How to Spot a News Hoax and Prove that Its Source Is Fake
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org. The fact that this email address is not associated with the domain name of the site (ex. email@example.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.