Dean Traylor splits his time being a special education teacher and a freelance writer.
Real or Fake News?
The presidential election of 2016 finally came to an end and the victors celebrated. Donald Trump won the presidency and all those that supported him savored the moment. Yet, in the midst of this hoopla, something went nearly unnoticed; a small group of political writers and bloggers were speaking up about one disturbing aspect of the election. The topic in question was the intent behind a plethora of anti-Hillary/ pro-Trump articles, ads, and memes they, themselves, published on the Internet.
- Among the first to come forward were two bloggers from Long Beach, California. In an interview with a Washington Post reporter, the two detailed how they flooded the Internet with political stories about the “evils” of Hillary Clinton and the liberal Democrats.
- In another interview, a self-described “satirist” mentioned that he created a Craigslist posting that announced job openings within the Democratic National Committee as paid protesters for the upcoming inauguration.
- Afterward, more came forward detailing how and why they wrote some of the most salacious anti-Hillary articles on the Internet.
Many of these postings were effective in terms of galvanizing pro-Trump supporters and persuading some independent voters to go with Trump. However, these Internet postings had something else in common: the stories were complete works of fiction, better known as fake news.
How to Recognize Fake News
So how does one avoid fake news? One can filter them through social media; however, that won’t completely stop the flow of these stories. Instead, the first line of defense from these stories is to identify them. In many cases, they are easy to spot. Alternatively, it may require the reader to dig a little deeper into the article. That may include the need to check the source, recognize the intent, and most importantly, spot the errors (grammatically or logically) within its words. Here are several ways one can spot these stories.
1. Fake News Is (Sometimes Purposely) Poorly Written
Many fake news stories are hard to read. They jump from one subject to the next and are filled with several grammatical errors. Many amount to rambling rants that are so garbled that one has to read them several times in order to get an idea of what the writer is talking about.
It’s not definitive evidence. Some of these writers simply don’t have strong writing skills, or it’s possible that English is not their first language. Still, there appears to be some correlation that fake news articles lack proper editing before being published. But, before one dismisses this as merely a sign an amateur blogger that doesn’t understand that editing is part of the writing process, one must realize that the nature of the fake news industry is the following:
- Most articles are rushed to print by the writers.
- Most writers realize that many people will skim rather than peruse the article.
- The headline is the most important part of the story.
- It only needs to be semi-coherent; the rest can be fluff.
As the writers interviewed for the Washington Post article stated—as well as other fake news writers that have come forward have verified—the immediacy and timing of the articles are essential. And, as they’ve said, the target audience has a tendency to overlook (or not fully realize) the sloppy nature of these stories.
One of the two interviewees said it took him 10 to 30 minutes to write the article and publish it. By the time somebody would notice the frequent spelling errors or run-on sentences, the article will have over 1000 views within an hour or two of posting it!
Also, they’d received comments (as mentioned verbatim in the Washington Post): “YOU ARE THE ONLY ONE I TRUST TO REPORT THE TRUTH!,” or “Down with Globalists!” Rarely did any of their readers point out spelling errors or sentence fragments.
2. The Headline Doesn’t Match the Story
A major reason these articles are rushed is that most readers tend to pay more attention to the headline. Often a good headline will pique a reader’s interest. In many cases, it may be the only thing that a reader will read.
Fake news articles thrive because of the peculiar nature of readers. And, in many cases, the headlines serve mostly as “click-bait” that may draw someone to click on the headline and possibly view the story. However, most news sites may have overly sensationalistic headlines that have little to do with the actual story. It should also be noted that advertisers and spammers on the Internet use this tactic, too.
Recently, the right-leaning site, Freedom Daily, had the following headline: “42 Shot to Death in Independence Day Massacre – Trump Just Released SHOCKING Statement to America.”
The headline implied that there was a shooting or mass killing in a major American city during the weekend before Independence Day. However, the first paragraph indicated that the story was about President Trump giving a warning to the “thugs” in Chicago that he’ll be doing something drastic to stop the violence after his initial warning had been ignored. The last line of the first paragraph gave away the true intent of this story:
- “Now, Trump has released a shocking statement that proves these murderous people messed with the wrong president.”
The story, in other words, was a pro-Trump opinion piece rather than a breaking hard news story. Although the article mentioned the high rate of homicide, it didn’t mention anything about 42 people getting killed during the weekend in one event or multiple ones. In fact, all he said was that he was sending “federal help” to take on the “crimes and killings in Chicago” that have reached “epidemic proportions.”
3. The Story Can't Be Validated
The example given by Freedom Daily sheds light on another aspect of fake news. They lack validity. In the case of news stories, validation merely means that the topic of the story has been written and published by another news source. No other media was reporting that 42 people were killed in Chicago. Fake news tends to be unique to one site or to other sites with similar ideologies.
One easy example to illustrate this point—and possibly one of the most bizarre—was recently found on InfoWars. A guest that was interviewed for a podcast by Alex Jones suggested that there was a secret NASA base on Mars that enslaved children. Aside from NASA denying the report, there was nothing (no other news outlet, government papers, eye-witness accounts, or others to verify this claim) there to validate this outlandish tale.
