How to Spot Fake News

A shocking headline shows up in your news feed, but is it real or clickbait? How do you know? On Feb. 6, community members gathered for an ICUCME Dinner Conversation and a talk by Cornell librarian Michael Engle on “How to Spot Fake News.” The pot-luck preceding the talk was enlivened by music by Cayuga Klezmer Kapelye, which also played a short concert after the evening’s discussion ended.

Engle summed up his advice in one word: accountability. “Use news sources that are accountable and which have a transparent set of ethical journalism guidelines,” he said.

He urged the group to take a step back from news items that are emotionally attractive and to ask whether you’re passing on the news because it’s emotionally satisfying or because it’s journalistically accurate content.

ICUCME chair Linda Glaser noted in her introduction that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is plagued with misinformation, which makes it hard to have the kind of productive dialogue for which ICUCME advocates. As an example, she recalled that in 2015 major news outlets including the Daily Mail, Agence France Presse, Al Jazeera and Vice News reported that Israel had opened dams leading into the Gaza strip, worsening the flooding there and causing widespread destruction.

But there are no dams in southern Israel. “Rather than talking about the real suffering of the people in Gaza and how to help them with the flooding, news outlets ran stories about fake Israeli dams, which helped no one,” said Glaser.

To avoid falling for such fake news, Engle advised taking seven basic steps:

  1. Look at the URL of the news sources. Fake news sources often have .co at the end; also, other countries have different ending extensions from American sources.
  2. Don’t just read the headline. Most situations are complex and you can’t understand those complexities from a headline.
  3. Ask who wrote the content. Is there a by-line, and a real person taking responsibility for that content? Do a little exploring.
  4. Have a variety of news sources and compare stories across those sources.
  5. Check the date. A lot of news from unreliable sources is old and gets re-posted as something new.
  6. Click on the links. Do they support the content?
  7. Check your biases. We can fool ourselves as we seek to be confirmed in what we already believe.

Sometimes, said Engle, part of a news story can be true by the upshot can be false. And accurate news can come from sources across the political spectrum. But be careful that you’ve identified what you’re reading: is it opinion or analysis, or is intended as straight news?

As one participant commented at the end of the evening, “This was really useful. I wish everyone would follow these guidelines before sharing some of the so-called news that comes across my feed every day.”

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