Don’t Be a Sucker: How to Detect Fake News

Read helpful tips for detecting, and rooting out, the fake news in your life.

Posted Dec 23, 2016

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” —Unknown

“Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” —Jonathan Swift

We don’t know who said the first quotation. Lame, you say? No, accurate. It could have been P.T. Barnum, but probably not, according to his biographer. Who was it? We don’t know, and that’s not very satisfying, especially for people who want to be told what to think, and who said what, with a certainty, with a sense of closure. The point is that people who don’t want to be bothered with following up on “information” of “facts”, but instead prefer to follow whatever someone else is saying, are under the sway, or thrall, of a tempest of tweets, and fake news sites. Fake news sites (see my previous blog) are ones that cast themselves as real, look kind of professional, and folks are all too willing to believe the stories on, if they're about something, or someone, for which they have strong beliefs, or feelings.

Which brings us to Jonathon Swift. Even before the invention of the telephone, the internet, emails, and Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, Swift highlighted the fact that a juicy fiction, or outright howler of a lie, could travel at amazing velocity, gain traction and graduate to a public pronouncement before the truth had a chance to roll out of bed. Because truth can be less entertaining, or boring, or inspires less drama than malarkey, hooey, or bull.  Absolute fertilizer has quickness, and staying power.

By the way, many people attribute a very similar quote, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes," to Mark Twain. But Twain didn’t really come up with it. Seriously. This is what is called a misattribution. How do I know? I did research, and even though I really like Mark Twain, and I was almost snookered into attributing this bit of wit to him because I am a huge fan, it’s just not the case. Which brings me to another point: Intellectual and personal integrity, which I plan to explore more in my next blog posting.

For now, President Elect Trump plays fast and loose with the facts, and for good reason. Trump surrogate Scottie Neil Hughes, on the Diane Rehm Show, recently announced that we were entering a post-fact era: “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, as facts." She went on to say, “Mr. Trump’s tweets amongst a certain crowd, a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some...amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up.” So, the American electorate is being taught to believe only those claims to which they are already partial, that they already believe are true, or believe could be true. At the same time, they are being told to dispute the veracity of all other claims from other sources. "Don’t listen to the 'very dishonest media.'" "There’re horrible, horrible people.”  Just listen to Trump and his team. Believe me. What a slippery slope.

If you believe that there are things such as facts, and that distinguishing fact from fiction, and real news vs. fake news is important, please read on. I am offering tips on how to tell when news stories are fake. I borrowed from (totally ripped off) the December 5, 2015 article by NPR for all of these:

First, look closely at the domain and URL. News organizations with an established track record and reputations typically own their domains and have a standard look that you are probably familiar with. A major red flag is sites with endings such as “” This is a hint that you should do your own research to determine if they can be trusted. The site can otherwise look quite professional, down to close-to-the-real-thing logos. For example, is a legitimate news source, but is not. Got it?

You know those "About Us" sections? Read them. Most sites communicate information about their news outlet, what company runs or owns it, its leadership, and the vision or mission statement of that company. The language used here is usually quite straightforward. If, instead, it's over the top, bombastic, or lunatic fringe, you should be skeptical. Searching for further info about the organizations’ members and leadership also wouldn't hurt.

Look for quotes, or lack thereof.  Look for policy makers, academics, and experts who refer to white papers and research they’ve conducted. When research studies are mentioned, look them up. When there are few (or no) quotations, and they are not correctly cited, be suspicious of the story, and the site.

Who said what?  Is information coming from “reliable sources” or reputable experts? NPR said it best:

“Say you're looking at a story and it says President Obama said he wanted to take everyone's guns away. And then there's a quote. Obama is an official who has almost everything he says recorded and archived. There are transcripts for pretty much any address or speech he has given. Google those quotes. See what the speech was about, who he was addressing and when it happened. Even if he did an exclusive interview with a publication, that same quote will be referenced in other stories, saying he said it while talking to the original publication.”

This makes a lot of sense.

Dare to stare at the comments. Fake and downright misleading stories proliferate via social media platforms. Leads are designed to capture readers’ attention, and clicks, but at reputable news sites, they also accurately reflect what the story is really about. Fake headlines often feature overblown language as click bait, then some other stuff is discussed, once a reader is hooked. When the FB or Twitter storm hits around a "breaking news story", check the comments—some dutiful, competent citizens will likely, hopefully, call it out for being the bull that it is.

Track images down. NPR, December 5, 2016:

“If people who write these fake news stories don't even leave their homes or interview anyone for the stories, it's unlikely they take their own pictures. Do a little detective work and reverse search for the image on Google. You can do this by right-clicking on the image and choosing to search Google for it. If the image is appearing on a lot of stories about many different topics, there's a good chance it's not actually an image of what it says it was on the first story.

Excellent advice.

These and other tips can help slow the proliferation of fake news and the dumbing down of our citizenry. Hopefully. If it’s not too late. Merry, Informed Christmas, Happy Google, and make 2017 a Real News Year.

Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of  from Columbia University Press.


Davis, W. (2016). Fake Or Real? How To Self-Check The News And Get The Facts. National Public Radio. Retrieved December 20, 2016 at