How to Spot a News Hoax and Prove that Its Source Is Fake

Image via Hoax Slayer
We all know the internet is rife with falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation. And, sooner or later, we're all bound to be taken in by an internet hoax, whether it is a fake news article, a photoshopped image, an advertisement masquerading as legitimate content, or even a government-sponsored propaganda campaign. In this article we'll use a real-world example to take a look at some simple sleuthing strategies on how to spot a hoax news article and prove that its source is fake.




Perhaps the most simplest way to approach the question of how to spot a fake news article and source is with a real world example. We'll begin by laying out the context and content of a recent hoax article. Then we'll consider the question of why and how the hoax works, and discuss ways in which we can detect the hoax and even prove that it is from a fake news source.

Consider the following scenario. You are scrolling through a social media news feed, and you come across the following headline along with a link to an article shared by a friend you know pretty well: "Boston Police Officer Kills Black Man Over Marijuana Cigarette." You follow the link and skim the article:
On the heels of recent scandals involving police brutality among the African American community, Malik Edwards, a 36-year old African American man living in the Boston area was shot by police officers following a dispute regarding a marijuana cigarette. 
According to witnesses, Edwards was seen sitting on the porch of his girlfriend’s home located in Evanston, Massachusetts, a municipality about 10-miles outside of Boston when the incident occurred . . .  
This has been one of several incidents of unarmed African American’s losing their life at the hands of police officers reported in the media this month . . .  
Officer Wright has been placed on a paid administrative leave pending a full-investigation into the incident resulting in Edwards death. Chief of Police Bill Conner, apologized for the “unfortunate circumstance” during a press-conference.

Now, this is in fact a fake news article from a fake news source, which quickly becomes apparent after just a bit of scrutiny. Yet articles from hoax sites like this one can succeed in duping even intelligent people into believing they are legit. How does such a hoax work?

How and Why Does a News Hoax Work?


A hoax relies on generic markers of legitimacy. The fake news item is presented in a familiar format that looks like any standard source of its type. We all know the basic 'look and feel' of a news website. There are numerous standard web design templates that you can check out that exemplify this genre of web page. 

A hoax relies on normal gaps in everyday knowledge. The site above, for example, is called The Boston Tribune. That sounds like it could be the name of a major national newspaper or a local daily. There is no reason for someone who isn't a news junky or a local resident to possibly know what the names of a specific city's newspapers are. So most people are not going to know that there is no paper in Boston with that name.

A hoax conforms to expectations. The article above is well written. It reproduces the generic standards of a news report. The piece mimics the form of a news article and provides content couched in terms common to news sources. In other words, it presents you with what you expect from a news article. Given that most news articles are are written at an eighth grade reading level, this is not difficult to do. 

As an addendum to the previous point, hoaxes will also often try to piggyback on current news and social media trends. When there are a lot of stories about a specific topic in the news, it becomes easier for hoaxes to blend in with the crowd. And when these topics are also emotionally charged, a hoax article can more easily exploit the fact that those emotions can disable rational skepticism. 

Hoaxes also rely on the lack of attention to detail that is common in normal web surfing. Consider the differenes between the acts of browsing the internet, reading a novel and studying a textbook. Browsing is casual by definition and to some extent random, without any specific target or goal. Thus, even sloppy hoaxes can succeed in duping people because, when you are engaged in an activity that is not detail-oriented and which may even entail skipping over details altogether, peculiarities that would otherwise raise red flags do not register at a conscious level. 

Finally, hoaxes exploit people's trust. If one person is duped by a hoax article, for whatever reasons, and then shares that story on social media, that person's friends are more likely to fall for the hoax because they trust the person who is sharing the article. You are less likely to scrutinize something if you assume that someone you trust has already scrutinized it. 


Anatomy of a News Hoax and a Fake News Site


Let's take a closer look at the hoax article mentioned above as well as its source, and go through some simple ways to determine if it is suspect and then confirm this fact. Indeed, taking a closer look is the first thing to do when trying to determine if an article is fake.

Upon closer inspection, the article under consideration should raise some red flags even at first glance. First, the use of the phrase "Marijuana Cigarette" in the headline is itself suspect. The phrase is antiquated and seems out of place, though perhaps one might believe such a phrase may still be in use by the media or by government authorities. Secondly, the body of the article contains an extremely high level of detail, which should raise suspicions because in such cases initial reports are usually quite vague and details are filled in later, when they are filled in at all. Can you find other red flags in the body of the article itself?

For the sake of argument, let's assume the article does not explicitly arouse any suspicions, but still does not seem right somehow. What then? The first thing to do here is pretty obvious: confirm whether the story is legit by seeking out other news sources reporting on it. Pick out the most prominent names of individuals indentified in the story, as well as other characteristic markers such as the time and place, and conduct a basic search for news articles on the story, seeking confirmation from sources that you do in fact trust. In the case of the article above, since it was indeed a fake, there are no other news sources that corroborate the story.

