Ever Facebook stalked a romantic interest to make sure they’re not a creep, or triple-checked a job listing to avoid being scammed? No one enjoys being made a fool of, and we can all agree doing extra research benefits us.
Why, then, is fake news on the rise? It’s easy to pin it on social media, corrupt governments, or capitalism, but that wouldn’t be entirely fair. There’s a much deeper, darker reason misinformation spreads like wildfire.
Before we explore what’s truly to blame for the fake news era, let’s take a deep dive into information disorder — and explore what it is, what it looks like, and what we can do about it.
What Is Fake News, Exactly?
Misinformation, disinformation, and fake news are often used interchangeably, but, technically speaking, they’re distinguishable from each other.
Misinformation is generally accepted as information that’s unintentionally inaccurate, regardless of its potential to harm.
By contrast, disinformation is deliberately wrong and engineered with malicious intent. Propaganda and slander are examples of this.
Claire Wardle, co-founder and co-director of The Information Futures Lab — dedicated to fighting media falsifications — supposes 7 types of false information, namely:
- Satire or parody. Falsehoods are created with no intention to harm, generally for comedic effect.
- Misleading content. Misleading information is shared, usually to frame an individual or situation.
- Imposter content. News websites impersonate genuine sources to trick readers into believing the content is credible.
- Fabricated content. The information is 100% false, deliberately created and shared with harmful intent.
- False connection. Headlines, visuals, and captions don’t match the content they’re presented with.
- False context. Where genuine information is contextually incorrect.
- Manipulated content. Information or visuals are altered with the intention to deceive.
All this said, fake news is classified separately. It’s in a league of its own and it’s right there in the name. It’s false information presented or reported as — you guessed it — news.
What Does Fake News Look Like?
All information can be manipulated — words, links, pictures, even video footage and audio clips. Misinformation could be anything from a TikTok video to a blog post. Fake news is a different ball game. Here’s an example of it at its finest.
Bill Gates and the War on Africans
In 2020, Didier Raoult — a French physician and microbiologist — posted to Facebook, instructing people to reject Bill Gates’ vaccine because it was designed to kill Africans.
The now-deleted post spread incredibly fast, with many people sharing it to discourage getting the jab. Before long, the claim was shared alongside “evidence” — a photo of disfigured African children after receiving the “experimental” vaccine. This only added fuel to the flames.
Here’s the kicker. The photo was a genuine picture of sick Sierra Leoneans… after a wave of polio in 1998. It had nothing to do with the Coronavirus pandemic or Bill Gates. Still, many accepted it as the truth.
Even though it was fabricated from the beginning, and the “supporting” photograph is a perfect example of a false connection, the Bill Gates vaccine horror story only became fake news when it was reported as fact.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation donated funds to Covid-19 vaccine research, as it had for HPV, HIV/AIDS, and malaria in years before.
In his post, Didier Raoult punted hydroxychloroquine — a malaria drug — as a 100% cure for Covid-19. The study he referenced was of his own design and was later disowned by the scientific community because there was no evidence to back up his claims.
Still, he was touted as an anti-vax hero, and thousands of people came to believe Bill Gates was genocidal, and that the vaccine was dangerous. News stations reporting on Bill Gates’ efforts legitimized the conspiracy, and only made things worse.
Therein lies the true horror of fake news. Most people believe the news is correct by default, or else it wouldn’t be in the news. In this case, an easy lie most likely cost people their lives, be it by rejecting the vaccine, or the belief that the virus “wasn’t that bad.”.
Remember when Reface was all the rage, and social media timelines were filled with your friends starring in Die Hard or Britney Spears music videos? Those were deepfakes — when A.I. replaces someone’s face or body with another person’s likeness.
It’s harmless fun when your father-in-law casts himself as Neo in the Matrix, but some fake news channels use deepfakes to spread misinformation. A well-timed and believable deepfake could do untold damage. Forge a politician’s appearance in a racy video or a celeb dropping slurs, and their career could plummet.
It’s disturbing, but it’s nothing new. Before deepfakes we had shallowfakes — largely the same, minus the use of A.I. — think Photoshop, or dubs.
Considering how sophisticated media manipulation has become, are deepfakes and shallowfakes the future of fake news? We can only hope not.
The good news is, some platforms take an active stance against it. Facebook, for example, banned misleading videos in 2020 — though it allows deepfakes as parodies or satire.
How Fake News Goes Viral
Paul Horner (1979-2017) made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years and was even credited as a hoax artist by many a prestigious publication. According to him, the rise of the fake news era, and its continued success, is ultimately our own fault.
Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it.Paul Horner
Paul may just have been sharing his opinion, but he hit the nail on the head. According to UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Information Technology and Society (CITS), fake news works so well because of cognitive bias — something we’re all culpable of even when you’re aware bias exists.
Cognitive Bias Explained
Defined as a “systematic deviation in rationality”, cognitive bias is our tendency to create subjective realities rooted in our personal experiences, beliefs, or preferences.
Picture someone who firmly believes women are worse drivers than men. If a man and a woman crash into each other, they’ll probably assume the lady was at fault, even though statistics show men are more likely to cause road accidents.
Cognitive bias is an umbrella term for a variety of mental shortcuts and lapses in reason — but one, in particular, is to blame for the fake news era:
Confirmation Bias — our willingness to accept information that validates what we already believe. Think about it. You wouldn’t promote a message you don’t agree with, possibly even if it were true. The opposite applies to fake news — it plays right into our need for validation.
The story of Bill Gates and his genocidal vaccine is a shining example of this. Those who opposed the vaccine welcomed all evidence against it — including a farfetched story about a multi-billionaire on a mission to wipe out African people.
True to Paul Horner’s words, even though all evidence suggests Bill Gates did not create a bio-weapon, it’s too late. The conspiracy theory is incredibly difficult to dislodge and probably won’t be forgotten by those who believe it.
Does Social Media Breed Fake News?
Fake news is much older than you may realize, pre-dating social media by centuries.
In the 13th century BC, Ramses the Great falsely reported the Battle of Kadesh as a magnificent victory, when in reality it was a stalemate. His lies spread via word of mouth and depictions of his “triumph” on temple walls. In reality, the battle was a bit of a dead end with no clear winner. Ramses deliberately spread false news to appease his people and cement his status in history as a great Pharoah.
One of the most prominent hoaxes in history, the Cottingley Fairies, gained traction and blind believers in 1917. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle believed it, and all he had to go on were forged photographs.
Not to mention countless instances of disinformation, like Nazi propaganda or the lies that sparked the Salem witch trials — all before the dawn of modern computers.
Why then is social media the scapegoat for information disorder? The answer is as simple as it is disappointing. The media isn’t to blame for fake news, humans are, and a lot of people spend time on social media.
Still, you can’t deny social platforms accelerate fake news because they’re perfectly designed to do so. First, they reaffirm confirmation bias because it’s all too easy to find like-minded people. Second, they’re ad-funded — which opens up a new can of worms.
Social media algorithms favor popular content. The more you engage with a post or topic, the more the platforms push it, and the more revenue it generates.
The problem is, controversial content gets more clicks and fake news suppliers take advantage of this. It’s easier to create a shocking headline or questionable thumbnail than it is to produce valuable content.
5-Minute Crafts is one of the worst offenders of this, for example. When you see a video entitled something like “Phone Repair Hacks that Will Save Your Life” coupled with a thumbnail of an iPhone submerged in ice, you can’t help but click on it.
Sensationalism — like fake news — existed well before the internet, but when content is deliberately produced to shock, annoy, or anger, it’s called outrage media. Fake news sites have mastered it.
Bots and Fake Accounts
In 2022, Elon Musk thought it would be wise to change how Twitter verified its accounts. Before his takeover, notable users had to submit proof of identification to get the verified badge on their profile. After, you only had to pay $8 a month.
Though he intended to remove the “Lords and peasants” system as he called it, he didn’t quite think things through. In no time, imposter accounts were posting controversial updates from “verified” accounts for Nintendo, Pepsi, AIPAC, Tesla, and other entities.
As disturbingly entertaining as the whole situation was, it perfectly portrays how easy it is to appear authentic online. If the Kremlin wanted to create a bunch of profiles pretending to represent legitimate American news sites, it can do that, as it has before.
With more effort, you can even generate bot accounts — A.I. profiles that mimic human behavior and speech. Design one well enough, and some people may not even be able to tell the difference. Bots are everywhere on social platforms today because they’re so efficient when it comes to posting.
We’ve all been there — we mention something in a direct message to a friend and get bombarded with ads for it.
It’s no secret that almost everything you do online is tracked in some way. Whether it’s your ISP, advertisers, websites, your browser, or the government; the links you click, how long you linger, and what you search for aren’t private.
Advertizers are especially guilty of monitoring online behaviors to target their content, ads, or products to people who show interest in them. It’s not unheard of that fake news is distributed to those more likely to engage with it, or even fall for it.
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The Psychological Effect of Fake News
Fake news isn’t simply a matter of corporations forcing clicks out of you — it’s dangerous. It can destroy reputations, oppress nations, and even spark civil unrest. If that seems far away, it could wreck your mental health as well.
