The liar, the snitch and the microbe: Tips to identify fake news in social media

By Stephen Matthews

Social media provides a fantastic avenue for information to spread. It allows people all over the world to instantly access photos, stories and new information, as soon as it is uploaded. Unfortunately, due to the large volume of information being shared, and the freedom by which this is done, incorrect information can be shared just as easily. The image below is presently labeled as false information, but the unaltered image presents information in a way that sounds factual with a scientific looking image. As a result of misinformation being shared by scores of people, incorrect information spreads rapidly, possibly endangering people who believe the information to be true.

Image of popular cartoon shared on social media, suggesting an unsupported technique is useful in “eliminating” coronavirus. Specific image taken from: https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/fact-check/254504-gargling-salt-water-eliminates-coronavirus

While Facebook takes steps towards identifying information it sees as false, it cannot catch everything, and often times posts like these are missed. Beyond scientific-sounding posts, political posts gain a lot of attention and momentum, meaning these posts can also easily spread misinformation at an alarming rate. While some are true, a number of them are false, and you don’t need a degree in political science or biology to determine what is false. The truth is, anyone can spot misinformation – you just need to know how. So, before you share a “life-saving tip,” run through these points to identify false news, and help keep everyone around you properly informed.

1. Look beyond the headlines and titles of articles. A title is a summary of an article, and as a result is not as informative as the actual article. Titles typically generalize some claims made in the main text. Beyond that, if the title is inflammatory or provocative, chances are it is trying to push something. Titles like “You Won’t Believe…” and “The Media Won’t Talk About This,” are intentionally phrased to bait you into clicking on the article, sharing the post, and/or pushing the idea. While some of these ideas are harmless, or intentionally satirical, others are purposefully biased or misinforming. The key to understanding which articles to believe is to learn how to identify truth objectively. If the article uses a lot of emotional and emphatic language, or seems too good to be true, it should require some critical thinking and search support (see number 5).

2. Look for buzzwords and errors. Reputable sources will also have editors that can check grammar and spelling. These sources will also dissuade publication of poorly written information, which might use unprofessional means of writing, LIKE WRITING IN ALL CAPS or strange punctuation?!?!?! Phrases like “reposting … it has been deleted 3 times,” or “life-saving tip no one is talking about,” can also indicate faulty information. These phrases likely indicate that there is a legitimate reason “no one is talking about” that particular tip or image, or why Facebook takes it upon itself to delete the post three times. Other buzzwords like “immune-boosting,” “secret cure,” or “hack” are words that suggest someone is promoting a product, that – because of this phrasing – likely does not have scientific support. This generalization is not necessarily true for all social media posts, but the commonality of it suggests you should be skeptical and look up information on the product being promoted. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Consider the source by looking at the URL, watermark, or point of origin.  A URL or group name can often tell you a lot about who wrote the material before you even click it. If an article or URL has the name of a political party in it, you can expect it to be biased in that it either supports that party (e.g. DemocratsAreAmazing) or does not support them (e.g., DemocratsAreAwful). Sources whose link is gibberish (dkjablfah.com) or contain a strange word (“boopybongo.com”) should also induce skepticism. Conversely, sources that end in .gov or .edu represent governmental and educational sources respectively, and are top-level domains requiring a specific process to apply and obtain. This means .gov and .edu URLs are typically more trustworthy, because they must adhere to certain requirements (be registered as an educational institution, for example) and cannot be created by a random person on a whim. Watermarks on an image can also tell you who wrote the source, where it came from, or who is promoting it. These watermarks, like a URL, can provide information about the source based off what their name is. However, some people use this to their advantage (picking a name like “CleanFoodFacts”) or have a more ambiguous name where you cannot identify their stance. If this is the case, you can search for them:

4. Search, using the name of the source (examples: Turning point USA, BBC News, The Independent, the National Inquirer) and the word “bias.” Depending on the topic being searched (i.e., a person, quote or media source) you may be given several options like PolitiFact.com, snopes.com and FactCheck.org. My personal favorite site for checking the background of various media sources is MediaBiasFactCheck.com, which provides you with an image for the queried media source, like the one below. As you can see, it shows on a political spectrum where the bias of the media source sits. While it is very important to know the bias of the source, the most important part is the table beneath this spectrum. This table spells out how truthful posts from this source have been in the past. As you can see in my example, this source is not only heavily biased, but also suffers from a lack of transparency while actively promoting disinformation, conspiracies, and propaganda. So, in this example, Turning Point USA is not a source I would trust.

Screenshot of “Turning point USA” search result under Media bias fact check: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/turning-point-usa/

So, what would I trust? I would trust sources that rate as “high” or “very high” on this Factual Reporting spectrum, and ideally rest between left center or right center on the spectrum above. It is important to consider bias in reading an article (the less biased a source is, the better), but it should come second to the level of factual accuracy put forth by the source. You can keep in mind how wording may push an agenda, but if a source is known for lying or is branded as “fake news” there is no reason to ever trust it. While it is always best to get politically relevant news from sources like congress.gov or C-span that have very little bias, information here is often dry and difficult to read. So, as long as you acknowledge bias, and focus on factual reporting, you can avoid spreading false news. A pair of examples I would be inclined to trust are seen below:

5. In some shared posts there are no watermarks, or they come from someone who has no direct affiliation to a company or media group. In these instances, take pieces of information from the post and put them into Google. In the coronavirus salt water example above, a post where the URL is a broken link, or a source you cannot track (which should also be a red flag), you can search “coronavirus AND salt water.” In doing so, you are looking for any articles tying together salt water and coronavirus. The capital “AND” tells google all your results need to have both salt water AND coronavirus. Now, Google has done a nice job pushing articles that are true to the top, so you should see several sources that directly call this post false. Rely on pages I have mentioned above (like snopes.com and FactCheck.org), as well as ones from trustworthy sources that contain reliable domains– like CDC.gov or health.pa.gov.

6. And lastly, if you’re uncertain about the message or truthfulness of a post you see – don’t share it.

Hopefully after reading this article you feel more confident in your ability to identify and ignore (or report) fake news. With this knowledge you can, in a few seconds of reading and searching, better understand the validity and background of information you find on social media.

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