Recognizing fake and misleading information

Fake News – Guidelines for avoiding inaccurate and malicious sources

We invest hours of our day online searching for reliable information to make better business and personal decisions. Pressed for time, we scan headlines and text—often forgetting to ask basic questions about the reliability of sources. Whether we’re looking to buy a new car, researching loan options or trying to discern fact from fiction about political issues–our money, as well as our personal well-being and digital security are all up for grabs. While the young and uninitiated are especially vulnerable to clickbait, or the infamous ‘Fake News’ none of us is immune.

Guidelines for avoiding inaccurate and malicious sources

  • Does the story or graph cite any sources? If not, you are most likely reading fake news .Investigate further to see if other internet sources confirm or disconfirm the facts presented. Investigate any sensationalistic, take-action story on Snopes. Is Snopes consistently 100% accurate? Of course, not—but it’s among the most reliable fact-check sources available. At the very least, it will help you avoid the embarrassment of forwarding sensationalistic, fake news to your friends.
  • If sources are cited, are they valid? Are there several, independent confirming accounts? A standard ploy of disinformation actors is to take a public figure’s comments out of context, to take one person’s quote and attribute it to another, or to entirely fabricate what they have said. There’s nothing new about this. The history of propaganda shows that if a lie is repeated often enough, people tend to believe it. When we’re locked into a social media echo chamber, we may never get the true story. This is why independent source confirmation is so important. It takes time to track statements back to their original source, but worth the effort if the issue is important enough to you.
  • Does the source have surface credibility? Are you getting your story from an established site frequently cited by others? One indicator is Google’s PageRank algorithm in which, e.g., a scientific paper is ranked according to how frequently it’s been referenced by other reliable sources. Unfortunately, this mechanism is less reliable when searching for the best products and services. You will need to access Consumer Reports or use a reliable customer satisfaction app for that.
  • Is the headline consistent with the story? Clickbait often attracts us with a sensationalistic statement of fact that isn’t discussed in the content. Or, you may see the picture of a favorite celebrity with a headline that they are hiding some dark secret. But when you read the story, they aren’t mentioned at all, or the information provided doesn’t support the conclusion.
  • Are any statistics credible? If a graph shows a 50% increase in urban crime, is the baseline zero? Watch out for truncated numbers, e.g., ones not based on zero but a narrow range that looks significant at first sight, but in reality shows only a small seasonal uptick. Another ploy—you may see comparative raw numbers of crimes committed in different states, e.g., New York vs. Idaho, which have not been standardized for incidence per 100K residents.

Google and FB may never give us a Trust Index so we can easily and quickly assess the validity of specific sources, but as I commented in the previous post, they owe it to their users to make an honest effort to reduce the incidence of fake and misleading information.