With that we might already conclude that the article is a hoax, but what if the hoax is not completely made up, and merely provides a twist on a news story that is being reported by trustworthy sources? In that case, then the basic gist will be confirmed by other sources.

The next step in determining whether a story might be a hoax is to check out other stories from the same source. If a "newsy" site contains one hoax article, it will very likely contain others. And some of these might be much more obviously fake than the one you are considering. In the case of The Boston Tribune, this becomes clear pretty quickly. Just scanning the headlines from other articles at the site should immediately raise suspicions, such as: "Casey Anthony Opens Daycare Center."

If there are no obvious causes for suspicion from checking out other articles on the site (even The Boston Tribune hoax site has a number of articles that a reasonable person would not have cause to question on their face), the next step is to investigate the site's credentials and contact information. Any reputable news site will have a detailed masthead that identifies owners, departments, editors, reporters and provide contact information. Of course, new media outlets may not have such formally detailed information. But if a "newsy" site has no such information, that in itself should raise suspicion.

In the case of The Boston Tribune, the site provides a single email address under its contact info page. That address is: associatedmediainquires@gmail.com. The fact that this email address is not associated with the domain name of the site (ex. contacts@thebostontribune.com) should be further cause for concern for a suspicious reader. A legitimate outlet will go to the trouble of setting up email addresses under its own domain rather than use free services that can be created by anyone. But perhaps you are inclined to give a site the benefit of the doubt, maybe it is a startup shoestring operation, and has not set up its own email services.

So we then take the handle from the email address and plug that into a search engine. What results in the present case are a series of hits that do not go to thebostontribune.com but rather a different site called associatedmediacoverage.com. However, when you follow the link to the latter address you are re-directed back to The Boston Tribune page! This is quite interesting. The proprietors of the site are literally engaging in redirection here, if not outright misdirection. Plugging associatedmediacoverage into a search engine in turn brings up a wealth of articles from other sites reporting on hoaxes perpetrated by the outlet. What likely happened here was that associatedmediacoverage.com was the original site, and after a number of its hoaxes were found out, they changed its address to thebostontribune.com, so as to get back under the radar.

With that, we have demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the original article under consideration is entirely false and that thebostontribune.com is indeed a fake news site. If you have another other tips or tricks for sniffing out a fake news article or site, let us know in the comments.

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A Drone New World: Disney To Use Flying Robots In Their "Magic"

Like them or not, no one can deny that Disney live operations are major spectacles that are specifically engineered for a maximum "wow" factor. Now, they plan to augment their man-made magic with some help from some happy little flying robot friends. Weirdest sidekick ever?

According to the nypost.com, Disney Enterprises are massing a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles to fly around and aid with puppetry and light work in their live shows, like Cinderella or Snow White's fun forest friends (if they were electronic and had cousins with the potential to be used for evils from surveillance to assassinations.)

Similar to Jeff Bezos' notion to put drones to work as delivery vehicles, or Google's plan to make them aerial photographers (supposedly) for cartographical purposes, the masters of the Mouse feel that drones would make good "castmembers" (Disney slang for workers.) Three patents approved this week would allow the ground-controlled gizmos to manipulate puppet "tether lines" from the air, carry around portable "flexible projection screens" like flying carpets for movies, or shoot colored lights from the sky (and with Disney's penchant for fireworks, this could look amazing.)

The latter, as part of Disney's "Symphony of Lights", was quoted as being applicable for use “over a sports stadium or theme park where no or few buildings may be present.” Cue the countdown to someone using it to make a wedding proposal. While this technology is interesting and could be used well by such creative types as Disney, does this open a door for constant drone-based entertainment-whoring or flying advertisements to become part of our world?

It's the cirrrrrcle of liiiiife (and sometimes lack thereof.)




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"Luddite Hipsters" Rejoice: Tom Hanks Has Created A Typewriter IPad App


Are you one of those retronauts who longs for the days of clacking keys and difficult deletes?  Are you even old enough to remember what a typewriter acted like?  Either way, Tom Hanks is bringing back the dubious heyday of typewriting, all via your suspiciously-slender and technologically-inclined iPad.

As theverge.com reports, Mr. Hanks has released a new app called "Hanx Writes" that replicates a frustration-free feel of the analog word processors.  Hanks, who is a devotee of typewriters (like some sort of sad spinoff of record collecting), has had his app reenact the moving pages and chattering keystrokes for the ultimate in what he calls "Luddite hipster" appeal.

The "crisp typeface" Hanks lauds is actually your standard typewriter font, with the added bonus of a "delete" button (although this can be turned off and replaced with the classic "XXXX" elimination...seriously.)

The app is free and was co-developed by the Hitcents agency.  So if you need an excuse to take up even more time working on your screenplay, now Forrest Gump is on your side.

Momma always said, "Life is like a box of a bunch of cumbersome letter and symbol keys that make a lot of noise and are hard to find ink for."