4. The Story Has a Questionable Source
One way to identify a fake news report is to trace where it came from. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many fake reports are stories that have been passed along from one site to another (this is particularly true about stories with a lot of vagueness attached to it—which will be discussed later). Still, the sites that often pick these particular stories can give some indication if a story is real or not. Left-leaning Bipartisan Report and the conservative site, The Drudge Report, tend to cull unverified stories from questionable blogs. Also, mainstream publications – especially several print and Internet newspapers—usually do the same thing to fill in spaces on a page (some have sections with such titles as Weird News, Bizarre News, or Strange News where unverified non-political news tends to be mentioned as news briefs).
Facebook or Twitter users with strong ideological beliefs (sometimes referred to as “that crazy uncle”) have been responsible for a majority of these articles being disseminated throughout the Internet.
Still, an article that can be traced to a particular site can be false or misleading; especially if the site engages in dubious subject matters or ideologies. Here are a few examples of publications to be wary of:
- Supermarket tabloids such as Weekly World News and The National Enquirer
- Alternative medicine: Huffington Post’s Health and Science section, Natural News
- Right Wing sites and publications: Freedom Daily, Western Journalism, Breitbart News
- Left Wing sites and publications: Bipartisan Report, American against the Tea Party
- Satirical or Parody sites: The Onion
- Conspiracy/paranormal sites: Before-It’s-News, InfoWars
- From individual blogs: Allen West, Herman Cain
Of these, the satirical sites often get misidentified as real news, despite numerous warnings from the publishers. These particular sites will either give indication throughout the article or will directly state at the bottom of an article that it is satire or parody. Still, these stories have been picked up by other sites and reported as being real.
Most stories will have links to their original site. And, many of these sites will have a “FAQ” or “About” page. They should give a mission statement or access to other articles on the site.
Finally, let’s not forget one very important source. Facebook or Twitter users with strong ideological beliefs (sometimes referred to as “that crazy uncle”) have been responsible for a majority of these articles being disseminated throughout the Internet. Thus, friends or relatives you may have on social media may be doing you a disservice by passing along these false narratives.
5. The Writers Don’t Believe Their Own Story
If there was one thing that emerged from the confessions made by bloggers and Internet writers (as well as some investigation by several news and fact-checking sites), not all the writers believe or have knowledge about the subject they are writing about. The bloggers and satirists who came forward in 2017 indicated they felt ashamed for what they did.
However, the most shocking case of writers not believing their own fake news, came from the revelation that a village in Moldavia had started a cottage industry of creating anti-Hillary/Pro-Trump blogs. When interviewed, many of these bloggers either didn’t know who Trump or Hillary Clinton was, nor were interested in U.S. politics. Instead, many from this town may have seen a chance to make money by appealing to a particular audience of Trump supporters.
6. The Details Are Too Vague
Another major indicator of a fake article is not so much what has been written; it’s what’s missing. An example was an article about the Antarctic Pyramids myth. The original story came from a defunct science blog before it was passed around and published on various websites and blogs. The article was about the discovery of “man-made” pyramids in Antarctica. Such a story would have been covered by major media; however, it only made its round on social media and conspiratorial websites and blogs. Larger publications didn’t bother with it. And one read can indicate why; the story was devoid of critical details such as the name of the expedition that found them; the identity of the individual scientists involved; and the locations (which would come later when somebody added Google Earth coordinates for an obscure mountain top that sort of looked like a pyramid).
Other Factors to Consider
There are other questions readers must ask themselves when they stumble upon a fake news article. Here are a few questions one can ask and answer:
- Is the story a meme? Memes are usually very brief and not created to pass along facts. And many have been misleading or totally wrong.
- Did it originate on Twitter from a known huckster?
- Does it sound too good (or horrifying) to be true?
- Is it designed to promote an ideology?
- Is it actually an elaborate marketing campaign?
- Does it contain phrases such as “the government or the mainstream media doesn’t want you to know this but . . . ”?
- Does it hijack the word “truth” and twists it to affirm one’s confirmation bias toward an ideology or belief?
- Did it come from President Trump (since he’s known to be a huge consumer and believer of stories that would usually be deemed fake)?
The questions can go and on. Still, the reader needs to be wary and do some research on a particular article rather than accepting it as the truth.
The History of Fake News: Yellow Journalism
Fake news is not new. All forms of media have had a fair share of hoaxes, exaggerations, and outright lies. In fact, one of the two bloggers interviewed claimed his articles were a form of “yellow journalism,” a term to denote outrageous, scandalous, and exaggerated stories printed in the newspapers from the late 19th and early 20th century.
Also, it’s not new to the Internet. Since the World Wide Web was made available to the public in the 1990s, conspiracy theories, rumors, urban myths, pseudoscience, and stories about the paranormal have been widely published and circulated. The big difference now is that many of these stories are finding a large audience willing to read and pass them along to friends and family via social media, e-mail, chat rooms, or forums.
And, of course, a major difference is that a majority of these articles are political in nature with a built-in audience ready to consume these false narratives—and for bloggers and other Internet writers to cash in on the trend.
it’s not new to the Internet. Since the World Wide Web was made available to the public in the 1990s, conspiracy theories, rumors, urban myths, pseudoscience, and the paranormal, have been widely published and circulated.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2017 Dean Traylor