How to spot fake news
Don’t fall victim to fake news. There are tools you can use to help sort fact from fiction
US president Donald Trump may have made "fake news" an everyday utterance, but it is not new.
In some form or another, competing narratives and outright fakery have played a part in news media since its birth. What changed the game, though, is the role of the Internet and social media. The ease with which we can share content means false or slanted information can travel around the world with a click. And the fakers are becoming more sophisticated as the financial incentive grows.
Many fake news sites profit directly through advertising served on their sites — so scandalous angles and click-bait headlines serve the direct purpose of generating income.
Research — such as independent studies from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and Pew Research Center — suggests that as many as half of all adults get their news directly from their Facebook feeds, and many do not critically consider the source of those posts.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) is deeply concerned with how fake news — or in its parlance, dodgy news — is assessed and shared by the public. Its new project aims to provide tools for easy assessment.
Its KnowNews database is a collection of news publishers — both credible and dodgy — and the public-facing tactic here is a Chrome browser extension. Once installed, this places an icon on your browser frame that provides a quick colour-coded guide to how trustworthy a site is considered.
Sites that are considered credible get green for go, and navigating to dodgy news sites turn the icon red. If you click on the icon, you’ll be given a short explanation of the site’s status. If you encounter a news site that hasn’t been assessed or added to the database, the icon remains a neutral blue. You can click to send the site — local or international — for assessment.
MMA head of policy Thandi Smith says sites that are flagged through the browser plug-in are assessed manually by the MMA team, based on criteria they have developed. These, Smith says, are a work in progress, and are constantly being refined and added to. Among other things, they check to see:
• If the website URL signifies trustworthiness (misspellings of existing news publishers are common);
• If the URL is secure and offers a security certificate;
• If the domain registry information provided matches with who the site purports to be;
• If ownership of the site is clear, and if that organisation belongs to a relevant media or publishing organisation, such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau, the Press Council, or the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of SA;
•For the presence of actual contact details and an "about us" page — MMA says most legitimate publishers make it easy for you to find and contact them;
• The presence of a complaints mechanism; and
• If author information is provided. Most articles will carry a named journalist in the byline.
In future, MMA hopes to make the tool more widely available. "We are looking into adapting the extension for other browsers," Smith says. "We are also in the first phases of developing a mobile app which would work using the ‘share’ functionality on an article."
And MMA wants to open the functionality to others who work in this space. "We are using our own criteria for categorising sites, but we will be able to register users to use their own criteria for categorisation. Users will be able to access the database using a certain organisation’s criteria."
There are already other tools you can use, including Official Media Bias Fact Check Icon and BS Detector (bsdetector.tech) — both of which work as browser extensions. And there’s always the manual tried-and-tested "google it" method.
False, misleading and conspiracy-theory type "news" stories can be damaging in several ways. Locally, we see a proliferation of fake political stories which can have personal implications for the subject of the story, and broader effects — such as misinforming a voting public.
Other types of so-called fake news are antiscientific narratives without grounding in peer-review and research, which can have health implications, especially for those with chronic or life-threatening conditions.
Urban legends are also often repurposed as local news — think variations of the "razor blades hidden in apples" story.
Ultimately though (while this tool and others grow and mature), readers and social media users need to exercise their own critical thinking to avoid falling for the fakers — and worse, sharing the fake news.
Smith recommends consuming news from diverse sources, noticing the URL of the site you are redirected to, looking for bylines on articles (google the journalist), and most of all thinking critically before you share a story.