Heard the phrase “fake news” lately? We thought so. Us, too. And… it’s getting old. But it’s a topic we have to talk about, because it has taken center stage in U.S. and world politics.
But what exactly is fake news? For many, it seems that the cry of “fake news” goes up as soon as reporting appears that contradicts their beliefs. However, there’s a lot more to the reality of fake news than that, and it’s more important than ever that we have the tools to distinguish fact from opinion—or downright fiction.
First, let’s define fake news. Depending on which resource you go to, there are anywhere between three and 10 types of fake news. The most comprehensive and well-researched of these resources was created by Claire Wardle of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenestein Center on Media, Politics and Public policy.
In this blog post, Wardle identified seven types of misinformation (accidentally inaccurate information) and disinformation (deliberately inaccurate information) and built a “misinformation matrix” that shows how the different types of fake news are used for an array of reasons, from poor journalism to outright propaganda.
She suggests that readers look out for the following:
- Satire or parody sites
- Misleading content
- Impostor content (when genuine sources are impersonated)
- Fabricated content
- False connection (also known as clickbait)
- Manipulated content (including doctored photos or information framed in a way as to deceive the reader)
While many like to solely place blame for spreading fake news on the right, that in itself is a perpetuation of the very issue at hand. Left-leaning sites spread mis- and disinformation, too.
With all this false news floating around, what can a person with a sincere desire to get to the truth of a subject do? The single best test to determine if a story you are reading is actually fake news is to subject it to what experts refer to as the CRAAP Test. Yep, we agree: it’s a perfect name for its purpose.
This acronym outlines five things to watch for when reading the news.
1. Currency: timeliness of the information
On social media, an outdated story can get a lot of mileage if people don’t look at the date when the news story originally appeared (or if the site itself doesn’t include a date). Ask yourself the following questions when reading news:
- When was the information published or posted? You can usually find this information in the story itself or sometimes in the web address for the story. If you can’t, be skeptical.
- If the story was published some time ago, has it been updated since?
- If you’re looking at a website, are all the links functional? If not, the page may be out of date.
2. Relevance: the importance of the information
Often, if you’re reading a news story, it’s relevant to you. But it’s worth asking the following questions as you read, as it can help you identify a potential bias (note that being biased doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “fake”—but it can create a one-sided view that is misleading).
- Who is the intended audience for this post?
- Have you looked at a variety of other sources to see if the information is well supported? Are there links to research or other articles on different sites? If there is no source information, be skeptical.
- Would you be comfortable citing the source in a debate?
3. Authority: the source of the information
It’s important to know the source of any news story before you share it, so here are some important questions to ask.
- Who is the publisher of the news story you’re reading? Be aware that some fake news sites can look very convincingly like real ones and even have names that make them sound like legitimate news sources.
- Are there other authoritative and non-biased news sources that corroborate claims made in this article? If there are no other sources, or if all the corroborative information is from sites known to be biased, be skeptical.
- Does the author have sufficient credentials to write about the subject? This question is particularly important if you’re reading a story about science, as there are a number of sites that spread pseudoscience, generally in combination with conspiracy theories (“’big pharma’ doesn’t want you to know about this miracle cure,” for example).
- Is there an “about” page with contact information?
4. Accuracy: the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content
Inaccurate information can spread like wildfire over the internet, and often similarly oriented sites will share the same story. Ask yourself:
- Is the information in the article you’re reading supported by evidence? Does it contain any logical fallacies? Check the story against these logical fallacies, and if it fails the test… be skeptical!
- Does the story have a sensationalized “clickbait” headline?
- Can you verify the information from another reliable source—preferably one that isn’t similar to the site on which you found the information?
- Is the source a satire site like The Onion or The Babylon Bee?
- If the source shows a disturbing or outraging photo, have you done a reverse image search in Google to find out where the photo was first used?
- Have you used a fact-checking site such as Snopes or FactCheck.org to see if there’s a question about the accuracy of the information?
5. Purpose: the reason the information exists
Why does the story you’re reading exist? It could be that the site is satire, or because the content is sponsored and designed to sell a product. Maybe the purpose is to provide factual, non-biased reporting, or maybe it’s specifically designed to be biased and partisan. It’s important to dig in a little bit and try to understand why a site published a story, and what it hopes to get in return for that content.
- Is it supposed to inform, teach, sell (such as a sponsored post), entertain, or persuade?
- Do the authors make their intention or purpose clear?
- Is the information fact, opinion, fiction, satire, or propaganda (information given out to purposely deceive)?
- Does the source have political, ideological, cultural, religious, institutional, or personal biases? Keep this in mind as you read, as it will allow you to identify potential issues (it may also help you understand an opposing viewpoint).
Critical thinking is key for detecting fake news
With all the misinformation and disinformation floating around the internet—whether in the form of a meme with unsupported statistics, a story designed to outrage readers, a piece of poor journalism, or a doctored photo—it’s more important than ever to think critically about what you see and hear. We all have knee-jerk reactions when we see outraging or emotionally appealing content, and our inclination is to hit that share button right away or comment on a piece we’ve only read the headline to.
Our challenge: In order to be a well-informed citizen and avoid spreading fake news, apply the CRAAP test to every story you see (not just those you disagree with).
One last test—if you made it all the way through this article (versus just reading the headline), drop us a comment to let us know!