How to Spot and Debunk Fake News

It’s easier than ever for someone to create a website and post completely made up stories that become international headlines. This makes it harder to tell truth from fiction or share news with others who may not be able to tell the difference either. Luckily, fake news isn’t too difficult to spot. Here’s how, and how to filter it out of your feeds.

A collection of headlines from a site that openly makes up stories.

Whether or not you think fake news determined the outcome of the 2016 election, it certainly had an influence on it. This year we saw a growing number of sites designed to get attention with completely made-up stories. At best, these sites misinform people who read them, and at worst they drown out legitimate news in a ceaseless flood of stories that need to be debunked. Often these sites will bill themselves as “satire” or claim they are “for entertainment purposes,” though they may omit the disclaimer entirely. Writers for these sites don’t aim for anything even resembling authenticity.

A man named Paul Horner created several such sites. He owns several real-sounding URLs including nbc.com.co, and abcnews.com.co. Note the extraneous “.co” at the end of those sites. None of these are associated in any way with the news organizations they’re named after, but if you don’t look too closely at the link you click on, they appear legitimate. These sites offer entirely made up stories that could sound real if you’re not very well informed, or looking for something to subsidize your world view.

One of Horner’s sites claims that President Obama will run for a third presidential term. This is illegal l under the 22nd Amendment. Another claims that Obama signed an executive order to investigate the results of the 2016 election and to schedule a “revote” for December 19th. This is also illegal, and impossible. Even though these stories are obviously fake, the idea that they could be true gets people riled up. They get passed around anyway, used as ammo for arguments and viral bait for people looking for something to support their confirmation biases. As a result, those sites get huge advertiser revenue.

Horner himself said in an interview with The Washington Post, this happens because his readers don’t fact check stories. The New York Times similarly interviewed fake news site owner Beqa Latsabidze, who said that generating fake stories “is all about income, nothing more.” While both Horner and Latsabidze claim their sites operate as “satire,” it’s an open secret that if no one fell for the ruse, their sites would have a harder time making money. To make matters worse, Facebook has a vested interest in showing readers stories they like, even if they’re not true. As Gizmodo reported, Facebook has the tools to shut down fake news sites, but have failed to use them because they were afraid it would make them appear biased. Instead, your friends or even Facebook’s trending news module could potentially bring you completely false news stories and Facebook will reward it exactly as if it were true.

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