Stop Falling For and Sharing Fake News

Why we believe fake news and how to become more skeptical: Internet Scambusters #739

During the recent U.S. elections, a day hardly went by without allegations about fake news reports.

What’s equally alarming, though, is our willingness to believe them and share them with others.

In this week’s report, we’ll explain what the experts think about this growing trend and what we can do to avoid being sucked into this murky world.

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Now, here we go…

Stop Falling For and Sharing Fake News

Setting aside political views, one of the big controversies of last November’s elections was the surge in the appearance of fake news stories.

They came from all directions. Some were just funny. Others were downright misleading. And a few were potentially dangerous.

But fake news is nothing new. Sometimes phony stories are used to lure Internet users to malicious websites by appealing to our sense of curiosity. Or they may be simply selling a product by making outrageous claims about what they can do.

And then there are entire joke websites dedicated to poking fun at public figures by making up stories about them.

We wrote about this previously in How Fake News Stories and Bogus News Websites Try to Deceive You.

But as the elections demonstrated, the use of fake news has taken on a new dimension, with social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook being used to spread gossip and lies.

The real problems are, first, that people have become much better at spinning fake news and, second, we now rely much more on the Internet to keep us in touch with current affairs.

This meant that, in some cases, phony reports were picked up by journalists, bloggers, and others who passed them on to their readers without checking their accuracy.

Sites like Facebook have become so concerned that they’ve launched attempts to track down and remove fake news. Even Google is trying to find a way of stopping fakes from appearing in its search results. But all of this is easier said than done.

So, as usual, it’s up to us as individuals to do our best to check out whether these stories are true before acting on them or passing them on.

One person who’s made a study of this field is Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Melissa Zimdars.

She compiled a list of tips for analyzing news sources and websites, initially as a resource for her students.

She says, for example, that websites whose names end in “lo” (e.g. “Newslo”) generally can’t be relied on. The same goes for those that end in “”. Another warning sign could be a weird name for the news site.

“Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news,” she says.

Then she advises students and readers to check stories by searching for them on reputable news sites.

Even then, she points out, “some news organizations are also letting bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands; however, many of these posts do not go through the same editing process.”

She cites several well-known blogs and then lists some other leading serious news sites that, she says, switch between providing important news coverage and hyping particular viewpoints.

“If the story makes you really angry,” she continues, “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 make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.”

She has much more to say and, generously, Zimdars has now posted her guidance online. It includes the names of the well-known sites she lists as sometimes publishing questionable reports and those she considers to be the most reliable.

Her article is published as a Google document under a Creative Commons license and can be read in any browser: False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical “News” Sources.

How important is all of this? Critically so, it turns out.

Another expert in this field is Alexios Mantzarlis, who runs the International Fact-Checking Network for the online journalism resources site Poynter.

This past December, he wrote that recent psychological studies on misinformation suggested that people are really gullible, and the more we repeatedly read something that is false, the stronger we believe that it’s true.

Our only true defenses are to have a “healthy amount of skepticism” and to weigh up things very carefully before sharing a story.

In fact, our willingness to believe anything that confirms our bias or to draw conclusions from just a headline is the chief culprit in the circulation of fake news stories.

Mantzarlis told news TV outlet CNN: “If we were to go a little slower to share and re-tweet content purely based on the headline, we’d go a good way towards combating falsehoods.”

And Melissa Zimdars concludes: “Even typically reliable sources, whether mainstream or alternative, corporate or nonprofit, rely on particular media frames to report stories and select stories based on different notions of newsworthiness.

“The best thing to do in our contemporary media environment is to read/watch/listen widely and often, and to be critical of the sources we share and engage with on social media.”

Sad to say, fake news is with us for good so we must learn how to spot it and take it for what it is.

Alert of the Week

ATMs in hospitals and other non-bank and non-store locations have become a favorite target for skimmers — crooks who “doctor” cash dispensing machines to capture card details and sometimes ever trap cash in the payout channel.

Four hospitals in New York were recently targeted.

When you can, use an ATM inside a banking hall or other secure, highly visible location.

That’s it for today — we hope you enjoy your week!