How do you know when the news is 'fake'?

US newspapers during the US elections this year
US newspapers during the US elections this year REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The term “fake news” has been used a lot recently to refer to the publication and sharing of unverified content online and on social media. A break-down of what “fake news” is, and how you can be a more critical consumer.


What is fake news?

Fake news is a label that refers to subjective, hyperpartisan content that is published and shared online as well as on social media.

Richard Sambrook, professor of journalism at Cardiff University, defines fake news as a wide range of content.

"Sometimes it is literally the invention of stories or events which are simply untrue,” he says.

“This may be done for political reasons, which is happening a lot with the kind of polarization of views that we’re seeing in Europe and the US at the moment.”

He explains that it may also “be done for commercial reasons”, citing the example of “Macedonian teenagers inventing stories to get ad revenue”.

According to Sambrook, it may also be a question of subjectivity. “Increasingly it’s being used to cover stories that people don’t like or agree with, or perhaps are intended to be true but turn out to be wrong because of poor journalism.”

Tips to be media literate

“People need to be more critical about the information they consume,” says Sambrook.

There are basic questions you can ask yourself, according to Sambrook.

Where does this come from? Who is telling me this? Check if the content is published by an established news organization. Read the “About us” section on websites. Look up what the author has published in the past.

What is the evidence for what’s being said? See if the information presented is backed up by sources and quotes. Most articles published by established news organisations will quote multiple sources, especially if it concerns a complex or controversial issue.

Are there other points of view? Content that only presents one side of an issue, without outlining differing opinions, may be trying to persuade or mislead the consumer.

Role of digital algorithms

Maria Sourbati, a lecturer in media studies at the University of Brighton, says we must also understand how online network media is different from traditional media outlets.

"We need to understand the role played by algorithms, how news comes to you,” she says.

Sourbati explains that Google and Facebook have algorithms that propose content based on your past searches and user history. The articles that Facebook suggests for you in your newsfeed, for example, are similar to what you've already searched for or read online. This means you're more likely to have articles suggested to you that are in line with your beliefs, rather than against.

These algorithms were called into question in the US after last month’s presidential elections. Critics accused Google of giving too much prominence to fake news stories by giving them a high ranking in its search results, saying in turn that this may have played a role in the outcome of the presidential election.

Google has said it will ban fake news sites from using its online advertising service, and Facebook has announced similar measures.

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