Have you ever clicked on a news story, only to realise that you’ve been hoodwinked by a scam? You’re not alone; fake news has unwittingly become part of our everyday lives, though very few of us know what it actually is nor the impact it can have.
Defining fake news
Fake news is a form of propaganda comprised of calculated misinformation and hoaxes. Disguised as a credible news source, it can be spread via traditional or digital news media, though it is most commonly circulated via social media. With a heady cocktail of provocative headlines and social influencers (including unnamed US politicians) propagating fake news, it’s easy to be drawn in – and unwittingly contribute to making it viral.
Fake news can have far-reaching consequences. During the 2016 Presidential Election, more than 100 US political ‘fake news’ sites were registered in the small Macedonian town of Veles. While the sites held seemingly benign domain names – such as WorldPoliticus.com or DonaldTrumpNews.co – the vast majority published false content aggressively targeted at US conservatives and Trump supporters. In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, engagement with fake news stories trumped engagement over credible news stories from leading publications.
On the surface, it might appear that the young Macedonians running the sites held an avid interest in US politics, though their true agenda is simply founded on a response to economic incentives. A report from Facebook revealed that engagement from a US Facebook user is worth approximately four times that of a user outside the US. While each click is only worth a fraction of a penny, foreign exchange conversion rates mean that publishing fake news has quickly become a lucrative business in Veles. Site owners have learned that sensationalist political stories containing false content generate the most traffic and, ergo, offer the greatest earning potential.
Identifying fake news
With fake news flooding social media sites, users are consuming (and sharing) stories without fact checking or confirming validity. Once the stories are popularised, the majority of people perceive the content as legit. Over-exposure to fake news means it can be difficult to distinguish reputable journalism from false content.
So, how can you identify a fake news story? In the same way that you would buy a car from a trusted dealership, it is important to subscribe to news from reputable sources, such as BBC News. However, if you are unsure whether a site is trustworthy, there is a simple check you can carry out. A recent report demonstrated that fake news sites mimic reputable sites but often have obscure suffixes, such as .com.co, as opposed to the standard .com or .co.uk.
Usually, the copycat websites look professional and have recognisable logos, meaning that you need to be eagle-eyed in spotting these minute differences.
Furthermore, any story making unsubstantiated claims should be treated with caution. Genuine articles are supported by evidence that can be fact-checked, such as links and statistics from other respectable sources, or interviews with first-party witnesses. A simple online search can reveal whether there is data to verify a news story, or you can use a fact-checking site to read up on the topic.
Tackling fake news
And if you identify a news story as fake? Refuse to give it any additional air-time; don’t share it on social media and, if you notice that friends, family or members of your online community have shared the link, let them know (as politely and discreetly as you like). Equally, you can leave a comment on the post, or in the article comments section, warning others of your findings.
We all have a responsibility to distinguish fake news stories to stop them going viral and infecting the minds of the masses.