Section 1, Lecture 1
How to detect false information
- How can we know if a story we read, a photo we see, or a video we watch, is accurate or not?
Here are the questions to ask to find out:
Where was it published – is the source credible?
Who said it – is the person credible?
Is the story fact-based and balanced – or is it emotional and makes you angry?
Are there any logical fallacies in the story?
Is there any data available to prove its accuracy?
Where was it published?
The source of the information is the first thing to check.
What is the name of the newspaper/website that published the story? Have you heard of the site before? If not, read the “About” section on the website and look up the website on Wikipedia or MediaBias/FactCheck for more information about the source.
Check the URL of the website – sometimes fake web sites are designed to imitate respected websites or newspapers from the past. For example, in 2019 EU DisinfoLab, an EU-based NGO focussed on researching sophisticated disinformation campaigns, discovered 265 online news sites using the names and brands of defunct newspapers from the 20th century to push anti-Pakistan media coverage inside the regular news cycle. All these news sites were registered using a domain that either mimicked the name of a popular local news site or used the name of a defunct newspaper.
For example, when you see a site with a domain name extension like .com.co, you might want to search to see if it can be trusted. The site might look professional and even seem similar to the original one, but it might not be one you can trust.
Check: does the website have contact details? Does it have a list of the people who wrote the stories? Does this particular article have an author? When people use their own names and faces, they feel more responsible for the stories they write.
Check to see if any other (legitimate) news sources are reporting the same story. If not, chances are good that it is made up.
Check the date. Some false stories aren’t completely fake, but claim that something that happened long ago is related to current events. Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events.
Also, keep in mind that some news organizations allow bloggers to post under the banner of particular news brands, but many of these posts do not go through the same editing process.
Who said it?
Look at the quotes. Who said them? What do you know about the people quoted? Are they real? If quoted as “experts,” are they really experts? Can you find more information about them? Search the Internet for more information about the author. Search LinkedIn, a social media site for professionals, search Twitter and Facebook.
Bogus stories may cite official — or official-sounding — sources, but once you look into it, the source doesn’t back up the claim.
What if there are no quotes? Most trustworthy publications have multiple sources in each story and quote professionals who have expertise in the fields they talk about. If a news story has no quotes, it is cause to be careful.
If the news was posted on social media, who posted it? Is the person real? Is she a human being or a bot — an automated account? To learn more about bots, see the chapter How to spot bots and detect fake accounts.
On Twitter, verified accounts have a blue “verified” badge that lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.
Similarly, on Facebook the badge appears next to the name on a verified account’s profile and next to the account name in search results.
Is the story fact-based and balanced?
Do you get angry reading the story? If you do, it is probably based on emotions and not on facts, and more than likely not balanced.
Does the reporter quote more than one source? If the reporting only reflects one side of a dispute, a false impression of events can be conveyed.
Does the headline include a question mark or uses ALL CAPS? That might mean that the story is meant to be sensational, and is a potential sign that the source you’re looking at should be verified.
Read beyond the headline. Even in legitimate news stories, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story. If the headline is exaggerated or provocative, it’s a good idea to search about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to mislead you – or to get clicks and shares.
Check your own biases. People tend to believe information that confirms their beliefs, and discount information that doesn’t. This does not mean this information is correct.
Are there any logical fallacies in the story? Logical fallacies are often used to mislead the reader – they create an illusion of a logically sound argument. If a story makes you angry, you might be experiencing a logical fallacy, such as an appeal to emotion or an ad hominem (from the Latin for “to the person”) attack. These are two of the most common fallacies.
Logical fallacies described by DRFLab.
To learn more about logical fallacies, see the chapter How to detect logical fallacies.
Is there any data available to prove the accuracy of the information?
Photos, videos, statistics, studies – all can be added to stories to make them seem more credible. Unfortunately, photos and videos can be altered or used in another context. Studies and statistics can be misinterpreted.
When an article mentions a study, go directly to the source to verify the findings. Consult the experts.
When an article contains statistics, find the data the statistics is based on. If you can’t find it, contact the author of the story and ask.
To find out if a video or a photo used in the article is relevant and is not altered, use OSINT tools that are available on internet. To learn more about open source tools, see the chapter What is OSINT and how it can be useful.
Is it a joke?
Sometimes when a story is exaggerated and unbelievable, it might be satire. Well-known web sites like The Onion and ClickHole use satire to talk about current events. If people don’t understand that, they might share these articles after reading them in the literal sense.
And finally, use your common sense. Ask yourself if the story is really plausible. If you have doubts, if the story makes you angry or seems sensational, check before you share.