Understanding Fake News: How to Identify and Prevent It

Written and Fact-Checked by 1440 Editorial Staff
Last updated

Fake news stories are made-up reports with no verifiable facts, quotes, or data to support their claims. Some fake news stories are fabricated to make the audience believe something that isn’t true. Other stories make untrue claims to get people to read them for advertising revenue. 

Fake news has a growing impact on society. 67% of Americans believe fake news causes confusion, and 38.2% admit to sharing a fake news story, either on purpose or unknowingly. Some groups actively produce and share fake news to influence elections or change public opinion. 

It’s important to understand that fake news stories have the intent to trick readers. You also need to grasp the difference between stories that are purposely fabricated to change opinions (disinformation) and stories that have journalistic errors or are poorly researched (misinformation). 

Here is a closer look at how to spot fake news stories and the steps you can take to verify a story before you accept it as fact.

Distinguishing Between Fake News, Satire, and Misreporting

Many untrue or inaccurate stories do not fall into the fake news category. Satire and genuine journalistic mistakes are examples of this. 

Satire uses humor to poke fun at social issues or criticize public figures or organizations. Satirical media is obviously meant for entertainment and social commentary, not news. Meanwhile, misreported news comes from errors during reporting or publication. 

Fake news is different from satire or misreporting in one important area: intention. Fake news creators deliberately fabricate stories and make sensational claims to deceive the audience. 

The Role of Satire in Media

Satire relies on humor, irony, and exaggeration.  It is often funny but usually contains a deeper commentary on flaws in society or culture or the poor behavior of people or organizations. The people who create satire have an understanding with their audience. Everyone knows that the stories are not true, even though the ideas behind them may have some commonly held truth. 

Fake news creators do not have the same understanding with their audience. They fabricate news stories to deceive the viewers or readers into believing false reports.

Misreporting vs. Disinformation

Intent also separates misreporting from the disinformation you find in fake news stories. Errors or poor reporting practices can result in mistakes. However, the other fundamentals of journalism will be present in misreported news stories. 

Often, reputable news platforms will issue corrections if they become aware of the errors. However, because fake news relies on inaccurate or false information to spread an untrue narrative, the authors do not issue corrections if someone points out the errors in their stories. 

How To Spot Fake News

Critical thinking is the first line of defense against fake news. Fabricated stories may be about different topics, but they often share the same qualities regardless of the subject. 

Here are some of the attributes you will commonly see in fake news stories. 

  • Sensational headlines and emotionally charged language designed to provoke outrage or excitement are red flags. 
  • A lack of legitimate sources is another signal of manufactured stories. Fake news stories will state information as fact, but you won’t be able to find any evidence to support the statements elsewhere. 
  • The absence of a dedicated news site is another clue. News sites and agencies may publish pieces on social media, but they will also upload them to their news site. If you can’t trace a story back to a legitimate site, it may be fake. 

These steps can help you spot many fake news stories. However, you may need to dig deeper if you want to detect more sophisticated fake news. 

Check the Source

When you visit a news website, you need to look for specific qualities. Some news outlets are well-established and have a long history of ethical reporting and careful fact-checking. While you may still have to consider objectivity and bias when getting news from these sources, you are not likely to encounter fake news. 

If you aren’t familiar with a news site, you can look at their “About” or “Editorial Policy” pages that explain their editorial process. You should also be able to see who wrote each story and if anyone else assisted in the research. 

Also, consider using reputable news aggregators. These sites collect and vet stories for accuracy and quality. They then publish or link to them via their website. Though they may not have as much information as major news sources, these sites should have an “About Us” page that details their process for choosing stories. 

Once you do your due diligence and ensure a news source is trustworthy, you can return in the future to get more reporting. 

Verify Facts

News sites have their own fact-checking policies, but you can verify their reporting on third-party fact-checking sites. These sites check facts of major news stories. Some, such as Snopes, allow you to submit reports or rumors for verification. 

You can also verify facts stated in quotes. Journalists may include quotes from political figures, celebrities, or executives in their news stories. While the article may be objective and verified, the claims made in the quote may not be. Sites like Politifact try to verify statements from political figures using information from other sources. 

Analyze the Evidence

While you can rely on trusted third parties and vetted news sites, you can also verify claims on your own. For instance, you could look for news stories from different sources on the same subject and see if they differ. While minor differences in viewpoints are common, the main details of the stories should be the same or very similar. 

The internet makes it easy to search for data, academic reports, or other information that could verify the evidence or claims in a news story. 

The Role of Social Media and Algorithms

Social media platforms can help fight fake news, but they also allow it to spread. 

Though these platforms enable communication and information sharing, their algorithms can contribute to the spread of misinformation. Social media sites use algorithms to select stories to show users, and this personalized content can include fake news stories. 

Also, people often share dramatic headlines, one of the hallmarks of fake news, without reading the entire article. The stories can go viral, tricking algorithms into sharing them even further. Even sites like Google aren’t immune to viral fake news stories.

Taking Action Against Fake News

Here’s how you can help take action against fake news. 

  • Don’t share fake news: Check sources or use fact-checking sites to confirm the information before hitting “share.” This ensures you’re not unknowingly contributing to the spread of disinformation. 
  • Think critically: Calmly point out inaccuracies and provide links to credible sources debunking the story. Some readers may use your resources even if they don’t engage with you. 
  • Be skeptical: Read stories carefully and beware of emotional appeals and gratuitous claims. Always verify articles from unknown sources before sharing. 

You can also share your process for vetting news stories with others so that they can use it when consuming news stories. 

Fake news is becoming more common, but you now have access to more tools and information to identify these fabricated stories and differentiate them from high-quality news sources.

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