Multiple studies show that fake news can lead to disorders like depression and anxiety. It seems like a cruel joke that depression, anxiety, and other disorders also make us more susceptible to fake news. There’s also evidence that fake news increases our feeling of cognitive dissonance — which again puts us at a higher risk of depression and anxiety. What a cycle!
Fake news can ruin your memory as well. Some studies suggest that misleading information can alter one’s original memories. One study found that misinformation caused subjects to recall entirely fabricated events, and that people with lower cognitive scores were more likely to show bias in what they recalled.
Then, we have to consider how our brains reward us with dopamine for certain social interactions. Since controversial posts get more engagement, subconsciously we’re more inclined to share them.
8 Ways to Spot Fake News
The first step in fighting fake news is learning how to recognize it. Keep the following in mind, and you’ll always be in the loop.
1. Unreliable Sources
Fake news sites have a lot of bark but no bite, so the first thing you should check is who published the report. Make sure they have verifiable sources and a good track record.
No news source is 100% impartial, but many outlets report accurate news regardless of partisan bias. The BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Washington Post are examples of trustworthy, if a little left-leaning, sources.
Others — like Buzzfeed News and Vox — should be taken with a grain of salt. They’re content farms first and news sources second. They may publish actual news, but their reports are often exaggerated, missing context, or opinion-based.
Your best bets are Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, and Reuters — widely regarded as some of the most credible news media companies respectively. ProPublica is another wise choice — it’s a nonprofit news publication with six Pulitzer Prizes to date.
2. Suspicious Author Credits
News articles don’t pop up from the ground. If you come across a story that has no name attributed to it, the first thing you should ask yourself is “why?”.
Respected publications always credit their journalists, so it’s an immediate red flag if you can’t pinpoint who created the work. More importantly, credible journalists have established reputations, and you won’t have to dig deep to find evidence of their validity. Some news sites link the author’s name to their post history or bio, which is a great way to gauge the writer’s expertise.
Be cautious though. Many publications hire ghostwriters or publish under pseudonyms. In this case, google and social media are your friends. If the name doesn’t seem to exist outside of the site, it’s likely not a real person.
3. Outdated Information
It’s extra important to check the date of the news you’re reading, and even more so to check how recent their references are. Some stories aren’t necessarily fake, but they’re older than dirt and therefore irrelevant and misleading.
Sometimes writers will take a true story, add some new details, and link something that happened a long time ago to present events. Distortion of the truth is the intention here.
Usually, the feature will have a strongly worded or controversial headline. This helps the piece spread extremely quickly, with many people not even bothering to read the details of the story or check when the events occurred.
4. Fake Domains, Handles, and URLs
With some fake sites, you’d probably be able to tell just from the name that they’re not exactly trustworthy. Others are less obvious. Some phony websites are replicas of genuine news publishers, and they’re often recreated so well you won’t instantly realize the difference.
One example is https://abcnews.go.com/ as opposed to https://abcnews.com.co/.
Just by looking, can you tell which one is fake?
The first is a valid news site. The second was a fake replica owned by Paul Horner. While live, it aimed to mimic the URL, site design, and logo of ABC News. Attention to detail is the key. If the URL has spelling errors, weird domains, or odd extensions, consider it a red flag.
For example, if you’re going to a local government website, it makes sense for the URL to have the .gov extension. Something like .tk, .ml, or .to would be strange. Similarly, https://shop.amazon.com is fine, but https://amazon.shop.com isn’t since in this case “shop” represents the actual website domain you’re visiting.
5. Missing or Doctored Photographs
Forging photographs is much easier than you’d think, thanks to image editing software like Photoshop. Perhaps the most absurd example is Fox News’ coverage during the 2020 Capitol Hill Riots. First, a photo published on the Fox homepage — of a man running across a burning street — wasn’t from the Capitol attack. It was taken during the George Floyd protests almost a year before.
Then, Fox dug an even deeper hole for themselves by badly Photoshopping an armed man into a picture of Capitol Hill’s Autonomous Zone. The good news is, it’s super easy to investigate the validity of any image you find online.
Ways to Verify Images
- Reverse image search. Simply right-click on the image, then select “Search image with Google” to find its source. You could also save the image and upload it to Google’s image search to find it online.
- Use tools like TinEye, FotoForensics, or Fake Image Detector to find out more about the images you come across.
- For videos, there’s a handy tool called InVid. Journalists use it to verify the authenticity of footage in news stories.
6. Double Check the Metadata
A simple trick to check if a source is fake news is to pay attention to the article’s tags. Most news websites host a variety of content, everything from politics to celebrity gossip — and they’ll label it appropriately.
