How Fake News is Fought (and how to spot it yourself)

07 September 2017

Fake news

Fake news is still in the news. Misinformation and false stories have been on the rise over the past year, with social media especially being helpful in providing the platforms in which false stories can be spread quickly.

Not every internet user will fact-check an article with a provocative headline. Earlier this year, a poll found that 6 in 10 American believe that “traditional news outlets” are reporting fake news.

6 out of 10 Americans believe traditional news outlets report fake news

If it’s sensationalist, decently written and appears authentic – chances are that they will share it via social media, or at least tell somebody else about it.

The Rise of Fake News

Though the term has been in use since the late 1800’s, it only became popular last year when Donald Trump used it as part of an election campaign speech.

How “Fake News” is trending

See the above Google Trends graph below that shows the interest over time for the last 2 years.

Though more people are now aware of fake news, that hasn’t really stopped them from recognising a false news story shared over a social network. More stories appear all the time because they are reaching an audience eager to share them.

But what has been done to curb this trend? Well some tech companies are fighting back.

What is being done

Facebook

Facebook is the largest social media platform in the world, so they stand to lose the most if people lose trust in them because of fake content.

This week Facebook announced that they are blocking advertising for pages that are regular offenders of sharing false news articles.

Some accounts use FB advertising as their primary means of building a following. With this new ban, it means that those accounts:

  • Lose visibility and reach without advertising
  • Don’t make money with the added traffic that advertising brings

There is a way back for these accounts – stop sharing fake news, and they’ll be allowed to run adverts again.

Google

Most web traffic stems from a simple web query on a search engine. And what appears in search results is down to each search engine’s algorithms – how it calculates what content should be shown to a user.

Google is in an interesting position, as they’ve stated that they don’t wish to censor or remove any content, unless it is illegal or somehow violates its guidelines.

Combine that with the fact that most users tend to only click on the first few search results, then it’s easy to see how the wrong information can be spread easily.

In recent years, there have been some interesting results to specific search queries, such as holocaust denial articles, or that 9/11 was a hoax.

To combat this, Google has incorporated reporting tools into their search results so that we can assist in highlighting false or offensive news stories. With the extraordinary amount of content that is published each day on the net, it makes sense to give users a few tools to help combat the fake news epidemic.

Auto-complete

As you type in your search query, Google will attempt to complete it by showing you popular search phrases. A new addition this year is a “Report inappropriate predictions” option.

For example, say I wanted to know who built the pyramids, and I’m not happy with some of the auto-complete suggestions, I can report them.

Google Autocomplete’s “inappropriate predictions” reporting tool

Not happy that the pyramids were built by giants, or aliens? Or perhaps giant aliens?

This is a very mild example, as we found that popular fake news stories had already been debunked and removed. In fact, whole sites had been removed.

Search Snippets

Sometimes in general search results, the first result(s) will be highlighted in a box. These are called “snippets”.

Underneath these snippets there is a “Feedback” option, where you can also report if that content is in any way inaccurate or offensive.

Google Snippet’s feedback reporting tool

How to spot Fake News

Not all fake news stories will be reported or blocked. The most important way we can stop the lies spreading, is by learning to recognise real from fake.

  1. Fact-check – A factual article will list evidence – check to see if those details are accurate, or if there are any listed. You can also check other sections of the article for authenticity –like the original news source, or strange dates.
  2. Be sceptical of sensational headlines - Headlines are written to catch your eye, to tempt you to read the whole story. But be wary of over-the-top, unbelievable headlines (because they probably are).
  3. Check the source – Is the story from a reliable source? Or did somebody perhaps share an article from a satirical website – in which case think twice about sharing because there are always gullible people in the world.
  4. Check for similar articles across the web – If it’s really a major story, then other sources will also be reporting the same news. If not, then most likely it’s not true.
  5. Inspect the article URL – Scammers register domains that are almost identical to real URLs, then create sites that mimic those real URLs. They then get populated with false news articles. For example, www.cnn.com (real) vs www.cnn-trending.com (fake – and now removed). Another suspicious URL addition is “.com.co.” – these have been regularly used with fake news sites.
  6. Unusual formatting – We’ve all landed on a site with poor grammar and spelling. While it could just be bad translation, it could also be an indication of a false news story.
  7. Check the article media – Photos and videos are regularly re-used in false stories. If you have suspicions, use Google’s image or video search to see if these have been used in other / different / older stories.
  8. Consult Full FactFull Fact is an independent factchecking charity based in the UK. So, if you’re unsure about any claims you see in the media, use their site to verify their authenticity.

If any of the above rings an alarm bell, then report the article. Or at the very least, please don’t share the story.

Closing

Though the majority of news we see is accurate, the potential influence that a false article can have, can potentially be catastrophic.

We welcome any way in which these types of stories can be reported or negated.

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