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Spotting Fake News on Facebook (and What to Do About it)

Fake news is a pretty sensitive topic. It gained a lot of steam around the time of the US election and it's been plaguing many of us ever since. How do you know whether the news story you just read is real? How do you avoid sharing stories specifically designed to fire you up and tap into your confirmation bias? That's what we'll explore in this post! We'll show you some techniques and share tips that will help you spot (and avoid!) fake news stories on Facebook. Before we dive in, a quick disclaimer. Fake news and politics often get bundled together but the effect goes far beyond that. Fighting fake news isn't about politics– it's about making sure the information we share is as close to factual as humanly possible. It affects all of us, regardless what side of the political fence we sit on.

Why do fake news stories work?

Fake news work because they push all your buttons– they are emotionally compelling. Many stories work because they are partially true. These stories come in all shapes and sizes. Some are shared by your friends and family, who are in turn sharing a post by an acquaintance or a supposed work organization. All of them pack an emotional punch. While the majority of fake news stories are created to make money and sell advertising space, some spread misinformation about personally important causes. This post, for example, hits right in the gut. It inspired thousands of shares, comments, and reactions. And yet while there's some truth to it, the act it's referring to is designed to empower local councils to reduce homelessness by introducing more funds and support and focusing on prevention as well as help and not by criminalizing poverty. Emotional topics like this one are naturally close to people's hearts and therefore prone to misinformation.

How to spot a fake news post on Facebook

Fake news and Facebook have an interesting relationship. The way post sharing works at the moment seems to support their promulgation. Why is that the case? A lot of it comes down to confirmation bias— the idea that we tend to believe stories and opinions that support what we already believe to be true. So, you are far more likely to believe (and share) something that supports your current view of the world than all the other stuff in your feed. This tendency coupled with just how busy we are and Facebook's tendency to give you more posts that you've reacted to in some way (either by liking or sharing), has pushed the spread of fake news at a rapid pace. So how do we avoid it? Let's take a look at why fake news stories feel so real.

What makes a fake news story feel legitimate?

Fake news stories look a lot like real news stories. You'll be greeted by a click-worthy headline that grabs your attention and an image to go along with the story. If you click through, there's a high chance the story will have plenty of shares (social proof that confirms its legitimacy.) The site it's on may even look a lot like news sites you frequent– you'll probably be greeted by the same colors and layout. However, as you keep reading the story you'll notice that the narrative will shift and the article will start pushing a specific agenda– this could a product, a service, or an opinion that's helping a specific company, cause, or movement. At this point, you alarm bells should be going off. The trouble is, many of us never get to that point. Our propensity for skim reading means we often hit share before finishing the story– creating that same social proof that gave the story legitimacy in the first place. It's a vicious cycle.

Avoid news stories from sources you don't trust

We can fight the spread of fake news by avoiding stories from sources we don't trust or stories that hit our emotional buttons a bit too much. A couple of factors to look out for:
  • Thread carefully around stories that evoke a particularly strong emotional reaction
  • Check out other sources and stories on the site to make sure it's legitimate
  • Do a search on the author
  • Ask: If this is really true, why am I not hearing about this from other sources?
  • Check a fact-checking site you trust
Many fake news stories aren't organic posts– they are ads. Check for the “sponsored” tell in the top hand corner.

Fact Check!

Here are some of the fact-checking sites we turn to when in doubt.

True sounding fake news

The trouble with fake news, and one of the reasons they are still so prevalent, is that many of them are partially true. Sometimes the image has been changed, other times the story is just very old and has been updated a bit. Certain sources just change the by-line to create a bias. This approach does put the burden of making sure a story is true before you share it on you. It means questioning content that pushes your buttons and gets your emotions going. Because stopping the spread of fake news falls on all of us. Until next time,

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