have names that sound realistic but have already been flagged by other watchdogs as fictitious. By searching for the name, you might find that someone has already discovered that that page is not worth your time.
3. Look for visual clues. Increasingly, fake news creators use logos and designs of established news websites to fool readers. Double check logos and look for poor design or blurry images. From the ABC example, we can see the creator used a logo that resembles — but is not identical to — the real ABC News logo.
4. Be wary of too many ads. If the site has a lot of advertisements, pop-ups or flashing banners, or gives you too many things to click on, its owners may be more interested in profit than the content of the story.
5. Look for markers of established news sites. If a site doesn’t have these things, you should be suspicious:
1. A date stamp that tells you when the story was published. This is also worth doing because the story might be true but is several years old.
2. A byline. Look for the name of the journalist who wrote the story. If there is a name, plug it into a search engine and look for other things they have written.
3. Sources. Look for hyperlinks in the story. If there are none, you should be wary because journalists often include links to previous reporting. If there are links, follow them and run the same checks on that site.
4. Consistency. Check whether the headline matches what’s in the text. Because many users share articles without reading them, fake news creators know they just need to convince people with the headline and main image. Also, check whether photos match both the headline and the text.
6. Check the "About" page. Many fake news sites have a disclaimer alerting readers that their stories are fabricated. WTOE 5 News, which famously published a story saying the Pope had endorsed Trump (the site is gone now), actually explained in its about page that its stories were made-up.
7. Run the main photo through Google Images' reverse image search. Click on the image so it opens in a new tab and paste the URL into google.com/images. If it's an old or manipulated image, the results in Google's image search will show it by listing multiple instances of this same image used on different websites.
8. Check when and where the site was registered. Run the URL through whois.icann.org or who.is and see when the site was set up. Be wary if the site is relatively new, because it may have been established in a response to a news event. Whosis.icann.org also tells you where the site was registered. If a site focuses on U.S. politics but is registered in another country, for example Macedonia, you should be suspicious. Here is the registration information for abcnews.com.co. It is registered in the U.S., but you wouldn’t expect the website for all of ABC News to be registered to a private individual who lives in Phoenix! (The owner of this particular fake news site has become something of a celebrity in the fake news "industry," releasing interviews and speaking in events at the European Parliament).
9. Fact-check specific claims. Search the claims of some of the articles to see if other news outlets have reported on the same story. If no one else has reported it, you should be cautious. Most large news organizations use the same feeds to get their initial information and then begin reporting independently. If it’s real news, most news organizations will have an article about it. This check is also worth your time as you might find a debunking of the story or the whole site.
10. Be wary of overly sensational or emotional headlines. The people who manufacture fake news design it specifically to create emotional responses in readers because they know it will perform better on social media. If something seems surprising, makes you angry or vindicated, you might want to run some of the checks listed here.
Update: Some context about Paul Horner was added in point 8 shortly after the publication of this post.
March 21, 2017
Claire Wardle is the Research Director of First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to building tools and resources to help people verify the information they are finding online.