How to Prevent Fake News from Spreading on Social Media

By Luke O’Neil

Proper attire is encouraged, but not required, when sharing content on the internet. Photo via Flickr user Phil Dokas

I’ve spent the better part of the past year attempting to debunk every viral hoax that comes down the pike and yelling at anyone who’ll listen about how harmful the internet’s viral bullshit culture is to the way we consume and produce, news – and surprise surprise, it’s been a thankless and ultimately fruitless pursuit.

With Facebook disseminating dubiously sourced nonsense through its promoted links and the emergence of an entire genre of websites designed to deceive readers with carefully tailored nonsense, it’s clear that people by and large don’t care enough to check whether something is actually true before sharing it. 

We rightfully abhor people who’d intentionally spread an actual physical virus, right? So why don’t we apply the same stigma to the people coughing up urban legends into our Facebook newsfeeds and contaminating our Twitter streams?

It’s really very simple to inoculate yourself against this type of risky online behavior with a few easy-to-remember tricks. Think of the following advice as a condom for your newsfeed. Similarly, it won’t protect you against everything, but it may help curtail the spread of your clickable crabs.

The steps involved in determining whether a piece of content isn’t a pile of lies come to us from an archaic practice known as Journalism. As I’ve written elsewhere, we’re all regularly reminded of our status as citizen journalists and members of the social media, so it behooves us to apply at least the barest modicum of old-media standards to the information we publish and promote.

There are five questions you’ll want to ask every time you come across a story that you think you might want to share with your internet friends. If that seems like a lot of work, remember that shouting out random urban legends in public is frowned upon IRL, and the same should be true for social media. These questions are known as the five Ws.

Who Is Telling You About the Story?

Asking yourself about the source of the story right off the bat is the easiest way to filter out the majority of viral hoaxes you come across. As a recent piece in the New Republic details, the past year has seen the creation of many sites that churn out vaguely plausible sounding headlines for the sole purpose of scoring shares. They claim to be in the “satire” business, but none of them are remotely funny – and thanks to Facebook’s “related links” feature, you may see them pop up next to legitimate news sources. These sites include, but are in no way limited to, the Daily Currant, the News Nerd, Empire Sports News, News-Hound, Huzlers, Demyx, Mediamass, and National Report. (A subcategory of spammy spreaders of fakery is the social media accounts devoted to sharing phony, doctored and unattributed images of “the most beautiful place in the world” or whatever. The indomitable @PicPedant on Twitter is a good source for avoiding these.)

I’ve said this a hundred times, but it bears repeating: If you have never heard of the website reporting a piece of news that you would like to share, then it’s almost certainly bullshit. Would you repeat a story you heard from a crazy dude who yelled at you on the underground? Then why are you linking to a site you don’t know?

Granted, this is becoming somewhat more difficult to take a hard line on, as even presumably respectable sites are getting in on the viral shit-peddling game of late, but that’s why there are four more Ws to help you winnow things down.

Publishing on the internet is an exciting business, but please don't get so caught up in it that you're sharing tall tales. Photo via Flickr user Quinn Dombrowski

What Is the Story About?

Does the news item seem SO PERFECT? Is it something that inspires you to think, or tweet, “ALL OF MY THIS”? It’s fake. If it seems too good to be true, then it is. I’d love to live in a world where Bill Murray wanders around stopping bank robberies too, but life isn’t an endless series of highly bloggable coincidences. The universe is actually rather predictable and boring. The people who want you to share their stories know this, which is why they peddle a sense of heightened reality that appeals to our appetite for fiction.

This regularly occurs in the world of not-quite-true political stories. You may have seen the recent one about Texas proposing a law that would require mothers to name their fetuses – classic Texas, right? But if you take five seconds to read the story, you’ll see it was obviously written to stoke outrage in the type of people who want to believe Texas would do such a thing. There are tons of examples of actual outrageous shit going on in the US that deserve our attention. Don’t fall for vaguely plausible partisan-stirring headlines just because it feels good to yell.

When Did This Story Happen?

This is the simplest question to ask, but for some reason it’s one that online sharers rarely consider. As soon as you click on a story or a video, check to see when it was first posted. You may remember people were sharing scary footage of a boat searching for the missing Malaysian airplane on dangerous seas a few months back. If anyone had bothered to click through to the original YouTube video, they would’ve seen that it was posted the year before.

There is a limited supply of internets. Please conserve them. Photo via Flickr user HD Zimmermann

Where Did the Story Happen?

Was it in another country? This is one of the most common ways phony news peddlers sell us horseshit, because the mere mention of, say, China, or Russia, to a Western audience short-circuits our skepticism for some reason. Haha, who even knows what they have going on over there, but it’s probably crazy! I’ll buy anything.

This was most evidently on display in literally every story that emerged around the Sochi Olympics. Wolves wandering the hotels! I bet they have those in Russia! We also saw this with the recent story about the Chinese man who was stranded in a South Korean airport because his son doodled all over his passport. The story, like all credible stories, was based on a post on Weibo, a social media site in China. So not only was it too cute to be true in the first place, the sites spreading it couldn’t even trace it back to a source they could translate. (Incidentally, all of the sites who shared that one – Buzzfeed, Gawker, the New York Daily News, Elite Daily, fucking USA Today, Uproxx, and others – have yet to apologise for lying about it.)

Why Is This Story Being Shared?

It’s important to consider the inherent news value of the item in question itself. Is it about, say, a random dude breaking up with his girlfriend in a super internetty fashion? There is no reason – other than a cynical desire for cheap clicks via Facebook – any news site should be reporting on some kid’s personal life. And yet they all did. Same goes for the “guy moderately inconvenienced at airport” piece. If the story was clearly written just for the shares, then it’s likely fake.

The idea that there are people out there who stand to profit off of keeping us confused and misinformed is nothing new – it stretches back as far as the origin of speech and language itself, not to mention the biggest pieces of viral content of them all, religious texts. But if things seem to be getting worse now, that’s because we’ve voluntarily signed up to help erode our healthy inclination toward skepticism. No one is expecting you to track down the original source of every piece of information you come across, but at the very least, if you insist on being dumb yourself, don’t force your stupidity on everyone else. Taking a moment or two to consider the five Ws before you hit the share button won’t just save you from being embarrassed online when you inevitably get duped, it will make the internet a better place.

Follow Luke O’Neil on Twitter.

 

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