Misinformation: Spotting the signs of imposter content

By: Dr. Melissa Zimdars, Merrimack College

Online misinformation — whether in the form of fake news or unreliable partisan clickbait — now impacts countries around the world. The United States is still untangling how fake news and propaganda proliferating across social media may have influenced the 2016 presidential election. Similarly, Kenyans had to make sense of “imposter content” mimicking global news outlets, such as CNN and BBC, that circulated false polling data during the 2017 presidential election.

Although fully addressing fake news and other forms of online misinformation is ultimately going to require changes to the relationships between technology companies and their platforms, news practices, and governments, there are some steps individuals can take to become critical news users in the digital era.

Website Review

Fake news creators frequently use web addresses that are subtle variations of well-known news websites. For example, instead of CNN.com, websites may use a different top-level domain, such as CNN.com.co or CNN.website. If you’re unsure whether a website is legitimate, the easiest thing to do is type the website into a search engine and compare the results to the website in question. If they’re the same, you’re good to go. If they’re not, it’s probably better to move on. Additionally, if words like “wordpress” or “blogger” are in the URL, that signifies it’s a personal blog rather than a news organization, so any information they share should be contextualized by other information sources.

“About Us” Analysis

Reliable news organizations contain information about their histories, writers, and publisher, as well as contact information. Conversely, creators of fake news articles do not spend a lot of time building out their website details or adding contact information, since the article itself — and its ability to spread and generate advertising revenue — is more important. Similarly, lack of author or newswire attribution for articles is typically a red flag. Seeing the same article attributed to the same writer over and over again is also a red flag. Ultimately, a total lack of an “About Us” section, contact information, or writer attribution likely means that the website is not a legitimate, fact-checked source of news.

Emotion-Check

Sometimes you can assess the trustworthiness of a story by its style, both in terms of writing and images. A lot of fake news and clickbait articles use ALL CAPS and loaded language like the words WOW! EVISCERATE! DESTROY! in headlines or the body of the text. These hyperbolic word choices are used to create an emotional response with readers, from feelings of anger, disgust, and fear to happiness or smugness, which may make us more likely to click on and share an article. Heavy-handed photoshopping and strange digital-born images are also used toward the same end. Thus, it’s always a good idea to do a “gut check” of your emotions when reading or watching news. If a story makes you feel strongly, it’s a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources. This way you’ll have a better idea of whether a particular news item is really that bad (or that good) instead of purposely manipulating your feelings by circulating misleading or false information.

Read Laterally*

One of the easiest ways to make sense of online information sources is to “read laterally,” or to use outside sources and context to assess a news article. If you have the time, you can verify individual details, facts, and quotes in an article with other sources or by clicking through embedded hyperlinks. Otherwise, it does not take very much time to check whether a website has a Wikipedia page with background information or whether it has been previously debunked or verified by fact-checkers like Snopes, Africa Check, FactCheck.org, or local news organizations. Reading laterally is useful for distinguishing lesser-known or new websites that may be trustworthy from fake websites that are designed to deceive.

It’s always best to read multiple sources of news to get a variety of viewpoints and story frames in your daily media diet. Even reliable news sources can make mistakes, especially during times of breaking news, or feel governmental or commercial pressures to report stories in particular ways. The best individual antidote to online misinformation — and to generally navigating our increasingly cluttered and complex media environment — is to read often, widely or internationally, and with a healthy dose of skepticism.

For more tips and strategies for analyzing the credibility and reliability of online sources, please see Africa Check, First Draft News, Web Literacy, and the Digital Resource Center.

* Wineburg, Sam and Sarah McGrew, “Lateral Reading: Reading Less and Learning More When Evaluating Digital Information,” Stanford History Education Group Working Paper No. 2017-A1.

Headshot of Dr. Melissa ZimdarsMelissa Zimdars is an Assistant Professor of Communication and Media at Merrimack College. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Iowa, and is an editor of the forthcoming book, Fake News: Understanding Media and Misinformation in the Digital Age (MIT Press).

The views and opinions expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the YALI Network or the U.S. government.

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