If I had to choose two words that seems to embody all that is modern and popular culture, there’s a good chance they could be ‘fake news’. Despite the relevance to today’s audience, most of us have probably already heard of one of the media’s most prolific pieces of ‘fake news’ that persists even today.
In 1938, a radio broadcast featuring an Orson Welles’-read production of War of the Worlds supposedly caused mass hysteria. There were thousands of citizens making phone calls in terror, completely convinced aliens were invading; some people even supposedly were scared to death [source]. This is the account that many of us would have heard as we grew up, but there’s probably less of us who went onto learn that the reported panic was, in fact, untrue. Newspapers have since been identified as the source from which the stories of hysteria gathered momentum. The article detailing the research debunking the panic myth can be found here (it makes for very interesting reading).
If that was in 1938 and people still believe there was nationwide panic even today, what does that mean in the age where sensationalist headlines are seen by millions just seconds after being published? It means that as consumers of media, we have a lot more to consider than we did pre-internet. It’s not a requirement to talk to school-aged children about fake news and viral content on the internet, but it’s something that the OECD has recommended in the past; and this makes more and more sense as time goes on and internet users become younger. Even if it just involves introducing satire at an early age, or including a paragraph about fake news in your school’s internet policy, a little bit of information could go a long way.
First of all though, it’s worth compiling a quick checklist of how to spot fake news. Even the most savvy of us have been caught out; satire and real life have never been more closely aligned.
You won’t believe your eyes!
Let’s start with the obvious one; if a news story seems too ‘out there’ to be true, it’s probably a fake. Also known as clickbait, these are the stories that try and invite people to find out some kind of salient detail by clicking onto the news story.
There are no other outlets reporting it
Mainstream TV channels that have dedicated news outlets (the BBC is an example) are usually quite reliable, as are widely recognised media brands such as Reuters. If you spot a story that would qualify as news on a global scale and it isn’t on one of the main news channels, it’s probably not real.
Take note of accompanying images
Fake news stories will often carry photos that have been digitally altered in some way; and it’s usually quite easy to spot these pictures upon looking a little closer. If a person in an image looked inexplicably ‘blurred’ around the edges, and nobody else is? Chances are it’s been altered.
Check the URL
In both Facebook and Twitter, previews of a story will contain a snippet of the website’s address. While there are some link shortening services, genuine and reputable news carriers will use their actual URL – look out for adjustments or additions to the address that don’t look right.
Whether news outlets are impartial is a different argument, but it’s extremely unlikely that a story written emotively with the deliberate intent of causing panic would be legitimate. These are usually the easiest stories to spot: world-ending scenarios, scandalous behaviour, celebrity deaths, all are commonly seen shared around on social media.
If you’re still not sure whether you’re dealing with a false story, check the website’s ‘About’ page. If it seems very vague, poorly written, or altogether absent, it’s likely to be a non-legitimate source.
Check the sources
On the topic of sources, this is an important one that most students will be learning as they progress through education – from referring to items they read in a textbook to using citations in an essay. Double-checking sources to ensure accuracy is a good habit to instil with the sheer level of content accessible on the internet. If a quote, fact, or citation cannot be found anywhere else online, assume it’s not legitimate.
Lastly, always be wary of ‘witness accounts’ on social media. While Twitter in particular has earned itself a seat at the table of news distribution, it’s not always going to be gospel when it comes to cold hard facts, especially in times of breaking news. Most of the time, there is little that can be done to stop the spread of false information or sensationalist news, but being armed with the tools to challenge what you are reading is a good place to start.