Spotting fake news online in 4 quick steps

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Having the right information at the right time leads to successful settlement. Searching online is the fastest and easiest way to get information especially at this time when in-person services are limited. But with so much misinformation (and disinformation) flooding the internet, how do you know which content to trust?

What is fake news?

Fake news can be articles, images or videos that are false. Some of these are unintentionally wrong but others are meant to manipulate perceptions or opinions, or to generate advertising income. Such content can fool you because they can look legitimate and some intentionally play on your vulnerabilities. Fake news also spreads quickly because of bots or because users comment on, share or retweet them on social media.

Common types of fake news online:

  1. Fake headlines – These are headlines with extreme claims (often without evidence or citing fake studies) like “Lose 50 lbs. in a week” or “You won’t believe how easy this family won 2 million dollars”. These are called “click-bait.” Posters earn money from the number of clicks or views. These can also be gateways to malware or viruses. Content is usually skewed to encourage readers to buy a service or product. This means information is biased and therefore not reliable.
  2. Propaganda – Materials that contain disinformation meant to persuade people to favour one person or idea, or to push an agenda. It contains fabricated (or misaligned) content that aim to activate fears or strong beliefs. An example of this are conspiracy theories.
  3. Satire/Parody – This is humorous content meant for entertainment. It uses irony, sarcasm, exaggeration or ridicule to make fun of people or situations (usually in politics or popular culture). Content is written in a mock-serious tone which is why it can fool those who are not well-informed (or not in on the joke). Examples of satire can be found on The Beaverton or The Onion.

How false news spreads, TED Ed

Four steps to spot fake news:

  1. Judge by the cover

    Tell-tale signs include haphazard layouts or weird website names. As mentioned, if the headlines are too provocative or unbelievable, it could be click-bait. Another sign is when it has grammar and spelling errors. Lastly, check if there is a label. News sites mark advertising content with “sponsored” or “ad” so that you’ll know that it’s not news.

  2. Read critically

    Here are a few questions to ask:

    • Is it logical?
    • Are claims backed by an expert or reliable source? (see #3 below)
    • How good is the evidence?
    • What are the assumptions being made?
    • Do the claims benefit any particular person or group?
    • Is the information up to date?

    It’s important to be discerning especially in matters of health, safety and well-being.

  3. Check the source

    See if the author and website are known to be credible and reliable. Read the author’s credentials (usually found at the end of the article or by clicking on their name. You can also use Google to know more). Always take information shared on social media with a grain of salt. Not all viral content are reliable or factual.

  4. Verify information

    Use tools to research and verify information. Check out links if the article lists its sources. See if they are credible, meaning they’re unbiased and current, and if the authors are experts. Another good sign that a source is credible is if it is cited by major publications or other reliable institutions like the government, other experts, or the academe.

    You can also go to fact-checking sites, especially for political and scientific information. Go to:

    • – Debunks rumours and false claims online on a wide range of topics.
    • Facts Can – Canada’s political fact checker.
    • Politifact – Rates social media posts and articles on their “Politifact Truth-o-meter” (however, issues are more US-centric)
    • Fact – Checks current events and viral news.

Lastly, make it your rule to use only reliable websites and never share unverified information. Remember, everyone plays an active role in eliminating fake news.

Sources: “Fake news,” lies and propaganda: How to sort fact from fiction, Michigan Library (Research Guides); Fact checking sites and other tools, Lakehead University Library; What is fake news? Definition, types, and how to detect them, Digital Guide IONOS; Accessed January 14, 2021.

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Community Resources

Read: Be media smart! Assessing online information in 5 steps for more media literacy tips.

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