It’s shaping up to be a bad week for “fake news sites.” Google is threatening to ban them from its advertising network. Facebook says it’s cracking down on how often they appear in peoples’ timelines. And angry Congressional Democrats are even threatening to introduce legislation to get rid of them outright, because they say fake news had an unprecedented impact on the election.
So what exactly is a “fake news” site anyways? It turns out, the answer depends heavily on the ideological leaning of who’s doing the defining. For Facebook’s, Google’s and the federal government’s purposes, it seems to be any site that regularly publishes content that Internet users can’t readily separate from more reliable news.
That, of course, depends heavily on how savvy social media users are. Everyone has a friend who constantly posts links from The Onion, a famous news satire site, assuming they’re true. But those are easy to spot. Sometimes, as with sites like the DC Gazette, the Denver Guardian or News 10 Live, its not so easy—and the Internet isn’t full of media-savvy geniuses.
Another problem: Even when you consider how tilted the mainstream media can be, separating fact from fiction requires some basic knowledge. Here are a few quick ways to tell if what you’re getting is real. Or, as real as mainstream news can be.
1. Check the URL. Real fake news sites have URLs close to those of major news organizations, like TMZ and NBC News, but add a bit at the end, or have a suspiciously off-brand feel. TMZ World News and TMZ Hip Hop are both fake news sites. Neither look like the original TMZ site. MSNBC.website has a URL ending that you wouldn’t find on a corporate news page.
MSNBC is, technically, a real news website. Sorry.
2. Check yourself. Satire sites are designed to prey on pre-existing biases, so if it looks too good to be true—that is, it fits in a little too well with your worldview—tap into your common sense to see if what the story says rings hollow. Sure, Hillary Clinton may be staring down a Presidential pardon or an orange jumpsuit, but it should be readily apparent that she hasn’t been dragged out of her Brooklyn offices in shackles.
Also, check for weird dates, unrecognizable locations, and sloppy photoshops…all of these are signs that someone’s fooling you.
3. Take a look at the other stories on the page. The surest way to tell if that article about how an asteroid full of mutated cats is headed to Houston is to look at the “suggested stories” at the bottom of the site. Are they all scientific? Do they seem credible? Or are they six “quick reads” about skin-care treatments gone wrong? Is there contact information for their editorial office? Or is that blocked by a story featuring a list of 10 celebrities you didn’t know were born as animals?
4. Consult an expert. This is tricky. Sites like Snopes catalog hoax websites, but they’re not always trustworthy themselves. FakeNewsWatch has the most comprehensive list, and separates them out by types (hoax, satireand clickbait), but beware of any other organization processing that information. For instance, several sites FakeNewsWatched list as “clickbait” were re-interpreted by US News and World Report as “propaganda.”
For on-the-fly analysis, Real or Satire lets you pop in a URL and get an immediate result.
5. Don’t listen to Facebook, Google or the government.Despite wanting to create an airtight rubric for spotting “fake news,” social media platforms, search engines and legislators have their own personal agendas and biases. Facebook, which takes its news delivery seriously, is struggling with creating an objective team charged with rooting out hoax media.
Regulators may also take years to come up with an effective model for filtering out fake news. Google and Facebook, as private corporations, can easily change policies, but the federal government must contend with Constitutionally protected free speech.