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Reveal’s guide to spotting fake news

Getting reliable news in the social media age is a perilous endeavor. The rise of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat has created a digital landscape with an unprecedented combination of immediacy and fractiousness. This dynamic has increased the speed at which important information travels, but it’s also helped spur today’s epidemic of so-called fake news.

More on that in a second. First, it’s important to understand, via an extended metaphor, just how complex news consumption has become: Imagine a never-ending buffet, sliding by you on a conveyor belt 24 hours a day. Each dish has a note from its chef (or from someone who’s already taken a bite), urging you to dig in. Some of the dishes are nutritious; some are empty calories. Behind the scenes, a few chefs have even spent money to get their cuisine displayed prominently – or to make it seem more appetizing than it actually is. Meanwhile, the belt’s going at a breakneck pace; blink and you’ll miss a whole course.

That’s today’s digital news environment, basically.

So what should you eat? It’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s made even more complicated by the influence that social media companies now exert over the editorial process itself.

“By offering incentives to news organizations for particular types of content, such as live video, or by dictating publisher activity through design standards, the platforms are explicitly editorial,” wrote Emily Bell and Taylor Owen in a recent paper for The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. “The structure and the economics of social platforms incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material.”

Another phrase for some of this “low-quality content?” Fake news. Over the past year, journalists and the public saw a wave of misinformation crest into a full-on crisis. Here’s our guide on how to stay afloat.

Step 1: Define “fake.”

Contrary to popular claims (including those made routinely by President Donald Trump), a news story is not fake simply because it is impolite or inconvenient. Nor is it fake because it calls into question a set of beliefs readers hold dear – or because it singles out for scrutiny a popular topic or figure. It is not fake just because it’s rejected by those in power. In fact, many of these are signs that the reporter is onto something.

Most op-ed columns aren’t fake, either, although they’re explicitly designed to lay out one side of a case. At many major news organizations, they’re subject to the same editorial scrutiny as regular news.

Fake news, as we define it here at Reveal, has three characteristics: It is factually inaccurate, framed demagogically and optimized for shareability.

To be clear, no single one of these criteria necessarily makes a story “fake news.” Indeed, renowned news outlets are routinely (and sometimes rightly) accused of disregarding important facts in service of a narrative. Legitimate reportage also can be edited cynically in an attempt to elicit an emotional response from readers. And editors frame real journalism in “viral” terms all the time – it’s part of getting a dish noticed on that conveyor belt mentioned above.

In other words, fake news can be obvious, but it also can be well-disguised. That’s why it’s important to judge it on a case-by-case basis.

Step 2: Know how to fact-check.    

So where should you start? Conducting your own fact-checks is critical. You don’t have to be a journalist, but you should have a bit of patience and a desire for the truth. When you’ve stumbled across a story you’re skeptical of, do a few things immediately:

    1. Consult the major players. See if any major outfits, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal are covering the issue. Compare their language to what you’re reading, and look for common threads and contradictions. Similarly, if an unfamiliar source appears to have a bombshell scoop, approach that with caution. 
    2. Look for primary sources. A lot of reporters will include links to the documents or memos they’re referencing. While these can be pretty dense, they’re invaluable tools for determining the legitimacy of a story. Don’t see any primary sources or attributed quotes? Dial up your skepticism.
    3. Ask yourself: “Is this too good to be true?” Does a story align perfectly with your own preconceptions? Are you willing to forgive some questionable passages because it’s reaffirming what you already believe? Those are warning signs.
    4. Check links. One trick some fake news outlets employ is to send readers on a sort of “attribution goose chase”: A quote or claim might be linked to another site, which then links to another, etc. Keep digging. The truth can be buried beneath several layers of viral frosting.
    5. Don’t trust your gut. “Part of a balanced diet is reading things that you disagree with,” said Bill Adair, the founder of the nonpartisan site PolitiFact on a recent panel about fake news. The internet – “whether it’s ideological sites that support our point of view, or apps that take us only to the sites we agree with” – makes it tantalizingly easy to ignore the other side, he said. Disregarding those with different views means disregarding an obvious yet challenging fact: Sometimes the other side is right.
    6. Never stop probing. As we question sources and material, and as colleagues question us, we need to seek multiple sources of verification, multiple paths to the truth,” writes Steve Buttry, author of the “Verification Handbook.” Ensuring that what you’re reading (or writing) is true hinges on three things, he argues: a reader’s persistence; a source’s reliability; and bulletproof documentation.

Step 3: Remember, it’s not a popularity contest.

A story is not true just because it’s trending. In fact, studies have found a troubling relationship between inaccuracy and virality. When BuzzFeed analyzed post performance on nine political Facebook pages ahead of last year’s election, its reporters found an inverse relationship between a post’s truthfulness and its engagement. That is, the more inaccurate the information, the more Facebook users interacted with it.

Gossip spreads. That’s the “demagogic” aspect of fake news at work. Untethered from factual accountability, its purveyors are free to cater to readers’ emotions, not the truth. It’s quite an advantage (not to mention a profit generator), as long as you have no qualms about fabrication.

The Tow Center authors raise a similar point, then add another wrinkle: For many social media companies, there’s scant economic incentive to crack down on fake news.

Social platforms’ “business models incentivize ‘virality’ – material people want to share – which has no correlation with journalistic quality,” they write. “The architecture that enables news organizations to reach their audiences on social platforms also militates against their sustainability.”

Step 4: Learn to trust.

The fake news crisis didn’t occur in a vacuum. Trust in mass media has declined steadily across the political spectrum for the past 20 years, according to a recent Gallup poll. Newsrooms, hoping to repair that trust, are dedicating resources to covering otherwise under-represented populations.

The Washington Post, for example, recently added five reporters who aim to “capture the swirl of hope, anxiety, competing values, demographic shifts and systemic barriers to progress that were at the heart of the recent presidential campaign.” Vox Media, for its part, hired a reporter to cover “distressed communities” across the U.S. We’ve recalibrated our coverage to respond appropriately to the Trump administration, too.

Whether these approaches will help regain readers’ trust is yet to be seen.

Step 5: Call us out.

The social media age has its share of upsides for news consumers and producers. Principal among these is the sheer speed of audience-powered accountability. When readers (or other journalists) discover an error or inaccuracy in a news organization’s reporting, they can broadcast it immediately. Social media may be the jet fuel of fake news, but it’s also the fire extinguisher.

Some companies are beginning to recognize this. In early April, Facebook launched an “educational tool” aimed at helping users identify inaccurate or misleading stories. And in the lead-up to France’s presidential election, Facebook shut down more than 30,000 accounts it had flagged as fake news.

Still, the most important dynamic may be a direct line of communication between reader and journalist. (You can write me here, or find me on Twitter; and each Reveal reporter’s email is hyperlinked in his or her byline.) These conversations will only become more critical as purveyors of fake news continue to adapt.

As journalists, our mandate to listen is stronger than ever. After all, part of keeping fake news at bay is ensuring the integrity of the real stuff.