The veracity of social media news content has been in the spotlight of late, and with an estimated 63% of us using social media to get our news*, there is good reason for concern. While common sense tells us that headlines like, “Taxes Abolished!” are just too good to be true, those who seek to make a quick buck from falsified news stories are often craftier than that. It’s not always easy to distinguish the truth from well-manufactured fiction, and even my tech-savvy teenagers are sometimes at a loss to identify what is “real” news and what isn’t. So the next time those headlines in your news feed get you going, remember these tips:
Big headlines will be covered by big news outlets. If the cure for cancer has been found, you can be sure that the A1 International News Today Myspace profile won’t be the first to carry the story. Check tried and true news media pages to see if the story you are interested in appears there. If not, that’s a good sign that things aren’t as they seem. Likewise, check for the pictures attached to your story on sites like Google Image Search and TinEye to see if the photo appears elsewhere. You should be able to find a newsworthy photo on more than one website.
Consider the source. Journalists usually like to cite their sources because valid sources lend credibility to stories. If you don’t see any sources referenced in the story, or if you can’t easily identify the sources described with a quick online search, that’s a red flag. Check the author, too. Verify his or her credentials by finding references to them on other websites. And if the URL address of the story you are checking is funky (e.g. “.com.de”), the story probably is, too.
Read beyond the headlines. A significant number of social media users read only the headlines and share stories without reading their content. Headlines, even from perfectly legitimate news sources, are designed to pique your interest in the story. Don’t assume that the headline accurately reflects the story itself. Open the article and read, then draw your own conclusion based upon content. Make sure to look closely at the source name, too, to assure that it is who you think it is. Those who manufacture false news stories like to play on the names of real news outlets in the hopes that readers skimming past will not catch the difference. News from “MSNDC.com” is not likely to be news at all.
Use fact-checking resources online. Even stories that are based in truth can stretch the limits at times. Sites like FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, Washington Post Fact Checker, PolitiFact.com, TruthorFiction.com, and Hoax-Slayer.com will help you sort the truth from fiction.
Follow the links. Backtrack through shared stories by clicking the original links to check the date and source of the original posts. Stories are often regenerated from old news, which may be based upon false claims or outdated laws. And look at the other news stories on those original source sites. If the site posts one incredulous claim after another, then the story you are reading is probably equally dubious.
Be sensitive to your own bias. We all have opinions, and it’s human nature for us to want to persuade others to follow our lead by sharing “news” which supports our beliefs. But sometimes in our zeal to be correct, the responsibility to assure the accuracy of information gets lost. Be aware that by taking time to assure that the information you share is credible, you will cause more people to listen to your views and follow your advice in the long run.
In the end, common sense always rules the day. In news, as in life, the old adage remains true: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
* 2015 Pew Research Center and Knight Foundation, Social Media and News Survey, March 13-15, 20-22, 2015