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advice
28 November 2016

How to spot fake news

Before you hit ‘Share’ on that shocking/hilarious/scandalous story you’ve seen on social media, it’s best to check that you’re not being fooled.

There’s been a lot in the real news recently about fake news – stories on the internet that try to pass themselves off as fact, when really they're no more real than the Loch Ness Monster. Some fake news stories are intentionally funny and satirical, like this story and anything else on The Onion. But others are masquerading as actual news, with clickbait headlines that are designed to get you reading, and sharing.

Nobody wants to be the guy who shares a post encouraging people to charge their iPhone by microwaving it, or drill a headphone jack into their brand-new iPhone 7. So before you share, check your facts. Here's how. 

Here are 5 ways to spot a fake news story:

1. Check what website you’re reading

Many websites are blatantly satirical, such as The Onion and Private Eye. If you’re not sure, check the ‘About Us’ section. The Onion, for example, claims a global audience of 4.3 trillion, which should really get alarm bells ringing. (If it doesn't there's no hope for you anyway.)

And even if you’re reading an article from a reputable source, Facebook may well offer you related stories from less reputable, fake news sites. Although these stories are often political, the aim of the writers and site owners isn’t really to change people’s minds – it’s to earn money from advertising when thousands of people are taken in and share the posts.

Other websites, such as the National Report, aren’t satirical, but are widely known to peddle fake stories. Five South African sites to be aware of are: T1mesLive (note the 1 in the name); African News UpdatesiMzansiLive Monitor and News24-TV.

Some sites also try to trick you into thinking you’re reading a reputable site, such as CNN or Washington Post, by spoofing the domain name – check the URL to make sure you’re on the real site.

2.  Read the other headlines

If you’re not certain what kind of website you’re on, it’s worth checking what other stories they’re running. If they run along the lines of ‘Grandmother wrestles killer croc’ or ‘Cape Town sky really rains cats and dogs’, or there are numerous unlikely stories about celebrities or miracles diets, click away. 

3. Google it

Unsure whether something sensational is true? Search for a similar story on reputable news sites. If you can’t find it anywhere else, it’s more likely to be a falsehood than a global internet cover-up.

If the story is based on a sensational picture, a handy trick is to take a screenshot of the picture (not the surrounding website). Go to Google Images, click on the little camera in the search bar, and upload or drag the screenshot. It will search the net for other places the image has been used, and can help identify the source.

4. If it seems too crazy to be true, it probably isn’t

Perhaps the best way to avoid being a sucker for fake news is to use your common sense. If you see a story about giant skeletons found in Saudi Arabia or an unexpected celebrity death, be suspicious.

5. Check Snopes

Snopes.com is all about spotting hoaxes and fake news stories – mostly those syndicated internationally. It’s a great place to start if you’re wondering if that way-out post your mom just put on Facebook can possibly be true.