How to Spot Fake News

How bad is the fake news phenomenon?

A man who was "self-investigating" a fake news story was arrested after shooting his assault rifle in a Washington, D.C. pizzeria.

President-Elect Trump fired a member of his transition team for sharing fake news.

And the Wall Street Journal is attracting new readers by promising their stories are "created, curated and checked in a real newsroom."

The good news is you don't have to subscribe to the Journal to get "real" news. You just have to know how to spot the fake stuff. Having spent the past three years speaking to audiences around the country and writing a book about misleading information, here are the questions I think you should be asking:

  1. Who is reporting the story? Some media outlets are (much) more trustworthy than others. Is it possible for The Washington Post to publish a fake story? Of course. Is it likely that they'll do this on a regular basis? Probably not, because their readership and reputation are built on trust. Consider the historical accuracy of the media outlets you follow.

  • Who is the source? In today's media-saturated environment, you don't have to be a true expert to be heard -- you just need to be loud and have an opinion. When you read the news, think carefully about the credentials of the people being quoted. What makes them an expert? Just because you have a million fans on Facebook or you're a self-proclaimed "leading scientist" doesn't mean you actually know what you're talking about.
  • What are the facts? Unfortunately, facts are taking a bit of a beating these days. The Oxford dictionary chose "post-truth" as the word of the year. But if you want to be a smarter consumer of data, it's more important than ever to look for information that is verifiably true -- not just opinions and spin and false data. Here's a simple trick: when you see a story and you're not sure if it's true, Google the headline and add the word "false." If the story isn't true, you're likely to get links from Snopes.com and other fact-checking sites explaining why it's wrong.
  • Is it a hoax? "Breaking: Two Explosions in the White House and Barack Obama is injured." That was the message posted by the Associated Press Twitter account on April 23, 2013. Investors panicked, stock prices plummeted, and the S&P 500 lost more than136 billion over the course of just two minutes. But, as I explained in my book, it was all a hoax. The Associated Press was hacked. The news was wrong.
  • From the internet to talk radio and beyond, it's almost impossible to escape fake news. And with social media and other tools, these fake stories are spreading faster than ever and having an increasingly large impact. But by asking a few smart questions, you can make sure (in the immortal words of Pete Townshend) that you won't get fooled again.

    This blog is a collaboration with my Everydata co-author, Mike Gluck.