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6 Signs You’re Reading Fake News

Updated on July 14, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

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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 posting were effective, in terms of galvanizing the pro-Trump supporters and for 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.

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.

Fake news is not new. All forms of media have had a fair share of hoaxes, exaggerations and out-right lies. In fact, one of the two bloggers interviewed, claimed his articles was 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 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 them 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.

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 in 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.

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1. They’re (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 being rambling rants that are so garbled that one has to read it several times in order to get an idea 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 have a tendency to overlook (or not fully realize) the sloppy nature of these stories.

One of the two interviewee 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 a spelling error or a sentence fragment.

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 this 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:

Originally posted by International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
Originally posted by International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions | Source
  • “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. Lack of Validity

The example given from 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. Consider the Source of the Story

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 tend to be mentioned as news briefs).

Facebook or Twitter users with strong ideological beliefs (sometimes referred to as “that crazy uncle”) has 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 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 its original site. And, many of these sites will have a “FAQ” or “About” page. They should give a mission statement or access to other article 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”) has 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 sties), not all the writers believe or have knowledge about subject they are writing about. The bloggers and satirist, 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 blogger either didn’t know who Trump or Hillary Clinton was, nor were interested in U.S. politics. Instead many from this particularly meager town may have seen a chance to make money by appealing to a particular audience of Trump supporters.

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6. 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 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 reader must ask themselves when they stumble upon a fake news article. Here are 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.

A common form of fake news/ click-bait ploy
A common form of fake news/ click-bait ploy | Source

© 2017 Dean Traylor

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    • tsmog profile image

      Tim Mitchell 4 months ago from Escondido, CA

      Great article packed with information to consider. I think the most powerful tool of Fake News is headlines and summaries with social media. That is enough to prove a point to followers saying see, look here, and its true.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 4 months ago from Philippines

      So much information:). Shared this on my Facebook page.

    • MizBejabbers profile image

      MizBejabbers 4 months ago

      Very good article, Dean. Hey, I saw a photo of a two-headed calf on a magazine in the grocery store checkout line, so it must be true. Who would lie about that? LOL

      Yellow journalism is alive and well. Remember all the hoopla about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) when the tea party was fighting hard to defeat it? I don't think a day went by when I didn't get an email containing fake news about what the act would do to Americans. Why, Obama was planning to kill off all us senior citizens! So in my spare time, I read the whole act word for word and wrote up a synopsis. I fired copies of the synopsis back at my friends and relatives who were sending me the trash emails. I think I got a couple of sincere thank yous from people who appreciated real facts, but most ignored me or re-sent the crap again.

      @ Val, to answer your specific question about Hillary: There are some lapdogs in the government who will use fake news as "evidence" that she has committed crimes against the state and demand prosecution. We suffered through a several-year persecution of the Clintons during Whitewater from a no-evidence investigation, and her enemies don't seem to have learned anything from that. There is a difference between "investigation" and "prosecution." In this country the mantra used to be "innocent until proven guilty," but today the opposite seems to be true.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 4 months ago from Canada

      Dean---That pretty much explains it. Thanks.

    • Misfit Chick profile image

      Catherine Mostly 4 months ago from Seattle, WA - USA - The WORLD

      That is what I read about two fake news publishers: one did the 'paid protestors' story - he happened to be parked in a place where he could get a good pic of a couple of big busses; and leapt at the opportunity to create a URL and publish it - simply because he knew that Trump supporters would jump on it.

      Same thing happened with an image that went along with a fake story that supposedly showed thousands of illegal mail-in ballots in one of the states being hoarded for Hillary - it was an image from a decades-old news story.

      Both 'writers' claimed that the idea just came to them; and 'whipped them up' to take advantage of the gullible. Thanks for writing this, Dean. I hope it gets lots of hits.

    • Dean Traylor profile image
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      Dean Traylor 4 months ago from Southern California

      Valkaras - The possible reason they felt emboldened to confess was that their base would most likely not see it. In the article, the bloggers mentioned that their audience have a profound distrust of mainstream media (and Washington Post is part of that mainstream media they abhor) and they did state that their audience don't tend to care about the details. What's important to them is that the themes they want to hear are being repeated. I just went to the bloggers website to see if there was a decrease in the number of followers. In the article they mentioned having over 100, 000...that was back in November 2016. Now, they have 1.6 million followers of Facebook, over 40 thousands on Twitter, and 943 subscribers. It sounds beyond logic, but the power of confirmation bias is very, very strong.

      There are others who confessed and have fallen off the radar or have changed their tunes. But, I get the impression that the money is too good to pass up and we'll probably be hearing from them, too.

    • ValKaras profile image

      Vladimir Karas 4 months ago from Canada

      Dean---I find this article quite informative, with a little question here and there that stays unclear. For example, those two reporters who allegedly confessed to producing fake news---there is hardly any logic there.

      Why in the world would anyone kill their credibility for the rest of their career by admitting to producing fake news? It's like they said: "So far I have been a liar, but THIS time I am making an exception by telling the truth".

      There is another VERY tricky issue here, and it involves the question of who is really competent to tell what is fake and what is not. We can all exercise our intellectual or political preferences and decide that "something doesn't sound right" when it's against our pet political theorizing.

      If lies have been reported about Hillary---why is it that Congress is investigating her wrongdoings? Or is even the video taken at Congress during the process of such investigation "fake"?

      Being a Canadian and a political cynic, I don't take sides between Hillary and Donald, and I couldn't really care less what is true and what is false---to me it's all just entertainment material. But, playing with simple logic, we can't go cherry picking and forget about that tremendous mass of belittling crap that was said about Trump---even including his hair, the size of his hands, attacks on his young son and his daughter on the plane...and finally, why would Trump be resorting to Tweeter to reach to the public, if he trusted the mainstream media?

      These and so many other questions keep popping up, but let's leave it at this.

    • Austinstar profile image

      Lela 4 months ago from Somewhere in the universe

      Good aricle. I hope some of our more radical readers will see this and actually read and understand what you have written here.

      I have noted that most far left or far right leaning people just plainly do not know HOW to read! They have poor listening and comprehension skills.

      They also never answer the questions that are asked. They always go off tangentially.

      Keep up the good work!