In an interview published by Inc.com, 24-year-old Romanian Ovidiu Dobrota, from Oradea, Romania, boasted that his fake news site Ending the Fed had a substantial impact in supporting Donald Trump in the presidential elections. According to a Buzzfeed analysis, his boasting is well-founded.
The site was responsible for 4 out of 10 fake high-impact topics circulating on Facebook in the last three months of the US presidential election campaign. The analysis revealed that these four news items generated about 2,953,000 reactions, and the Facebook page of the Ending the Fed site managed to gather no less than 350,000 likes.
The author of the viral lies says that his site is “one of the largest in the world”, a statement that is added to the list of lies, with one disclaimer: the site enjoys impressive traffic for a page created and supported by a single person. Alexa measurements estimate that in November 2017, the site had 3.4 million unique visitors from the United States alone.
By comparison, Inc.com reports that the website of the well-known publication The San Francisco Gate attracted 8 million visitors, and The Intercept site, about 2.6 million. Already, at such an access level, one can speak of substantial income generated by pure lies. American Paul Horner, for instance—even though he openly admits that his site publishes fake, satirical news—said in an interview with the Washington Post that he currently earns no less than $ 10,000 from Google AdSense alone.
People like Ovidiu Dobrotă get rich because of the naivety of some of the internet users who have lost their trust in traditional sources of information and who are looking for satisfactory alternatives. However, injustice could be limited if we arm ourselves with verification tools before we believe or distribute news. To make it easier, here are some vital tips for verifying any news that claims to be true.
1. What is the source?
This question has so many ramifications that the whole tutorial could be limited to it and would be able to seriously equip any internet user in search of truthful information. But let’s take them one at a time.
When a news item with a headline that you find interesting appears in the newsfeed, first see who posted it. And no, I’m not only talking about the friend who shared it but the page where they found the material. Sometimes it is enough to correlate the name with that title for the first question marks to start popping up.
Descriptions like “Mysteries”, “Passion,” “True Conspiracies,” or other titles of this kind should make you think about the site’s purpose. Bombastic, inciteful, panic-inducing, and vague or incomplete headlines are also signs that the site is not primarily intended to inform, so it should be avoided. If the title is serious, see what other titles are published on that page. If it is covered in adverts for hidden cures for cancer, amazing discoveries about the origins of all diseases, and things like that, alarm bells should go off.
After going through these filters and opening the material, aim to find out the source of the information it contains. Is the material referenced? Does anyone take responsibility for it? What can you find out about the author? Do they appear somewhere else on Google? What else did they write? If they describe themselves as the winner of ten Pulitzer Prizes for journalism, can you find their distinctions on the Pulitzer Prize page? If the site has taken over the material from another place (another site), apply the above-mentioned filters to it.
Next, scan the information. This involves, among other things, reading the entire material. Never draw conclusions just from the title. Fake news writers often argue the information they write by appealing to institutions with authority in the field they are writing about. However, if you search for the information on the website of the institutions mentioned, you will find that the information is nowhere to be found.
Other times, authors of fake content quote studies that do not exist or that have different conclusions from those they use in their articles. To find out if this is the case for the material you are reading, you can search for the study on Google. If the study exists and has been around long enough, you will surely find it quoted in other online studies. If it exists and is new, you will certainly find at least its abstract online and you will be able to read its hypothesis and conclusions yourself.
The key tip is: try to find the primary source, read the information from a source as close as possible to the respective events or from experts in that field. In this way, you will also protect yourself from those involuntarily pieces of fake news, written by editors who did not really understand the subject they are writing about or who misunderstood the information in their documentation, and have further disseminated it erroneously.
Avoid reading sites that only quote themselves to prove a news story.
2. When did it appear?
Not all fake news is completely fake. Some end up lying by treating old and real events as current. This was the case, for example, in 2015, when many sites posted an old picture of a Salafist Muslim at an urban protest claiming that he was a refugee who had arrived in Europe at that time.
Other fake news is actually copying old content and changing its release date. Unfortunately for the authors of such materials, the internet does not forget. A simple Google search for that material can reveal the entire history of the information.
3. Check with others
Another way to make sure the news story you read isn’t fake is to use Google to see where that information came from. The Google News section in particular can be very helpful, but since much of the fake news circulating on the internet starts with counterfeit images, it will be just as useful to use Google Images to check which other places on the internet display that same picture and in what form. This way you will be able to easily identify the fake images and sometimes it is even possible to find out their history.
Some sites may claim to provide you with exclusive information, and you may not expect to find that information elsewhere. But it should make you think, for example, how only one site in Romania knows that there are weapons of mass destruction in a foreign country…
4. Don’t let others guide your fears
Many fake news stories are successful because they are built to respond to readers’ fears. A lot of them are profoundly negative: they predict political disasters, natural disasters, world wars, or even the end of the world. These are perhaps easier to identify as myths, but there are also sites that take advantage of people’s fears, and promote lies that are more difficult to detect without more serious research. This includes, for example, lies about unverified remedies for serious illnesses, superstitious therapies, miracle weight loss recipes, and more.
5. Share responsibly
The amplification of the fake news phenomenon started as a matter of individual informational practices and ended up leading to the formation of a thought pattern that sociologists place under the concept of post-truth. Post-truth is the climate in which it is not the lie that is tolerated, but the inability or unwillingness to find out the truth.
As long as we are willing to tolerate politicians we know are lying—because lying has become an integral part of life, which we do not fight, but treat as an indispensable accessory—we ourselves will sabotage reality. We will agree to surround ourselves with people who believe in nonsense, or worse, we will end up counting ourselves among them.
Alina Kartman majored in Communications and Public Relations, but opted for a career in journalism. Having published more than 1,500 pieces of writing over her 13 years of media activity, Alina has senior editorial experience. She is part of the team who advanced semneletimpului.ro, the platform for the Signs of the Times magazine in Romania. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Programs and Investment Management.