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How to avoid fake news & hoaxes

How to avoid fake news & hoaxes

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The dangers of disinformation and misinformation

  • Misinformation - False or inaccurate information that is communicated regardless of an intention to deceive.
  • Disinformation - Bad information that is sent out on purpose.

The amount of disinformation and misinformation that is spread on the web is staggering. It is spread mainly via Websites, Social Networks, and Email. Hot topics include Politics, Government Policies, Religion, and various Scams and Hoaxes. Research reveals false rumors really do travel faster and further than the truth. What is important to understand is that sharing disinformation and misinformation can lead to fraudulent websites and malware.

Social networking sites provide users with the capability to spread information quickly to other users without confirmation of its truth. We tend to take written information as truth and assume it is accurate unless we know for certain that it is not. When we read something about a subject we are not very familiar with, we assume that the author is qualified to post it.


S.I.F.T: Evaluate Information in a Digital World

  • Stop
    • Do you know the website or source of information? Start with a plan. Check your bearings and consider what you want to know and your purpose. Usually, a quick check is enough. Sometimes you'll want a deep investigation to verify all claims made and check all the sources.
  • Investigate the Source
    • Know the expertise and agenda of your source so you can interpret it. Look up your source on Wikipedia. Consider what other sites say about your source. A fact-checking site may help. Read carefully and consider while you click. Open multiple tabs.
  • Find trusted coverage
    • Find trusted reporting or analysis, look for the best information on a topic, or scan multiple sources to see what consensus is. Find something more in-depth and read about more viewpoints. Look beyond the first few results, use Ctrl + F, and consider the URL. Even if you don't agree with the consensus, it will help you investigate further.
  • Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the original context
    • Trace claims, quotes, and media back to the source. What was clipped out of a story/photo/video and what happened before or after? When you read the research paper mentioned in a news story, was it accurately reported? Find the original source to see the context, so you can decide if the version you have is accurately presented.
  • Understand AI's Capabilities
    • Recognize that AI can generate realistic texts, images, and videos. Knowing the potential and limitations of AI helps in assessing content critically.

Tips for analyzing news sources

  • Avoid websites that end in "lo" ex: Newslo - These sites take pieces of accurate information and then package that information with other false or misleading "facts" (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy).
  • Watch out for websites that end in "" or other odd domain names - Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news as they are often fake versions of real news sources
  • Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story - Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.  It's always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints.
  • Check the author - Lack of author attribution may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.  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 (ex: BuzzFeed Community Posts, Kinja blogs, Forbes blogs).
  • Consider the source - Check the "About Us" tab on websites or look up the website on sites like Wikipedia for more information about the source.
  • Website design and sloppy writing - Bad web design, the use of ALL CAPS, or dramatic punctuation?!?!?! can also be a sign that the source you're looking at should be verified and/or read in conjunction with other sources.  Most credible news sources have copy editors that will check for these mistakes before publication, and will also have rules restricting writers from using features like caps lock for the sake of professionalism.
  • It predicts a future disaster - A fair number of fake news stories hook readers in because they predict a future disaster.
  • It reveals a cure for a major illness - If you read an article where some major affliction has been cured, be skeptical.
  • The story is a little too funny or interesting - The more eyebrow-raising a story is, the more people seem to want to read and share it, and other news outlets reprint it.
  • A poll is featured - The problem with polls is that they can be misleading depending on how the questions are phrased or if the results are taken out of context.
  • Your emotions - If the story makes you really angry 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.
  • Sharing other's private information - If the website you're reading encourages you to DOX (researching and broadcasting private or identifiable information about an individual or organization), it's unlikely to be a legitimate source of news. Doxxing is totally unethical and illegal under state criminal laws.
  • Check the history and reputation of the author and publication - If an article is being shared on Facebook or Twitter, you can see immediately the publication where the article originated. Browse the publication’s site to view past articles on the same or similar topics. Red flags are raised if the articles share a certain political viewpoint, if they are riddled with typos or grammatical errors, or if they are all written by the same author.
  • Read beyond the headline - If a provocative headline drew your attention, read a little further before you decide to pass along the shocking information. Even in legitimate news stories, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story.
  • Check the date - Some false stories aren’t completely fake, but rather distortions of real events. These mendacious claims can take a legitimate news story and twist what it says — or even claim that something that happened long ago is related to current events.

