10 Ways to Spot Fake News
Evaluating 'news’ online through critical thinking.
Posted October 4, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader
Over the summer, I wrote a couple of pieces about how we can infuse critical thinking into our writing and avoid presenting Fake News. During my writing, it dawned on me that it’s arguably easier to avoid presenting fake news than it is to identify fake news. Indeed, research indicates both that students struggle to evaluate the credibility of information online (Wineburg et al., 2016) and that approximately 2% of children have the critical literacy skills necessary to identify whether a news story is fake (Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy in Schools, 2018).
‘Fake news’ is not a new concept, though it has increased in influence since the dawn of social media, which facilitates easier transmission of such ‘stories.’ The manner in which information exchange has evolved over the past 15 years provides us with more and more examples of fake news; for example, through clickbait, biased reporting, propaganda and bad journalism. Fake news can be exchanged accidentally or deliberately—to which the parliamentary Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport in the UK refer to as misinformation and disinformation, respectively.
Indeed, perhaps one of the best tips for avoiding the presentation of fake news is the advancement of one’s ability to identify it in the first place. As a result, I present 10 Ways to Spot Fake News—but before I begin—it’s worth noting that there already exists a variety of models for spotting fake news, many of which are helpful. However, what is often glossed over is that what they’re really talking about, in a watered-down version, is the importance of critical evaluation. Thus, I present these tips in the context of evaluation, which refers to the critical thinking skill that is used in the assessment of propositions and the conclusions they infer with respect to their credibility, relevance, logical strength, and balance in the argument; thus, deciding the overall strength or weakness of the argument (Dwyer, 2017; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014; Facione, 1990).
Evaluating the credibility of claims and arguments involves progressing beyond merely identifying the source of propositions in an argument, to actually examining the credibility of those identified sources (e.g., personal experiences, common beliefs, opinions, expert/authority opinion, statistics, and research evidence). So…
1. Don’t just read the headline—dig deeper. Read the full article and assess the sources of the claims.
2. Look for evidence, not opinion (unless it’s a relevant expert’s opinion—remember, they’re an expert in a particular field for a reason). Personal experiences and common beliefs are not credible sources.
3. Look for replication—has the same story been published elsewhere? If multiple sources are covering it, it’s more likely legitimate than if this is the only source. If not, it could be unreliable. What website are you reading it from? Does the address look dodgy or untrustworthy? If so, you should…
4. Read about the site, the author, or publisher. Knowing more about these will help inform your evaluation of balance as well (see below). What do you do if the evidence they present isn’t language-based … what if it’s an image? A picture is worth a thousand words, right? Not necessarily—pictures can lie as well. Perhaps it might be worth conducting a reverse image search to see if it is a fake image?
Evaluation also implies deep consideration of the relevance of claims within an argument, which is accomplished through assessing the contextual pertinence or applicability of one proposition to another. So…
5. Ask yourself, are all the reasons presented to you for believing something actually relevant to the central claim? For example, suppose that in the heat of debate on the biological basis of aggression, a person says to you:
“Well, you mentioned that men and women have different levels of testosterone—men have more testosterone and this is one reason why men are more aggressive. But, did you know that testosterone has also been implicated in the structural brain differences that underpin gender differences in language ability and spatial ability?”
Though related, is this argument regarding gender differences in language and spatial ability truly relevant to the claim about aggression? I’ve seen and heard many arguments go on tangents because they trail off on a path of what’s related, but not what’s relevant. If evidence and logic cease to become relevant to the central claim, it could be a case of sloppy writing or perhaps, more insidiously, a crafty means of biasing the reader—either way, there’s a good chance that this might be fake news.
An argument is not just a heated debate—every piece of text you read that contains the words but or because, however, yet, therefore, thus, etc., is an argument. Evaluating the logical strength of an argument is accomplished by monitoring both the logical relationships among propositions and the claims they infer. The overall structure of an argument needs to be logical if the argument is to be considered strong.
6. If the structure lacks logic or what the writer deems to be logic is weak, this may be a sign that you’re dealing with fake news.
7. Logic is objective; so, look out for dramatic punctuation (!) and sensationalist language. Yes, the real news often presents its headlines in a sensationalist manner, but fake news can go overboard with this. With that, a good rule of thumb is to evaluate any sensationalist reports with extra care, regardless of the source.
8. Construction of logic requires care, so look out for careless presentation. Imagine a piece seems logical—OK, fair enough. Did you notice spelling mistakes or any concerning issues with the manner in which the piece was presented? These may also be signs of fake news.
The final feature of evaluation is the assessment of the extent to which there is a balance of evidence in an argument structure.
9. Count the reasons and objections (i.e., reasons for and against). If there’s a relatively large difference between these counts, then we can consider the argument imbalanced, which may imply that that the argument’s author is in some way biased. However, it may also mean that there is an imbalanced amount of evidence available for evaluation (and thus, it’s not necessarily biased writing; rather research as complete as it can be); so, be extra careful in your assessment (and don't be overly skeptical).
Furthermore, an argument may be biased in the sense that a person has a belief or prejudgment that makes them focus only on reasoning that supports their belief (e.g., confirmation bias). There are two extremes of bias and many shades of difference between these two extremes. The first extreme is where a person wholeheartedly agrees with a claim and offers only supporting arguments (i.e., omitting objections). The second extreme is where a person vehemently opposes a claim and offers only objections (i.e., omitting supports). In both cases, the person may be overlooking some important arguments; and in both cases, we need to…
10. Question the intentions of the author and ask, what is the purpose of this news story? I find that an often useful way of approaching the assessment of bias is through asking whether the piece or 'story' made me feel something. Remember, news stories are supposed to be objective. If what was presented to you evokes some kind of emotion, then it means that either the author is biased or you are. Be honest with yourself about this and assess both possibilities. Notably, this ‘emotion evoking’ is commonplace in pieces like editorials or opinion-based articles; so, it’s not always necessarily fake news. With that, however, you must be aware of the piece’s format, its role, and its purpose.
Similarly, arguments can be biased as a result of deliberately pitting weak propositions (e.g., with regard to relevance or credibility) on one side against strong propositions on the other. For example, by placing a string of three anecdotes on one side of a debate against one good quality piece of research on the other side, we may well wonder if the author is not deliberately pitting the strong against the weak in order to make us rethink our overall conclusion. Furthermore, the author might be presenting weak statements against one strong proposition in order to feign a balanced argument, when, in reality, the argument is both imbalanced and biased. Evaluating the potential for omission, bias, and imbalance in an argument allows us to identify and address an argument’s underlying motives.
Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy in Schools (2018). Fake news and critical literacy: Final report. National Literacy Trust: UK.
Dwyer, C. P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dwyer, C. P., Hogan, M. J., & Stewart, I. (2014b). An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 12, 43–52.
Facione, P. A. (1990). The Delphi report: Committee on pre-college philosophy. Millbrae, CA: California Academic Press.
Wineburg, Sam and McGrew, Sarah and Breakstone, Joel and Ortega, Teresa. (2016). Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning. Stanford Digital Repository. Available at: http://purl.stanford.edu/fv751yt5934