What is Fake News?
Broadly speaking, fake news is disinformation that is disseminated for political purposes, economic gain, or entertainment. Fake news falls into a few different categories:
1) Deliberately deceptive stories (or images) intended to create confusion or division, posted on websites, blogs, or social media.
2) Click bait and native advertising - stories that present themselves as "news" but are written for the purpose of driving traffic to a website or promoting a product.
3) Satire or parody.
What is NOT Fake News?
Recently there has been a surge in accusations of "Fake News" regarding factually accurate news stories. This seems to arise for a number of reasons. First, when the news is critical of the accuser. Second, when the accuser does not support coverage of the story being reported. Third, when the accuser doesn't agree with a particular perspective.
However, just because a news story presents negative information, this does not make the story "fake news." Additionally, just because bias exists in the selection of which stories are covered in a particular news source or in the reporting, this does not categorically make those news stories "fake news." Bias is distinct from misinformation, disinformation, fabrication, etc., though one could argue there is a slippery slope in this regard.
For this reason, professional journalism standards strive to present unbiased and balanced reporting of events. By relying on media sources that adhere to professional journalism standards you are more likely to avoid bias in the reporting. Ideally, opinion oriented stories are relegated to the editorial pages of the news source and clearly labeled as opinion pieces.
For more information on journalism standards see the section of this guide called Journalism Ethics and Standards.
For where to go to find "real news" see the section of this guide called Find Real News.
For a deeper discussion of bias in the news, please see "Five Types of Bias" from the News Literacy Project.
Tips for Avoiding Fake News
Fight fake news by recognizing it, steering clear of it, and never forwarding it. Friends don’t let friends forward fake news!
- Do you recognize the source? If not, read the “About” section on the website AND look up the website on Wikipedia or Snopes for more information about the source.
- Are known/reputable news sites also reporting on the story? While a lack of coverage could be the result of corporate media bias and other factors, there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
- A photograph (or chart) can’t lie, right? Don’t fall into the trap of trusting a story just because it includes a photo or statistics. You need to track down and assess the source of images and figures, the same way you verify any news source.
- A study can't lie, right? When an article mentions a study, go directly to the source to verify the findings.
- The top hits in google are reliable, right? Don’t trust Google to evaluate your sources for you. Attempts at developing a “truth algorithm” to rank results have been elusive — it turns out that truthfulness is an exceedingly challenging thing for a computer program to measure.
- Use of ALL CAPS? This is a potential sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified and/or read in conjunction with other sources. Be suspicious of the sensational.
- The story makes you really angry? If the article has an exaggerated or provocative headline, it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to lure you (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.
- What exactly are you reading? Even when you find yourself in a traditional news site, identify what type of writing you are reading. Is it news reporting, a feature story, an editorial, work by a guest blogger, a review, an op-ed, a disguised ad, or a comment? Keep in mind that some news organizations allow bloggers to post under the banner of particular news brands, but many of these posts do not go through the same editing and review process.
- Confirmation Bias? Is your search language biased in any way? Are you paying more attention to the information that confirms your own beliefs and ignoring evidence that does not?
- Website ends in “lo” or .co? If you are you seeing a slight variation of a well-known URL, do a little investigating. For instance, what looks like an .edu domain, followed by .co or “lo” is likely a fake or deceptive site.
- Web address is odd? If the web address is unusual or unrelated to the news reported, you may be looking at an unreliable source.
- Lack of author attribution? This may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.
- What the “dox”? If a website you’re reading encourages you to DOX individuals (i.e., search for and share private information about someone, typically with malicious intent), it’s unlikely to be a legitimate source of news.
These tips were compiled from Melissa Zimdars' list of tips, and Joyce Valenza's blog post Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation: A News Literacy Toolkit for a "Post-Truth" World.
Learn more about detecting fake news at the News Literacy Project. NLP is a nonpartisan national education nonprofit organization which provides programs and resources for educators and the public to teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.
Fact Checking Tools
Lists of Fake News Websites
Find Real News
Journalism Ethics and Standards
Test Your Real News Detection Skills
Fake News Glossary
- confirmation bias: the tendency to believe information is credible if it conforms to the reader’s/viewer’s existing belief system, or not credible if it does not conform
- container collapse: my own term for our trouble discerning the original information container, format or information type–blog, book, pamphlet, government document, chapter, magazine, newspaper, journal, or section of the newspaper or magazine or journal–once publishing cues are removed and every source looks like a digital page or a printout.
- content farm or content mill: a company that employs a staff of freelance writers to create content designed to satisfy search engine retrieval algorithms with the goal of attracting views and advertising revenue.
- echo chamber: “In news media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.” (Wikipedia)
- fact checking: the act of verifying assertions either prior to publication or after dissemination of the content
- filter bubble: When search tools present with the stories we are likely to click on or share based on our past activity, potentially affirming our biases, we need may be experiencing what Eli Pariser calls a filter bubble,
- herding phenomenon: as more journalists begin to cover a story, even more journalists are likely to join the herd, imitating the angle the story initially took rather than developing alternate or original approaches or angles.
- native advertising: paid, sponsored content designed to look like the legitimate content produced by the media outlet
- satisficing: a portmanteau of the words satisfy and suffice introduced by Herbert Simon in 1956 to refer to the tendency of people, bounded by time limitations, to select good enough information over optimal information
- triangulation or cross verification: Researchers establish validity by using several research methods and by analyzing and examining multiple perspectives and sources in the hope that diverse viewpoints will can shed greater light on a topic.
- virality: the rapid circulation of media from one user to another. When we forward sensational stories, often from social media without checking their credibility in other sources, we increase their virality.
Excerpted from a blog post by Joyce Valenza, Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation: A News Literacy Toolkit for a "Post-Truth" World.
Articles about Fake News
Meet the Professor Calling Out the Fake and Misleading News Sites Clogging Your Facebook Feed, Jared Keller, Pacific Standard, November 15, 2016.
Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds, Camila Domonoske, NPR, November 23, 2016.
Why Students Can’t Google Their Way to the Truth: Fact-checkers and Students Approach Websites Differently, Sam Wineburg and Sarah McGrew, Education Week, November 1, 2016.
The Trouble with Truth, Janet Driscoll Miller, Search Engine Land, November 23, 2016.
We Tracked Down A Fake-News Creator In The Suburbs. Here's What We Learned, Laura Sydell, NPR, November 23, 2016.
Truth, Truthiness, Triangulation: A News Literacy Toolkit for a "Post-truth" World, Joyce Valenza, NeverEnding Search (blog hosted by School Library Journal), November 26, 2016.
Stop Calling Everything "Fake News," Will Oremus, Slate.com, December 6, 2016.
How Facebook’s Fact-Checking Partnership Will Work, Mike Isaac, New York Times, December 15, 2016.
Learning to Spot Fake News: Start with a Gut Check, Anya Kamenetz, nprEd, October 31, 2017.