Spot the fake news

30 Jul 2018|Written by Matthew Moxon

Digital Inclusion Officer, Matt Moxon, challenges some of the scare stories seen in the media about digital technology, and outlines some helpful pointers for those looking to reassure first-timer internet users.

"Don't believe everything you hear on the news" - simple worldly advice that we have all probably received at one time or another from a friend or relative. Whilst you may believe "Fake news" is a fairly recent phrase to appear in our vocabulary, it has actually been around since the 1890's according to Huffington Post. The concept of mis-information and questioning the news we read has been around much longer, and it is all the more important when taking your first steps online.

Fake News is where a website provides a partly or completely made up news article, but is presented as being factually accurate. Think of it as picking up a newspaper and reading: "The Queen to visit North Korea". With no journalists name provided and no sources referenced.

Fake news online is often presented in a professional format, read (or "liked") by a lot of people, and has grounds in reality to make it believable - but is completely made up.

Being drawn in by these articles doesn't make you stupid, many are extremely convincing. A recent study by Stanford University Libraries revealed that 80% of children in secondary school aged between 14-18 (who are often considered "digital natives") believed that the words "sponsored content" on an article indicated it was a genuine news story. This goes to show that not just first time learners, but people who spend a significant amount of time online still get confused by fake news.

But who creates these stories and websites and why? What do they gain from spreading misinformation and misleading people? The unsurprising answer is money. There is a reason fake news stories come with lots of pop ups and adverts. If you click on that story that is falsely claiming Celebrity X is cheating on his wife, the person who created this fiction gets paid for all the adverts and pop ups you have to fight through to get to the juicy gossip.

In many less affluent parts of the world, people with the right skillset see this as a quick and easy way to get rich. For example as the Internet Health report from Mozilla recently reported:

"Investigative journalists in different countries (starting from as early as six months before the U.S. election day) traced the origins of thousands of 'fake news' stories to a small town in Macedonia called Veles that used to be known for its porcelain. Young people here have created hundreds of websites with headlines in English designed to rake in digital ad dollars."

Unfortunately, the online advertising market is a very new and very broken system right now. With that in mind, here are some top tips for spotting fake news stories:

  • The little green padlock – your best friend for fake spotting – One of the best pieces of advice when transacting online is to check for this little symbol next to your web address:

  • Are other sources reporting the same story? If the story you're reading can only be found on that one website, it's likely a fake.
  • Check the "About Us" section of a website, or Google the website themselves - find out more about the website before buying in and sharing the story.
  • If a website is poorly designed, has a lot of advertisements or pop-ups or uses ALL CAPITALS, then the website perhaps shouldn't be trusted.

One of the best ways of combating this is making sure people are educated and understand the importance of being aware of these issues, not falling for the click-bait and thinking before they share. Another reason why the work of the Online Centres Network is so important!