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The Anatomy of Fake News

News
15 November 2020
It’s so easy to simply hit the Retweet or Share button. However, there are some ground rules to keep in mind before you further the spread of potential fake news.
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    Now, more than ever, social media is regarded as the primary source of news for many. Whether it’s Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or (dare we say) WhatsApp, a large majority of individuals are getting their daily news on these platforms. However, with the convenience of access comes the challenge of separating fact from fake.

     

    THINK BEFORE YOU SHARE

    It’s so easy to simply hit the Retweet or Share button. However, there are some ground rules to keep in mind before you further the spread of potential fake news.

    • Check out the publisher. Is the person or organisation a reputable news sources?
    • Has this been shared anywhere else by a reputable news source?
    • What kind of evidence is there to back up the claims? Even if there is evidence, check whether the supposed evidence is being used in the correct context and verify the claims yourself by doing a simple online search.
    • Is there a possible agenda behind the claims being made? What does this person or organisation have to gain from sharing the info?

     

    VOICENOTES ARE NOT FACT

    In recent months, we’ve seen several voicenotes do the rounds on WhatsApp specifically making unsubstantiated claims about COVID-19 and lockdown regulations. It’s vital to once again check where the voicenote originated from – unfortunately, your aunt/uncle who watches lots of YouTube videos is not a reliable source. Also be wary of voicenotes claiming that a friend of a colleague who knows a person shared the info. If you can’t trace the info back to a legitimate source, rather don’t share. WhatsApp has put together a quick guide on identifying possible fake messages.

    Remember: fake news thrives on your emotions. The aim is to illicit a strong emotional response to push you to disseminate the fake news as quickly as possible without actually stopping to think it through. If you react strongly to a particular post or article, take a few minutes to ask the above questions before forwarding on.

     

    FAKE NEWS SITES

    Fake news websites are a dime a dozen, with small, inconspicuous pages popping up almost weekly. It’s important to look out for some of the tell-tale signs of fake news websites. From the design to the structure of the stories, if you pay close enough attention you should be able to spot a fake story (and avoid the humiliation of sharing it online).

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    1. Check the web address. Often, fake news sites tend to make the smallest of changes to a reputable address in order to appear legit. For example, instead of http://www.carteblanche.co.za it could read https://www.carteblanche.com  
    2. Google the website's name. Has this site been caught out before? If so, chances are another reputable website has already outed them and the reference should appear online. A simple Google search will also give you an idea about what other users have had to say about the site.
    3. Check the headlines. Since scandal is the name of the game when it comes to fake news sites, they often make use of attention-grabbing headlines to coax you into clicking on the link. If a headline sounds too scandalous or over the top, perhaps it's not legit.
    4. A picture tells a thousand words. Fake news sites tend to either use photos from other reputable news sites or they edit images to look like the real deal. If an image doesn't look right, rather turn back and find another website and cross-reference what you are looking for.
    5. Check the sources. Do they provide the names of their sources? If they do, Google the names to determine whether those people do indeed exist. In most cases the articles on fake news sites don't refer to any identifiable sources.
    6. Visit their social pages. Their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages can often give you a good idea about who actually runs the website. This is especially useful if you need to report a fake news story.
    7. Contact them. It's very rare that fake news sites provide contact details. However, it's still worth clicking on the Contact Us or About Us links. Perhaps you'll be lucky and stumble across an email address. Having contact details helps when you need to report a fake news story with contact details linked to the fake site.

     

    A FEW MORE TIPS

    If you're still unsure about the validity of a story, you can do a few more things to ensure you are reading, relying on or sharing only the most accurate information.

    • Perform a Google search to see whether any major news organisations are also reporting on the news at hand. If they're not, it's more than likely fake.
    • Check the facts. Fake news sites will often twist the truth to strengthen a story. Are the dates of past events mentioned correctly? Are the facts verifiable? If you're unsure, always check.
    • Check the date. In the majority of cases, an old fake news story resurfaces with a new look. However, many sites fail to change the dates.
    • Look for author names. Due to the nature of the websites, fake news sites very rarely attribute stories to authors. This prevents people from contacting them and reporting the fake site.
    • Use common sense. If a story seems too far-fetched to be true, it probably is.

     

    IT’S FAKE. NOW WHAT?

    Once you've established that a story or entire website or profile is fake, you can do a couple of things to prevent it from spreading:

    • Don't share it. It's vital to always check the facts as far as possible before you share news online.
    • If you see someone online sharing a fake news story, alert them and make them aware of the facts.
    • Report it. If a fake news site is impersonating a legitimate news site, make the news organisation aware of this. Email them the web address of the fake news site and send screen grabs if possible. Find out more about how to report fake news on various platforms.
    • If a fake news site makes serious false claims which could lead to public violence or mass panic, you must report this to your local police. The matter will then be escalated to the Hawks to track down the creators of the site.

    Sources: Cornell University | Harvard: Division of Continuing Education | WhatsApp

    ** This article was originally published in February 2017 and updated in November 2020.