Fake news — including for purposes of satire — is not a new phenomenon. However, in the age of social media, it seems more pervasive and potentially more dangerous.

These days, much fake news masquerades as real news with the intent of fooling us — and even profiting from diverting our attention. The fake news sites and stories jamming up social feeds are designed to travel as far as possible through outraged online sharing, garnering all the clicks they can with their ludicrous (but nearly believable) headlines, precisely because they want our eyeballs: the site owners profit from the adverts served on their pages. Other kinds of fake news are less predatory; their sole purpose appears to be trolling.

So how do you spot the fake stories from the merely outrageous-but-true ones?

The short answer is that we must all be a lot more sceptical and a lot less impulsive about what we share online. This means actually reading articles before we share them and adopting a default cynicism to anything that seems too silly, or that appears conveniently designed to confirm our own beliefs. Fortunately there are tools to help.

Your first step

Does something seem too good to believe? The first step to take is a simple search. If you copy and paste the headline of the suspect story or a standout claim from it into a search engine with the word "fake" at the end, you will likely find any previous fact-checking done on the piece.

Groups such as fact-checking site Africa Check proactively scrutinise local and regional fake news, so if it’s fake, they may well have already done the hard work for you.

Fact-checking in search mode

Google announced last month that it would extend the rollout of fact-checking tools it first announced late last year. These will appear automatically in its search results, and draw from established fact-checking sites such as urban legend-buster Snopes and professional cynic PolitiFact.

So if you type in a query related to a common fake claim, Google will offer the critique thereof prominently in your search results.

Reverse image search

Fake news can also take the form of real images and videos that are repurposed out of context.

An example is the video that made the rounds last year of a car being swept away by tropical storm Dineo, when the picture was actually taken during a flash flood in Pakistan. The easiest way to check the authenticity of an image for yourself is to run a reverse image search on it. Save the file or the image URL and upload or paste these into tineye.com or ctrlq.org/google/images to find the original.

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