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Evaluating sources of information

Library resources to help you evaluate information for your research and assignments.

What is fake news?

Definitions

Collins Dictionary describes fake news as 'false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting'.

The online Cambridge English Dictionary describes fake news as 'false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke: There is concern about the power of fake news to affect election results'.

A related term is post-truth. The Oxford English Dictionary defines post-truth as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping political debate or public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief'.  


The term Fake news has also become the rhetoric for dismissing the statements or views of another outright. This has been used by public figures in recent years. This stance and use of the term fake news amounts to a refusal to engage with information that does not fit with your pre-existing beliefs and views. It is worrying that public figures use the term in this way as it does not promote a society where open debate is encouraged for a healthy and democratic society.


Although fake news is at the centre of many current debates, fake news is not a new phenomenon and it has many historic antecedents.  In his article 'The true history of fake news', the historian Robert Darnton has commented that '...the concoction of alternative facts is hardly rare and the equivalent of today's poisonous, bite size texts and tweets can be found on most periods of history, going back to the ancients'.

Types of fake news sources

Fake news is related to, and can include, the following types of doubtful, unreliable and misleading sources of information. 

The definitions below are taken from the OpenSources project, which details the mission and methods behind the curation of a fake news source list, archived on Wikipedia.

Conspiracy: Sources that are well-known promoters of conspiracy theories. Examples include: 9/11 conspiracies, chem-trails, birther rumours, flat earth ‘theory,’ the moon landing conspiracy theories, fluoride as mind control, vaccines as mind control, etc.

Rumour Mill: Sources that traffic in rumours, gossip, innuendo and unverified claims.

State News: Sources in repressive states operating under government sanction.

Junk Science: Sources that promote pseudoscience, metaphysics, naturalistic fallacies and other scientifically dubious claims.

Hate News: Sources that actively promote racism, misogyny, homophobia and other forms of discrimination.

Clickbait: Sources that provide generally credible content but use exaggerated, misleading or questionable headlines, social media descriptions and/or images.  These sources may also use sensational language to generate interest, clickthroughs, and shares, but their content is typically verifiable.

According to a review of studies of fake news between 2003 and 2017, there are two main motivations behind fake news: financial or ideological.  Generally the 'clickbait' type sources described above, on the whole are created for financial gain as they generate advertising revenue. Other source types listed above can be seen as ideologically motivated.

Fake news can also be created for malicious reasons, by directing users to websites which subsequently infect the user's PC with malware - so beware!

Spotting fake news

You will need to assess the authors, the quality and the content on all information found online before you should consider using it.  It is up to you to investigate whether the information you are using is true, reliable and trustworthy or whether it is fake news masquerading as objective truth. 

The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) produced this infographic with eight simple steps (based on FactCheck.org's 2016 article How to Spot Fake News) to determine the verifiability of a news item.

 

Analysing news stories

The following quick checklist should help you analyse news sources.  They have been adapted from tips by Melissa Zimdars

General tips for analysing news sources:

  1. Watch out if reputable news sites are not also reporting a story. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
  2. Is there an identifiable author?  Lack of author attribution may signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.
  3. Some news organizations let bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands; however, many of these posts do not go through the same editorial process.
  4. Odd domain names generally indicate equally odd and rarely truthful news.
  5. Look at the domain extension as this detail can give some indication of reliability.  Avoid websites that end in “.lo” as these sites take pieces of accurate information and then package that information with other false or misleading “facts” (sometimes for the purposes of satire or comedy).
  6. Watch out for common news websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources (remember: this is also the domain for Colombia) e.g. washingtonpost.com.co is not the same as https://www.washingtonpost.com/ (official site)
  7. Bad web design can also be a sign that what you’re looking at should be verified or read in conjunction with other sources.
  8. Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on Snopes or online for more information about the source.
  9. If the story makes you angry it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.
  10. If the website you’re reading encourages you to share the private personal information of another person or reveal the identity of an online poster without their consent, i.e. doxing, it’s unlikely to be a legitimate source of news.
  11. It’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames.
  12. Remember to check your own biases and read outside your filter bubble.

Use the Library’s newspapers subscriptions to get past newspaper paywalls and to access a wide variety of current national and regional newspaper coverage.  Remember that different newspapers will have different approaches to news stories and different political agendas.

Newspapers B&W (5)  © Jon S is licensed under CC BY 2.0