Don't Get Duped — How To Spot (& Avoid Sharing) Fake News

Did Harambe the gorilla actually receive thousands of votes in the election? Of course not. Did Michelle Obama delete references to Hillary Clinton from her Twitter account? Nope. Is there any actual evidence of widespread voter fraud? Strike three.

But that hasn't stopped any of those bogus stories from spreading on social media.

Twitter and Facebook have been infected this year with fake news that's being shared and reshared by hundreds of thousands of people. The risk of exposure is real: More than 40% of U.S. adults receive news on Facebook, according to a report from the Pew Research Center and the Knight Foundation. Stanford University researchers also found that 4 in 10 high school students were convinced that toxic conditions near a nuclear plant in Japan caused deformed flowers — even though the photo that claimed as much and circulated on social media provided no source or evidence of the location.

The consequences of the spread of false stories can be serious. Just this month, a man was arrested after he allegedly fired a gun in a Washington, D.C., pizza shop. His motivation? An online story that falsely claimed the restaurant was part of a (non-existent) child sex-slave operation run by Hillary Clinton.

Some have even claimed the fake news scourge tipped the election to President-elect Donald Trump. We may never be able to determine the true extent of the damage it caused, but we do know that it isn’t going away anytime soon. Facebook removed human editors from its trending news section, allowing its algorithm to decide what stories appear in the area. Three days later, fake news showed up in the section.

So, in an effort to combat the plague, Refinery29 has put together a list of tips to help you determine whether a story is true or phony. Because we know you don’t want to be caught sharing lies.
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Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
Put the name of the website through a search engine
Fake news is everywhere, but real news outlets are on the job and have flagged numerous phony sites in the process. For instance, The Denver Post published an article dismissing its fake doppelgänger. With a simple search, you may uncover reputable outlets dismissing fake news stories as well as false news outlets.

Sometimes, you can tell if the website is fake by simply looking at its URL — even if it looks, at first glance, like it’s a name you recognize. “Does it end in '.com.co' instead of '.com'? Then it's like a fake website trying to look like the real thing,” Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, told Refinery29. “Does the site include the words 'wordpress' or 'blogger'? Then it's likely not a website with editorial oversight or a fact-checking process.”

If you’re looking for a list of red flags, Zimdars has created a public Google doc listing many news sites that distribute fake news.
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Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
Look at the sourcing in the article
Fake news articles can have attractive headlines and attention-grabbing photos, but at some point, the shoddiness of the “reporting” usually reveals itself to the discerning eye. One obvious “tell” is the sourcing (i.e., who is telling the news outlet the information being reported). For instance, this article about a man who claims he was paid $3,500 to protest a Trump rally quotes someone named Paul Horner. If you search that name, you will discover that Paul Horner is a well-known fake news writer.

Also watch for the phrase "sources say," or links to other phony-looking websites. While many legitimate news outlets will also quote anonymous sources, an article that relies only on unnamed sources should raise red flags.

Another thing fake news writers do is use screenshots of fake social media posts. It is very easy to create a fake tweet or Facebook post that looks like it was made by President Barack Obama or even the pope, so be sure to track down and verify that each one exists outside of the article before you believe it.
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Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
Don't just read the headline
It sounds like a no-brainer, but a study published earlier this year suggests most people share stories without ever clicking them (let alone actually reading to the end). Computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute tracked stories from the BBC, CNN, Fox News, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times that were shared on Twitter over the course of a month. They found that 59% of URLs mentioned on the social network during the period were never clicked. Fake news grows with absent-minded sharing, which is why you should read something before clicking "Share."

“Some headlines over-promise and under-deliver and are crafted to evoke a strong emotion to get you to share,” Carla Zanoni, executive emerging media editor at The Wall Street Journal, told Refinery29. “People often form an opinion based only on a headline instead of reading the information offered in an article. This is especially true if reading it might challenge their own ideas. And when the information is erroneous and likely only supports your personal biases, it only serves to damage your credibility and spread false information.”
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Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
See if other outlets are reporting the claim
One way to quickly figure out if an article is legitimate is by seeing if other news outlets are reporting the same thing. This can be tricky as many fake news sites link to each other to legitimize their reporting, so it's best to stick to outlets with trusted track records.

It's also important to read stories closely to see where their information is coming from. You might think that two different newspapers or websites have reported on the same story. But this is not always the case. Both publications may have been using the same source, and a single-source story is generally considered weak reporting.
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Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
Search the author of the content
A great way to tell if a story is bogus or legit is to search for an author’s byline. For instance, this story published by a crappy-looking ABC News knockoff (if you look closely, you can see the original URL was "abcnews.com.co" rather than the real site's address: "abcnews.go.com") claims Obama signed an executive order for an investigation into the election results, with a re-vote planned for December 19. Who penned that story? A writer named Jimmy Rustling, who, according to his bio, has “made this multiverse a better place for every man, woman and child ever known to exist.” (Hmm…that doesn’t set off alarm bells.) When he is not writing, Rustling “enjoys being an amazing husband to his beautiful, soulmate; Anastasia, a Russian mail order bride of almost 2 months.”
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Illustrated by Isabel Castillo.
Subscribe to real news outlets
The best way to drown out fake headlines? Share — and support — real ones. Have a friend or relative who is always posting bogus stories? Send them links to sources that correct the record with the actual facts. Encourage your friends and social networks to read up on content by credible outlets by sharing them in your feeds.

And if you can, help support actual journalism and reporting financially. You could subscribe to your local newspaper or support any number of nonprofits dedicated to digging into stories that matter. Monthly "memberships" to some nonprofit news sources can cost as little as a Starbucks latte.

Empowering legitimate news outlets is increasingly important as the market for false news is strengthening. Fake news writers have admitted that writing phony stories can be extremely lucrative. Their content also attracts advertisers, which may value an article's traffic over its veracity. Digiday reported that at one point, native ad company Taboola displayed USAToday.com and fake news site USATodaycom.com. Unless we empower legitimate news sites today, there will be more fake news floating around — and flooding out feeds — in the future.
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