How to Spot Fake News in Your Social Media Feed

Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, here’s how to distinguish truth from disinformation.
Disinformation, a.k.a. “fake news,” is the intentional spread of false information presented as facts.

With midterm elections just days away, many Americans are turning to Facebook and Twitter for the latest political headlines. But recent reports show that disinformation—a.k.a “fake news,” or the intentional spread of false information presented as facts—is still common on social media. The problem continues despite industry attempts to suppress it after the 2016 presidential election, when fake news ran rampant, in part due to a sophisticated Russian campaign targeting liberal and conservative voters.

In October, the Knight Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting quality journalism, found that 80 percent of the accounts associated with fake news during the 2016 election are still active. As John Kelly, a social media expert, warned the Senate Intelligence Committee in September: “Russian manipulation did not stop in 2016. After Election Day, the Russian government stepped on the gas.”

80%
of the accounts associated with fake news during the 2016 presidential election are still active.

Why It Matters

The fake news phenomenon goes beyond Russia. In October, as a caravan of Central American migrants traveled through Mexico, dozens of misleading posts about the caravan went viral, falsely claiming that the migrants are inciting riots and spreading diseases on their journey, among other things.

“Today,” Kelly testified, “the automated accounts of the far left and far right extremes of the American political spectrum produce as many as 25-30 times the number of messages per day on average as genuine political accounts across the mainstream.”

What Can You Do?

The first thing we can do to combat fake news is recognize that we are all targets—conservatives, liberals, Democrats, Republicans. Everyone. The second step is learning to distinguish fact from fiction, and how to report fake news when you notice it. Here are a few useful tips:

1. The CRAAP Test

This methodology was created by librarians at California State University, and it’s a perfect model for evaluating news online. The acronym stands for:

  • CURRENCY—How recently was the story published (or photograph taken, video captured, etc.)?
  • RELEVANCE—Who is the intended audience? A hyper-partisan name for a website or social media page may indicate the demographic it’s trying to target and a bias that influences its perspective. This isn’t always negative, just a signal to scrutinize the narrative and look for the facts.
  • AUTHORITY—Where was the story published, and who wrote it? Take a closer look at the website and decide whether the source is credible or simply has an agenda related to the subject. Make sure the URL is a standard format (.com, .org, or .net).
  • ACCURACY—Check for links within the post and see if they lead to information that verifies claims. A lack of evidence and a lack of coverage from other major outlets are strong indicators that the story may be fake.
  • PURPOSE—What is the author’s intent for the story—to inform, or to persuade?

Evaluating news online is like deciding whether to eat leftovers from your fridge. If it doesn’t pass the basic “sniff test,” it’s probably better just to toss it—or in this case, keep scrolling. If you can’t answer the CRAAP questions easily, it’s probably better not to share the post until it’s been confirmed by trustworthy sources—news outlets that adhere to a standard journalistic code of ethics like this one from the Society of Professional Journalists. If you’re not seeing a story being reported by credible news outlets, you can use fact-checking orgs like FactCheck.org or Snopes.com to ask a question or search for a headline.

2. Reverse Image Search

Fake news isn’t isolated to written stories. Sometimes it can be a meme sporting disinformation, a photoshopped image, or a photo taken out of context and paired with an unrelated story. For example, many of the viral posts spreading disinformation about the migrant included photos which were taken out of context from unrelated events. Another example is the false claim that President Barack Obama replaced patriotic decor in the White House with a “Muslim prayer curtain.” Spoiler alert: it was a window treatment in the East Wing that’s been there since the early 1960s. This bogus allegation started circulating in 2010 and was thoroughly debunked, but re-emerged in 2016.

If a photo or meme seems suspicious, try doing a reverse image search on Google or TinEye.com to find its source. To do so, follow these steps:

  • Save an image to your computer
  • Upload that image into the search bar of Google or TinEye to view the results.

3. Report Suspicious Content

If you come across disinformation on social media, the most important step is to report it so administrators can investigate. Facebook has introduced new features to target fake news. When you see a suspicious post in your Facebook feed, use their new “false news” category on the spam reporting tool.

Real Accounts

  • Rarely change their name
  • Do not add hundreds of people without explicit permission
  • Monitor posts for disinformation, cyberbullying, and hate speech

Fake Accounts

  • Change their names repeatedly to reflect a divisive political issue
  • Add hundreds of followers without their permission
  • Allow cyberbullying, disinformation, and hate speech
Be sure to review the account history of Facebook groups and pages, and Instagram accounts, for keyword squatting—a sign that followers are being targeted for disinformation. Report them for spam if they seem suspicious.

Longread for nerds:

How Facebook Groups are Being Exploited to Spread Disinformation
Click to Read More

4. Promote Real News

Sharing credible news is a great way to dispel rumors and highlight fact-driven journalism. Everyone is responsible for exercising caution about what gets shared on social media. Tech companies and government agencies may be struggling to stop fake news. But users have the collective power to ignore misinformation and commit to sharing the truth.

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