Tips & Advice

The citizen’s guide to spotting fake news

David Strom, 7 April 2020

How to be more skeptical about what you read online

Truth and facts are hard to come by these days. Most of us want to understand what is true and what is not. What’s more, we want our kids to understand the difference between fact and fiction. But sifting through our social media -- and even ordinary news reports -- does require some work. I have put together some resources in this blog post to help you discriminate the truthiness (as Stephen Colbert might have said) of what you find online.

The sheer amount of disinformation, lies, conspiracy theories -- call them what you will -- is staggering. Back in 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of the year. It has only gotten worse. A study done by researchers at University of California at Berkeley found numerous videos posted to YouTube that promoted various claims such as aliens created the Giza pyramids, that the government is hiding secret technologies and that the moon landings were faked. (These were each espoused in separate videos, although perhaps there is one that rolls them all up in a single viewing!) 

And recently Facebook and Twitter took down dozens of accounts that were operated by Russian state actors attempting to influence our 2020 elections. 

But it isn’t just wacko conspiracy theories that we have to be concerned about. Even websites can appear to be news-oriented but are constructed exclusively to promote click fraud. The report Simulated media assets: local news from Russian researcher Vlad Shevtsov shows several seemingly legit local news sites in Albany, New York and Edmonton, Alberta. These sites constructed news pages out of evergreen articles and other service pieces that have attracted millions of page views, according to analytics. Yet they have curious characteristics, such as being viewed almost completely from mobile sources outside their local geographic area. Sadly, they are phonies. 

Detecting these sites is equivalent to how security companies detect phishing lures -- which could be one and the same for some of these websites. That is explained in a blog post from Avast here. 

Renee Diresta and Shelby Grossman at Stanford University’s Internet Observatory project document how Russian intelligence agents create false data and posts in a report called Potemkin Pages and Personas, Assessing GRU Online Operations. Both of the above sources were cited here in a blog post that I wrote last fall. These fake sites share two common elements:

  • Narrative “laundering” or transforming something into a “fact” by frequently  repeating it through legitimate sounding sources. 
  • Hacking and leaking, by posting content to Wikileaks and other sites that are then picked up by news reports.

So let’s talk about some ways you can get smarter about vetting these posts and websites. First is the “infodemic” project from Mike Caulfield, a researcher at Washington State University. He used the coronavirus outbreak as a case study of how to figure out fact from fiction, using a method he calls “SIFT” for stop, investigate the source, find better coverage and trace claims back to the original source of the content. His blog post linked above describes the process, and it has some simple but useful techniques that can be used by anyone to ferret out the facts. Another source is from the radio program On The Media has assembled an 11-point checklist to help you figure out if something you are reading is true or not. 

Here is another radical thought, from a colleague of mine Marco Fioretti in Italy. He suggests taking a pause before replying to any social network post. Add a delay of say 10 minutes to any realtime replies to group messages or Twitter streams or whatnot. It could slow down the proliferation of misinformation. Maybe.

The Newseum has put together a training class that will show you various videos you are asked to score as true or not. While geared at students from fifth to twelfth grades, it can be used by anyone, but note that you’ll need to create a free account to access the class. 

Finally, journalism schools have put together various lesson plans for a wide range of students, and the New York Times also has several lesson plans and other suggestions for the general public in this 2017 story. 

Yes, figuring out your facts will involve some work. But it is best to be skeptical, and take a moment to think about what you are reading before clicking on the “share” button to send the story to all your friends and family.