Don’t mistake an opinion piece, human-interest essay, or lifestyle column for legitimate news, even if it’s published by reputable organizations.
7. Research the Research
Research is the most important thing you can do in the fake news era, but it goes beyond reading a Wikipedia article or watching a YouTube video on the topic.
When Ivermectin was making its rounds in the news, a lot of people shared articles detailing exactly how it was proven to be effective in fighting Covid-19. One popular study didn’t follow protocol, and even worse, the “researchers” were found to be affiliated with Ivermectin and published the review to promote it.
Genuine, unbiased studies all showed that Ivermectin wasn’t effective in treating Covid-19, and in some cases, worsened symptoms. Forging or skewing data can be effortless, so it’s extra important to read and verify the research fake news articles reference. Try to stick to peer-reviewed evidence and make sure to research the paper’s contributors.
8. Fact Check
If all else fails, there are many tools and resources you can use to double-check if the information is true. Snopes, FactCheck.Org, NPR Fact Check, and PolitiFact exist to debunk fake news, as do the image verifiers mentioned earlier.
You also have access to hundreds of content creators dedicated to breaking down the truth — just make sure that they’re qualified to speak on the fake news they’re addressing.
The information age might have fueled the rise of the fake news era, but it’s also the solution to it. You have a world of information at your fingertips, and can easily separate the truth from the lies with nothing more than an internet connection.
Unfortunately, governments often control and even skew the information available to you — some even going as far as to outlaw independent journalism and social media. We support digital freedom. Install CyberGhost VPN to bypass censorship, access unfiltered information, and retain your digital rights and privacy.
How to report and flag fake news
OK, so you’ve done all your detective work and you’re confident in your findings.
What’s next, now that you found a fake news post? To start with, you can report any article on most of the big websites and platforms. Here’s how:
Facebook and Instagram
- Click on the menu button on the top right of the post.
- Select Report Post.
- Choose False information.
- Select the option that best matches the post you’re reporting (Health, Politics, Social issue, or Something else).
- Finally, hit Submit.
If need be, you can report ads on Facebook and Instagram too. Open the menu, click Report ad, and then select False news. Doing so will automatically submit your report and remove the ad from your timeline.
- Find the tweet or profile you wish to report.
- Click on the menu icon.
- Select Report.
- Twitter will prompt you to answer a few questions relating to the tweet. Click Start report to begin. Cycle through the questions as accurately as you can.
- Tap and hold on the video you’d like to report.
- An options menu will pop up, select Report.
- Choose Harmful misinformation.
- Tap Submit.
- Take a screenshot of the site or article and save it.
- On the Google search results page, click on the three dots next to the result you’d like to report. A pop up will appear on screen. Click Send Feedback.
- A dialogue box appears where you can upload the screenshot and describe why you believe a site/article needs to be removed.
- Click Send and you just have to wait for the Google team to do the rest.
Who Is Fighting Fake News?
Outlawing fake news isn’t as simple as it seems. While a few governments have moved to implement anti-misinformation laws, almost all instances of this were met with resistance and controversy.
It may seem like a good idea to criminalize misinformation, but it’s near impossible to do so without breaching freedom of speech, thought, belief, or expression in some way. It’s also too easy for government entities to abuse this type of power for their own gain.
There’s little governments can do to stop fake news (besides, they’re often the perpetrators of it), but efforts are still made to quell information disorder. Most social media sites have measures against false news, be it warning labels, automated fake news detectors, or blocking pages known for spreading misinformation.
Is censoring or blocking fake news on social platforms a violation of free speech? No. Social media platforms are privately owned, and their owners have every right to set community guidelines and regulate them accordingly.
In 2022, after years of standing idly by, Google updated its optimization to minimize forced ranking with keyword stuffing — meaning unreliable sources can’t game the system as easily anymore.
Then, there are organizations working against fake news as well. One endeavor is the Journalism Trust Initiative, a partnership that includes Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Agence France Presse (AFP), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), and the Global Editors Network (GEN).
Don’t forget about the aforementioned resources, Snopes, FactCheck, NPR fact Check, and The Information Futures Lab — though there are too many to mention!
Will We Ever Say Goodbye to Fake News?
Misinformation is ingrained in society, and it’s unlikely it will ever truly disappear. Even so, it’s entirely possible the current trends will run their course, or new laws and regulations will end the fake news era.
Removing the financial incentive would be a big step toward improving things, but there will always be ideological and political motives that can’t be stamped out. In the meantime, all we can do is train ourselves to identify misinformation, so we don’t contribute to turning its wheels. After all, knowledge is power.
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