Tips for spotting fake news on social media

  • Keep an eye out for "sponsored content" - Sponsored content often strikes a sensationalistic tone.  The next time you spot one of these, look around the area of the web page where they're placed. You should find a little graphic or snippet of text that says "Advertisement," "Paid Sponsor," or something similar. These so-called articles aren't intentionally developed to misinform you. They are likely trying to bait you into buying something.  However, in some less reputable corners of the web ads like these can take you to malicious sites that install malware or expose you to other threats. 
  • Scrutinize photos or videos that accompany the story - If you see a shocking or particularly engaging photo or video in an article, take a moment to determine whether the media pertains to the main gist of the story or is intended solely to incite an emotional reaction in readers. Use a service such as TinEye or Google Image Search to conduct a reverse image search. This search will show where else on the web the image appears, and it will indicate whether the image has been tampered with. For many video clips that go viral, there is additional video footage that either isn’t shown or hasn’t yet been published that tells a different story. Photos that support a certain stance or viewpoint are sometimes staged or digitally edited to misrepresent the true content. In both instances, it can be difficult to tell real from unreal.  Evaluate the trustworthiness of the immediate source of the image, the person who shared the media, and the outlet where it was originally published. A little time spent researching might show whether any of these sources has a particular agenda, or whether the person who captured or shared the photo could be spreading misinformation, intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Is the topic intended as a joke?  - Some headlines are written as satire, however, not everyone gets the joke.  Before sharing a questionable or suspicious-looking news item, consider that it may be intended to be satirical or humorous.
  • Consider the reasons why someone is sharing news with you at this time - Digital technology has also led to a digital bubble for many people, who receive news and information only from sources that reinforce their existing biases and beliefs.  Social media users with strong political leanings may not immediately recognize that their social media friends who echo those viewpoints are spreading fake news. It's possible that individuals who share your worldview might be knee-jerk sharing without properly vetting the source of the information.
  • Call out fake news you see in your network -  but do it privately - Calling them out publicly can cause them to get defensive because it makes them look stupid or gullible for posting it in the first place.
  • Beat the social media algorithm - Platforms show us the information they think we want to see. "The articles that you have a reaction to - that you "like" or "heart" — are the ones [social media sites] will start drawing more sources from," Click on links for sites that have news articles to expand what you're shown rather than "like" or "heart".  With every page, you like or follow, and every person you friend, your social media stream fills with their posts, shares, and tweets. Add and delete sources, and seek information that contradicts what you think.
  • Spot the bot warning signs - Does a person post about only one topic? Who else do they follow? Do they post or tweet hundreds of times a day, trying to get their message out before they get caught? Are there a lot of typos or grammatical errors? Do they post in multiple languages? 

Malware from clickbait

The real trouble is that clickbait is often more than just a simple insult to our intelligence - it can lead to real trouble like malware and scams that can lead to identity theft or monetary loss. Often times clicking on a seemingly harmless article will lead you to nothing more than a useless pop-up for a fake video player or a fake survey, with no article in sight. But if you click the link and download the player or fill in the survey, you'll wind up with a PC full of malware and viruses.

Malware Prevention Tips

Be cautious: Approach sharing and opening posts from friends as cautiously as you would your emails. Social media can be a wonderful tool but it can be really dangerous as well and it's beyond important to keep that in perspective. Another good piece of advice is to never trust the links, especially those clickbait ones.

Be careful closing pop-ups: Closing a POP-UP by clicking the X can inadvertently share the malicious code without your knowledge. This is why most people that shared it say they never clicked on anything suspicious.

Here are some options for closing a POP-UP:

  • Chrome on Windows or Mac: Shift + Esc, select the tab containing the pop-up, then click "End Process".
  • Windows: Press Ctrl + Shift + Esc, select the web browser, then click "End Task."
  • Mac: Command + Option + Esc, select your web browser, then click "Force Quit."
  • Android: Press the square button at the bottom right corner of the screen, then swipe all browser windows off the screen.
  • iPhone: Double-press the home button (if you're using iPhone 6s, 3D Touch press the left side of the screen), then swipe all instances of the browser off the screen.

Another option: Since the popup is controlled by JavaScript, the best option is to disable the execution of any scripts (by configuration or browser add-ons). This will impact how most websites look and feel, however you can always add sites to the exception list once you know they are safe.

The dangers of misinformation

We tend to take written information as truth and assume it is accurate unless we know for certain that it is not. If we read something about a subject which we are not very knowledgeable about, we assume that the author has the credentials to be posting that information.

  • Misinformation regarding drugs and health remedies has proven deadly for many people around the world.
  • Misinformation through sharing emails or social media spam can expose you to fraudulent phishing websites.
  • Misinformation regarding investment advice has led to personal financial losses.

Here are some short definitions of terms used when discussing media manipulation

  • Outrage Influencer. Conspiracy theorists or ideologists use mass media to spread false information with the intent of stirring up people’s fear, anger, or hatred.
  • Illusory Truth Affect. The psychological theory is that if a falsehood is repeated often enough, people will start to believe it.
  • Electoral Manipulation. Refers to fraudulent techniques used to illegally interfere with the results of a democratic election.
  • Computational Propaganda. Using artificial intelligence, personal online data, and automated, high-speed computing to deliver fraudulent news stories to the most susceptible people in order to initiate the viral spread of propaganda.
  • Echo Chamber. An environment in which people are only introduced to ideas, stories, or messages that confirm and reinforce their own preexisting beliefs.
  • Bumping Into News. Describes the way that most digital natives consume news — through incidental discovery on social media feeds, rather than intentionally.

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