Governments and other organizations, for example, have employed propaganda on countless occasions during wartime to diminish enemy morale and bolster their own. And anyone who has ever shopped in a grocery store is familiar with titles such as Weekly World News, which (when it operated) was full of suspect headlines such as “Garden of Eden found!” and “Termites eat the Eiffel Tower!”
With apologies to supermarket tabloids, however, the fake news industry is now more pervasive than ever thanks to social media and the wider internet. (Although Google and Facebook announced a “crackdown” on fake news sites back in 2016, this type of content still flourishes on these and other platforms.)
It’s no coincidence that the Oxford Dictionary named the term “post-truth” the word of the year in 2016. Even the most media-savvy among us can fall for a click-bait headline.
But the proliferation of fake news isn’t just an annoying byproduct of the digital age. Fake news can have real consequences. “Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news,” the New York Times wrote in 2018, adding that the proliferation of fake news has increased political polarization and (at the same time) a growing distrust of legitimate sources.
Fullintel’s media monitoring specialists and media analysts are trained to not only perform the most accurate media monitoring in the industry, but also to spot irrelevant or fake news that could mislead our clients (and cause data inconsistencies when running media analysis).
Read on for insights on the processes and best practices we follow every day, so you and your team can do the same.
What kind of fake news is out there?
Before getting into how to spot fake news, let’s take a moment to look at exactly what we’re talking about. Fake news in the TikTok and Facebook age comes in a variety of packages – some of which can be more misleading than others. Here are some of the most common:
- Fake news stories on questionable websites: Many websites claim to be news sources, and some clearly aren’t. Some sites provide a mix of real and fake news, making the evaluation even more challenging. Blogs and the democratization of media are undoubtedly a good thing, but bloggers simply aren’t subject to the same ethical and professional standards as professional journalists and news organizations.
- Social media memes: Viral claims and memes are some of the worst culprits when it comes to fake news, and social media is the epicenter of virality. Always remember that social media algorithms solely exist to drive engagement, not serve truth to readers.
- Chain emails: It’s a pretty good rule of thumb to consider most content forwarded in chain emails as illegitimate.
- Satire websites: Sites like The Onion in the U.S. can be misleading for some readers, especially (as in the case of The Onion) when they label themselves as news sources. Even The Onion’s About Us section is made up. Some satire websites, such as The Beaverton in Canada, include a disclaimer.
- Advertorials and native advertising: While this kind of content should be (and usually is) clearly marked as advertising copy, it can still be misleading to the casual reader.
- Out-and-out bad reporting: We’re not letting mainstream media off the hook on this one – some reportage by even the most legitimate news outlets simply gets it wrong, or (maybe even worse) is sometimes intended to mislead or manipulate based on biased agendas.
But knowing what’s out there is only half the battle when it comes to identifying fake news. PR and communications teams (and the general public) should always keep the following things in mind when reviewing media coverage – whether it’s their own or otherwise.
How to spot fake news in 5 simple steps
Spotting fake news can be difficult, but gets easier if you follow the best practices used by our media monitoring specialists every day. These include:
- Consider the source. From history books to contemporary media, it’s vital for readers to always consider the source: Is it legitimate? What are its biases? Many fake news websites have become adept at spoofing legitimate sources in their titles and URLs, such as abcnews.com.co (not to be confused with abcnews.go.com, the legitimate site). If you’ve never heard of the source, check them out: Do they have real staff members and a masthead? A mission statement? A physical address?
- Read beyond the headline. It’s better to not share impulsively or include the story in your daily briefs after only reading the headline – often, after reading the full story, it becomes fairly obvious the story is either fake or misleading. Scrutinize the sources used, including organizations and individuals interviewed. Do they seem legitimate? Can you find them anywhere else?
- Evaluate the byline. Fake stories often have either no byline (although this can also be done by legitimate news outlets when republishing wire or other content), or a very suspect one. If you have suspicions, check the writer’s bio or look them up online. What are their qualifications? Where else have they written? Fake news sites often make up author names (sometimes using the same photo for multiple authors), in which case a simple Google or LinkedIn search should tell you they’re not legit.
- Scan other media outlets for the same story. Are other credible media outlets covering the story? If so, why not? Some hyper-local or niche stories won’t get picked up by other media, most important stories will appear in at least one other outlet. It’s also good practice to evaluate whether they’re reporting the same facts around the story.
- How biased is the perspective? If it’s not an editorial or opinion column, the story should at least make an attempt at balance and showing multiple perspectives. As mentioned above, fake news sites often have agendas driving the fake coverage – if a purported “news” article only shows one side of the story, it’s likely either fake or misleading.
Other best practices when consuming media include always checking the date (older stories with outdated facts can sometimes be presented as new), considering your own biases, and consulting the experts.
Confused about fake news? Ask the experts
Online fact-checking tools that can help make sense of the maelstrom of fake or questionable news include FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, Media Bias/Fact Check, Snopes, TruthOrFiction, Hoaxy, B.S. Detector, and Spot Fake News.
All this being said, however, we realize time – especially for PR professionals – is extremely limited. Most of us, even in our daily lives, don’t have the time to investigate every potentially fake news story, never mind in a fast-paced professional setting.
Fullintel’s media monitoring specialists and media analysts, however, have years of experience evaluating news content of all types for our clients. Our media monitoring, crisis media monitoring, executive news briefs, media analysis, and other media intelligence services always deliver the most relevant and cost-effective media monitoring and media intelligence possible for PR teams at large organizations – any time of day, seven days a week.
Andrew is Co-Founder and President of Fullintel. His 25-plus years of media intelligence experience helps large organizations and Fortune 1000 companies such as Textron, AAA, Clorox, Kraft Heinz, MUFG, and Bell plan and implement day-to-day and crisis media monitoring and analysis strategies and best practices. He also co-founded dna13, the world’s first software-as-a-service media monitoring platform, which was eventually acquired by PR Newswire.