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Even the Corporate Media Are Coming Out Against the Comcast Merger

The New York Times editorial board has come out against the proposed Comcast/TimeWarner merger.  There are far too few companies with far too much power over the local, state and national media to which the people of this country are exposed.  It is time to bring real competition to the media markets, rather than continuing to allow well-connected corporations to hold the American public hostage to their narrow, self-serving political agendas. From the NYT:
There are good reasons the Justice Department and the Federal acquisition of Time Warner Cable. The merger will concentrate too much market power in the hands of one company, creating a telecommunications colossus the likes of which the country has not seen since 1984 when the government forced the breakup of the original AT&T telephone monopoly.
Communications Commission should block Comcast’s $45 billion
The combined company would provide cable-TV service to nearly 30 percent of American homes and high-speed Internet service to nearly 40 percent. Even without this merger and the proposed AT&T-DirecTV deal, the telecommunications industry has limited competition, especially in the critical market for high-speed Internet service, or broadband, where consumer choice usually means picking between the local cable or phone company.
By buying Time Warner Cable, Comcast would become a gatekeeper over what consumers watch, read and listen to. The company would have more power to compel Internet content companies like Netflix and Google, which owns YouTube, to pay Comcast for better access to its broadband network. Netflix, a dominant player in video streaming, has already signed such an agreement with the company. This could put start-ups and smaller companies without deep pockets at a competitive disadvantage.
There are also worries that a bigger Comcast would have more power to refuse to carry channels that compete with programming owned by NBC Universal, which it owns. Comcast executives say that they would not favor content the company controls at the expense of other media businesses . . .
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Issue Complexity and Corporate Conflicts of Interest Lead to Media Silence on Net Neutrality

From Esquire:
The FCC is holding a chat on Twitter today about its new “Net Neutrality rules” proposed by Chairman Tom Wheeler. We implore you to let them hear it. The hashtag to do so is #FCCNetNeutrality, and the chat starts at 2 p.m.
Here’s why it’s a big deal: FCC Commissioner and former telecom lobbyist Tom Wheeler proposed rules two weeks ago that would permit for a “Fast Lane” for those willing to pay for it on the web, relegating the rest of Internet traffic to a slow lane unless a toll is paid to an Internet service provider. That means, yes, Netflix might slow down if Comcast is at odds with the company. But it also means companies like Netflix, in the future, might not be allowed to created — because the toll to start and maintain an Internet business early on would be too heavy.
The new rules have been met with radio silence on television, likely because of the complexity of the issue and because, as David Carr points out, parent companies of cable nets like CNN (TimeWarner) and MSNBC (Comcast) have a rooting interest in keeping the big cable/Internet bundle in place. [Emphasis added.]
This might pass for an artist's rendition of our mainstream press corpse at work, except for the fact that the monkey would eventually come up with the complete works of Shakespeare if given enough time:

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Nightmare: Comcast to Acquire Time Warner Cable

As if the internet and cable service of these two corporations weren't bad enough already!  One can only surmise that the service will we twice as bad if this merger is allowed to go through.  Media consolidation continues apace and represents a growing threat to the freedom of information in the United States.  I do not imagine that the Democratic and Republican parties, which are effectively nothing more than subsidiaries of these  corporations, will do much to prevent the further consolidation and monopolization of media in the United States. From Reuters:
Comcast Corp's proposed $45.2 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable Inc could face close scrutiny from U.S. antitrust regulators because of the deal's potential to reshape the country's pay TV and broadband markets.
The company resulting from the merger of the top two U.S. cable service providers would boast a footprint spanning from New York to Los Angeles, with a near 30 percent share of the pay TV market as well as a strong position in providing broadband Internet services.

The all-stock deal, announced on Thursday, would put Comcast in 19 of the 20 largest U.S. TV markets, and could give it unprecedented leverage in negotiations with content providers and advertisers.
The situation is bad enough already . . .

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Corporate Media Monopolies Hinder Technological Development

Today, corporate media consolidation has resulted in a situation where a handful of companies now exert virtual monopoly control over our media environment.  From the New York Times:
Susan Crawford, a professor at the school, has written a book, “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” that offers a calm but chilling state-of-play on the information age in the United States. She is on a permanent campaign, speaking at schools, conferences and companies — she was at Google last week — and in front of Congress, asserting that the status quo has been great for providers but an expensive mess for everyone else. 

Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers. 

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly . . . 
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Has the Internet Already Killed Television?

From NPR:
In a flashy presentation to advertisers Wednesday night, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt declined to forecast that Internet video will displace television watching. Instead he declared: "That's already happened."

Schmidt said "the future is now" for YouTube, which recently passed the milestone of 1 billion unique visitors every month. But, he added with the Third World in mind, if you think that's a large number, "wait until you get to 6 (billion) or 7 billion."

Schmidt and YouTube, which billed the event as a "brandcast," shifted away from the video platform's relationship to TV.
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