5 Tips for Spotting Fake News

How not to embarrass yourself or enable internet trolls.

Another day, another controversy from presidential candidate Donald Trump. And University of North Texas sociology professor George Yancey has had enough. Yancey logged on his computer and saw this headline: “Donald Trump: ‘If Black Lives Don’t Matter Here Go Back to Africa.’” Given Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, Yancey assumed the story was true. Fed up, he wrote an angry response on Facebook. Then he realized that the story was fake. “You probably know about confirmation bias,” he told CT. “I was a victim of that. I saw what I expected to see.” Yancey isn’t alone in being fooled by fake news. This week, the stock market was hoodwinked by a story, posted at Bloomberg.market, that Twitter was about to sold. The story looked like every other story posted by Bloomberg News, and Twitter’s price began to soar. But the story was fake, filled with misspellings and other errors, and before long Twitter’s price began to settle down. Among other recent fake stories was this shocker, allegedly from NBC News: “Christian Pastor in Vermont Sentenced to One Year in Prison After Refusing to Marry Gay Couple.” Only the story wasn’t from NBC. It was from NBC.com.co—a fake website, filled with ads, and hosted on an overseas website. “We are all too gullible,” warned my friend, Ed Stetzer, this week. Hoax stories like these are likely to become more common as hoaxers become more sophisticated, warned Dan Gillmor, a journalism professor at Arizona State who specializes in digital media. “That means we all have to pay more attention, all the time, and take nothing immediately at face value,” Gillmor wrote.

Here are five tips on how to spot a fake news story:

  1. Check the Source

Be wary of stories linked to sites ending in “.ru” or “.co” or other unfamiliar domain names—especially if they are linked to a more reputable site, like NBC news, says Joel Kilpatrick, founder of Lark News, a Christian satire site. Those domains—as well as new ones like .market—are clues that a site may not be what it appears. Other sites may try to trick you by misspelling a respected news outlet’s name or leaving out a letter or two. Another quick signs of a fake news story: “If it includes the words ‘Obama’ and ‘End times’ in the same headline, it’s probably not true,” says Kilpatrick.

  1. Keep a Mental List of Fake News and Satire Websites

Most people know that The Onion, despite being “America’s Finest News Source” is fake. But it still fools social media users. Less well known are the Daily Currant, LovethatNews.com, Duffleblog, National Report, and World News Daily Report, which had its own fake “pastor arrested for turning down gay wedding” story this week. The people who run these sites want to tell you just enough truth to fool you, at least for a moment, and to have a good laugh with you. Or at you. A good fake news story, “walks the elusive but rewarding line between what is and what could be,” says Kilpatrick. “You want people thinking, ‘This sounds like it could really be true. Is it?’ It pushes reality somewhat but not too much.”

  1. Be Slow to Anger

A story may also be fake “if it voices your inner fears so precisely that, with a little help, you could have written it yourself,” says Kilpatrick. In other words, if a story makes you mad, count to ten and take a deep breath before reposting. Satire sites are trying to reveal our insecurities and worries, says Kilpatrick. “That’s sort of the point of good fake news: to take people’s anxieties and opinions right now, in this cultural moment, and make merciless fun of them,” said Kilpatrick. But our anxieties can fool us into mistaking fiction for fact. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, likes to say that “morality binds and blinds.” “It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth,” he wrote. “It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.” In other words, morality—which informs our gut reactions—is good because it builds community. But it also builds competition, where we look at people who hold different viewpoints as the enemy. A fake news story can be appealing when it helps us hate the people we want to hate.

  1. Snopes is Your Friend

The myth-busting website has links to hundreds of debunked news stories and urban legends. It even has a top-25 list of urban legends and fishy stories, such as the “relentlessly gay” garden in Baltimore and the completely false stories about a Sandy Hook shooting. Remember the old adage of the legendary and now-shuttered Chicago News Bureau: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Look for confirmation of breaking news—or of some unbelievable story—on more than one site, especially if the news comes from an unfamiliar source, a social media pastor, or even from your pastor’s sermon.

  1. Wait For the Whole Story

News outlets’ rush for a breaking news often means that the first stories aren’t always the most accurate ones. That was the case in April 2013, when news broke that the Pentagon had blocked access to the Southern Baptist Convention’s website. Military computers labeled the website content as “hostile,” leading to claims of censorship. “This is another example of the growing hostility toward evangelical Christians in the Armed Forces,” retired Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin told Breitbart.com at the time. Though his name was misspelled Boykins: a sign that a site didn’t do its homework or rushed to judgment. It turns out that the SBC’s website was in fact hostile—because it was loaded with malware at the time, which triggered the Pentagon’s filters to block the site. Once the malware was erased from the SBC site, the block was lifted and all was well that ended well.

Bob Smietana is Christianity Today’s senior editor for news.