FAKE NEWS: What is it? And how do I spot it?

By Chris Wagner, Commtractor, Director and Partner at Talkforce, Media and Communications Strategists, with over 20 years’ experience in the sector, including crisis communications, media and PR.

In this increasingly online world, we’ve all become micro-publishers. Our personal social media feeds are niche news sites, where we act as curators and quasi-journalists. Through these channels we create for ourselves a personal brand and reputation. We share snippets of information on subjects we love and feel passionately about, or on matters we believe people can relate to.

Some of us are lifestyle publications, or micro education and training sites, while some of us publish the news. Sadly, many of us perpetuate and share fake news.

I’m not talking about when real news is called ‘fake’ by people who simply don’t like investigative reporting or being reported on; I’m talking about news that is made up.

This is a real problem for our world today, as fake news can be shared and believed by huge audiences in a very short space of time. Fake news is damaging, it leads to decision making by individuals that can have serious consequences for our society. In addition, it leads to anger, rage and distrust for no real reason and that’s bad for everyone’s health.

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What is fake news?

Fake news comes in many forms, but there are two clear standouts. Firstly, one form of fake news is when someone takes an image out of context and uses it to create a story they know will invoke a reaction. This technique is often used by conspiracy theorists or people with a radical agenda. The second common use is in politics, where we often see posts made (by all sides of politics) using manipulation, inflation or plain old lies to attack and discredit an opponent. Take this post from Rihanna, for example. She meant well, but the image is out of context and simply not true in relation to the active bushfires in January. Without realising it, Rihanna has shared fake news to her 75 million followers.

The first type of fake news outlined above leads to unnecessary rage and, sadly, poor health decisions (think posts against masks during a pandemic). The second leads to poor decision making at the voting booth. Both are potentially disastrous to our community.

So, what do we do about it? The answer is to simply stop sharing fake news.

How do I spot fake news?

There are a number of steps you should take to ensure what you are sharing is real. This can take a bit of time. However, when you consider the impact both on your personal reputation and on the world when you share fake news, I believe this is time well spent. If you don’t have time to check, then don’t share it.

If you do have time, firstly, always click through the post you are thinking about sharing and read it. Don’t just share on face value. Often, you will click through to a dead link, which is a clear sign the news is fake.

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Check the source. Is it reputable? Double check it on Wikipedia. You might be looking at a satirical site without realising it. Also cross check the story with other news sites. Is anyone else carrying the yarn? If other news media aren’t reporting on it, then it’s likely to be fake. This story on kissing chickens seems fake, but a bit of checking and we can find multiple version across a number of reputable news sites.

Does the URL match the branding of the story? If it’s a story from ‘Newshounds’ for example, but the link leads to ‘saltyashes.com’ it’s likely to be a fake news site.

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Review the post for bad English, typos, or lots of caps. Regular news sites will be written in good English prose, and will have very few mistakes, if any. Real news will not be in all caps. All caps are actually a dead give away that your post is fake.

Check the story for quotes. Stories without a quoted expert are certainly a red flag. Google the quote and/or the person who is making it. Are they real? Are they quoted saying that anywhere else? Fake news will make-up quotes to suit their made-up story, so this one is a dead give-away.

Finally, if there is a quote, consider the expert delivering the news. I’m not going to get my hairdresser to do my tax return, for example, nor will I ask my Uber driver for advice on the share market. In the same way, why would you get your health news from, say, a celebrity chef?

We all have an obligation to ourselves and each other to make sure what we share on social media is real. My three rules for social media harmony are:

  • Is it true?
  • Is it kind?
  • Is it necessary?

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