Did President Obama really sign an executive order banning the pledge of allegiance in schools nationwide? Must be real — you can read it in abcnews.com.co. Oh, wait — that’s a phony news site, set up to steal the reputation of the real ABC News and get you to believe fake stories. Just like nbc.com.co or foxnews.com.co or cbs.com.co — all fake sites set up by the News Examiner, which also publishes phony news. Because theses “shill” sites look, at first glance, like legit news organizations, their phony news gets picked up and spread, often over social media and sometimes even fooling real news organizations.
I spend lots of time reading news, and I care passionately about sorting truth from lies. So I’m going to write a series of blog posts to share what I’ve learned over a lifetime of working at this Sisyphean task. First: phony news sites. Second: Satire beyond The Onion. Today: Outright lies and hoaxes. Next: Not really science and not really health.
Sorting truth from fiction in the news is important, especially during this heated election season. False and inflammatory stories stir up hatred and division, and undermine the trust that is necessary to build community. False stories about Trump or Bachmann, as well as those about Obama or Clinton deepen the divisions between people and contribute to generalized sense that all of politics is lies and hatred, on the left and on the right.
Trying to identify fake news sites is like playing whack-a-mole: they pop up every day, all over the place, and sometimes disappear just as quickly. In a May 2016 article, Snopes listed some of the recently prominent phony news sites, including the News Examiner, National Report, the Empire Herald, Newswatch28, Newswatch33, Naha Daily, The Stately Harold, NewsBuzzDaily, Associated Media Coverage and more. That’s a good start, but nobody can list all the sites.
For me, Snopes.com is still the first place to check a phony-sounding news story. I know many on the right think that Snopes is biased and inaccurate. I can vouch for Snopes, but anyone on the right thinks I am biased and inaccurate, too, so that doesn’t help. Maybe this will: on Snopes’ pages collecting and debunking Fake News, the count is sixteen phony stories about Trump debunked compared to three about Obama or Clinton between August 11 and August 26. (The page also featured 13 non-presidential fake stories, ranging from Usain Bolt’s donation of his Olympics earnings to a dead baby found in a Walmart DVD bin.) This isn’t about partisanship — it’s about fakery and hoaxes.
The first and most important step in identifying hoaxes is reading the article. Not just the headline and the first two lines on Facebook — read the entire article. That’s the first of the four steps I outline in Don’t believe everything you read:
- Read the entire article before you retweet or share or quote it.
- Look at the publisher — evaluate who they are and whether they are trustworthy.
- Consider the reporting, including the identity of the writer.
- Compare other news reports of the story and evaluate its reliability in the light of multiple sources and reports.
Snopes does a good, and non-partisan, job of debunking phony stories (and of confirming true but phony-sounding stories), but even Snopes cannot keep up with the flood of fakes generated every day. So, if I am suspicious of a story and don’t find it on Snopes, I keep looking.
Googling the story is a logical step: that will at least show me where else the story has appeared. If there’s a big story, more than one news site will run it. The mainstream media may fail to give me a nuanced analysis of the bombings of Aleppo or of the negative impact of U.S. food aid on farmers in Haiti. They will not fail to jump on a breaking story that will bring thousands of readers. If a suspicious story is featured only on a single site, or only on partisan sites, it’s not believable.
Fact checking sites, like Snopes.com and Politifact.com are great, but they cannot keep up with the flood of lies and hoaxes circulating as news. Cleaning up the cesspool of stupidity and hatred fed by phony news is a job for all of us.