2016 was the year of fake news.
From the President of the United States to the Indian Prime Minister, nobody could escape its clutches. The reach of fake news and just how much it can impact readers, and its consequent outcomes, came into sharp focus during the 2016 US presidential elections, when fake news stories about the elections drew more engagement on social media than those reported by major news outlets.
“Mainstream media in India is more impacted by the phenomena (of fake news) because they broadcast these kinds of stories without verifying… There is no standard policy for TV news and newspapers about the process of researching and publishing stories,” Prabhakar Kumar, from the Indian media research agency, Centre for Media Studies, told The Guardian. Authenticity of stories takes a back seat when media organisations look for big (read viral) stories driven by the rat race for TRPs and the pressure of achieving targeted social media shares.
A part of the responsibility to check the spread of hoaxes and misinformation, however, also lies with readers who lend fake news its credibility by sharing it on social media. The New York Times, in fact, conducted an in-depth case study tracing just how shares by a few people who do not verify facts and information, contribute to fake news acquiring a life of its own and going viral.
If you are wondering how you can spot the ‘real fake news’ and not just be paranoid about it, here’s a quick guide to get you started:
The simplest way to ensure you aren’t reading a “fake news” is to actually read the whole news. One of the major reasons for fake news getting amplified is because busy readers don’t go beyond headlines or opening paragraphs – a tendency that publishers exploit at times.
Googling a site’s name and checking out other articles often helps determine whether the source of your information is trustworthy or not. Many, if not most, fake news sites outrightly claim if they do satire or are mimicking major news outlets. Double-check URL names of pages that look suspicious, to make sure your source website isn’t a hoax site that’s pretending to be a trusted source.
Does it use emotional words or too many exclamation marks or language that sounds shady? It’s incredibly easy for fake news writers to invent false quotes, even attributing them to major public figures and it’s usually done in extremely colourful language. Be sceptical of shocking or suspicious quotes, and search to see if they have been reported elsewhere.
Looking at the author bio or who has written a particular article can reveal a lot of information about the news source. It not only reveals if the source of your news is trusted but searching through the author’s previous work can also help you judge the quality of their work.
Most of the major news are reported across various platforms. If a piece of news looks even remotely suspicious, search to see if other news outlets are also reporting the story. A single article from a suspicious source making loud claims can often be fake.
It’s very easy to take a stock photo from one event and say it’s from another. Photoshop is also every mischief maker’s best friend these days. Reverse image searches through tools like TinEye or even Google can help you find where the image originally from.
People most often read stories that reinforce the way they see the world. Fake news is no exception, and many of the articles that fall under its umbrella are designed either to stir up emotion or prey on existing biases. It’s important to check if a story you read is based on facts, instead of sharing it just because it supports one side of an argument or bolsters your pre-existing beliefs.
Late last year, Melissa Zimdars, a media professor at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, compiled a list of “fake, false, or regularly misleading websites” that purposefully publish false information or are otherwise entirely unreliable. Websites like Snopes.com, On The Media Fake News Handbook, FactCheck.org and Washington Post Fact Checker are some places where you can verify facts or re-check dubious information.
Take, for example, the allegedly doctored video of a protest in Jawaharlal Nehru University that ended up raising doubts on the legitimacy of the entire institution. The video, whose authenticity is still unclear, was further shown by mainstream media on primetime television without verification. This led to a national furore that culminated in a public thrashing of students inside court premises
Fake news sites rely on readers to share stories ahead. This is how a rumour becomes news. In extreme cases, this news can balloon out of control and have unintended consequences for those involved in the stories. It is, therefore, upon the reader to apply their minds and think twice before sharing a piece.This practice can go a long way in changing things.
There is nothing wrong with healthy scepticism, but there is also nothing wrong with acknowledging that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing. Social media today is an excellent source for getting information and news. However, caveat emptor, as always.
Yashasvini Mathur is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.