The problem of ‘fake news’, is one that probably concerns politics and international relations students the most, but could potentially affect students from a wide range of disciplines. It’s not just that fake news has become a political issue in recent months, although it certainly has. Imagine if, while writing an essay about something topical, you found yourself basing an argument on something that wasn’t true, or if you cited a fake news article as a piece of evidence? It could lose you a lot of marks. When writing about contemporary issues, you often find yourself relying on news to make up your sources, as it takes a long time for academic articles and books to catch up, so in these circumstances you have to be very vigilant to ensure you’re not caught out.
Fake news isn’t the same as bad journalism. Some news outlets do publish news that is poorly researched, filled with errors or even downright misleading, and that can be for ideological reasons. But fake news is entirely, or mostly, fabricated, with no attempt to report the facts.
Stories from satirical news websites certainly fall under this bracket, though they’re usually not shy about telling people what they are, and while some people might actually believe their stories, they are meant to be amusing. Other websites might publish stories that are completely fictitious just to garner web traffic, and, as a result, advertising revenue. Or, they might even just be doing it to influence public opinion.
If the story you’re reading isn’t from a big, well known news outlet like the BBC, New York Times, CNN or Al-Jazeera, check out the rest of the website. Some sites will state openly that they publish ‘fantasy news’ or satire. Others are less upfront. If they don’t have any information about their history, staff, physical location, and proper contact details, it’s quite likely they’re not a legitimate news organisation. There are also lists online of known illegitimate news sites, like this one.
It is possible that websites could try to dupe you into thinking they are a major news organisation – if in doubt, just put the organisations name into a search engine and their real website’s URL will come up at the top of the results.
Does the story seem like it should be huge? If other, especially big, media outlets aren’t reporting it, the chances are it didn’t happen. One example was a fake news report that Democratic senators were planning on imposing Sharia law in the US state of Florida. Now, you would imagine that would make major evening news headlines, at least in America, if it were true. Even if something that looks similar does come up on a reputable website, have a read of that article and see if it contains the same facts and references the same sources as the one you first came across.
A big giveaway with fake news stories is there won’t be any supporting evidence provided, or if it is, it comes from other dubious news sources. Sometimes, however, fakers will fabricate data, quotes and author’s names and try to pass them off as legitimate. If an article you suspect as being fake claims a certain government department said something, for example, run a search on it or look at that department’s website for statements and press releases. Sometimes they might cite a source which sounds credible because they know that most people won’t bother to double check the data themselves.
As an example, Donald Trump re-tweeted an incorrect graphic showing murder statistics by race, supposedly based on FBI crime data. The FBI’s crime data is publically available, so anyone would have been able to see for themselves that the figures cited by the graphic were, in reality, wrong. However, many people simply believe what they see without investigating further, which is a large part of the reason fake news is able to spread so widely.
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