How Students Can Spot Fake News

What is the most trusted news source? According to the Media Bias Chart presented by Ad Fontes Media, the answer is The Weather Channel. For unbiased, fact-based, objective reporting, you can count on the Weather Channel. But if you need to know more than today’s dew point and the relative humidity in your region, you’re going to have to dig a little deeper. And when you do, you run the considerable risk of stumbling on fake news, conspiracy theories, Russian disinformation, and the usual preponderance of clickbait about aging celebrities. So how can you spot fake news? How can you avoid becoming another cog in a big system of rampant disinformation?

How Students Can Spot Fake News

Well, let’s start with the facts. The internet is absolutely festering with deceptive, misleading, and outright false content. From extreme political groups and unregulated social media platforms to malicious ideological influencers and unhinged YouTube ranters, the sound of falsehood is at times deafening. If you’re a student, this is a particularly acute problem. Your job is to search for fact, to prove accuracy, and to uncover the kernel of truth at the heart of a given subject. So needless to say, the vast wasteland of fake news piling up on the internet is most unwelcome.

Conducting research is challenging enough. Just as the internet places an unfathomable amount of information at our fingertips, it also plunges us into a cesspool of untruth. Fortunately, as academics, we have the media-savvy skills to see through the dense thicket of clickbait, bias, and extremism. Sometimes though, we need to be reminded of these skills, and how best to apply them in a virtual universe where disinformation is more widely distributed, more widely accepted, and more intentionally misleading than ever before.

As you conduct research, as you cite your sources, and as you form your own views on the subjects that matter to you, keep these tips in mind. With simple logic, refined research skills, and a just a bit of healthy skepticism, you should always be able to tell the difference between fake news and real thing:

The Fake News Epidemic

Five years ago, the phrase ’fake news” had little cultural meaning. Today, it is uttered with extraordinary frequency by politicians, journalists, and members of the public. A combination of factors—the mass proliferation of social media, increasingly severe political polarization, malicious disinformation campaigns by foreign and domestic threats—have transformed fake news into a real and genuinely destructive force in American public life.

An article from Yale University points out that the phrase fake news has been applied to numerous forms of misinformation, disinformation, or propaganda, and that it has been brandished by individuals on all sides of the ideological spectrum to refer to widely divergent sources. This makes it somewhat difficult to fully define the term fake news, and suggests that it is more constructive to identify the permeating consequence of fake news, which is the devaluing of accuracy, expertise, empirical research, and other sources of provable authority in a given area.

This is especially true in the context of electoral politics. In a time of growing animus between those on the left and the right sides of the political aisle, our sources of media tend to feed our confirmation bias—regardless of their trustworthiness. In fact, as we have become more politically divided, the media we choose to engage has tended to magnify our biases.

Indeed, an article in Vox reports that “websites that provide ‘unreliable news’ increased their share of social media interactions this year. In 2019, 8 percent of engagement with the 100 top-performing news sources on social media was dubious. In 2020, that number more than doubled to 17 percent.”

The 2020 Presidential Election was, in particular, a major catalyst of disinformation, much of it centering around a combination of rapidly spreading conspiracy theories from fringe ideological groups and some political leaders. In fact, so pronounced was the role of fake news during the recent election cycle that it cast into doubt the legitimacy of the election’s outcome and helped give rise to the violent and deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2020.

Even in the aftermath of these events, Americans remain sharply divided on their perceptions of both the election and the cause of the events on January 6th. This division underscores the reality that many Americans subscribe to their own variants of the truth, and that there is a reciprocal relationship between political affiliation and the media each of us engages. As a result, fake news now plays an outsized role in the way we engage the news, political discourse, and one another.

This is why it’s so important to confront the spread of fake news by proliferating truth, knowledge, and accuracy. As academics, this speaks to our topmost priority. As a student, you have an important role in combating the spread of fake news. But let’s start with the most important priority—ensuring that you know how to protect yourself from disinformation.

Determine Online Source Credibility

As a student, you have no doubt already had some instruction on spotting credible sources for academic research. When you’re writing a paper and cruising for information online, you’re generally looking for scholarly journals, primary source documents, reference texts, and articles from trusted periodicals and news outlets. Increasingly, the latter of these two have become somewhat more difficult to evaluate. How can you tell which news outlets are legitimate, and which are merely clickbait; which report fact, and which are designed to sell products; which are based on authoritative reporting, and which are incomplete, misleading, or willfully untruthful?

One great starting point is to simply observe the quality of the source. Is it saturated with spelling errors, typos, grammatical mistakes, randomly capitalized words, and sensationalized (sometimes even sexually titillating) images? These are usually strong surface indicators that a source is produced by something less than professional journalism.

But what of fake news that comes in a more convincing package, and with more professional polish? We think this Media Bias Chart from Ad Fontes Media is a particularly useful way of understanding how media outlets skew their coverage. Pointedly, this chart demonstrates that every media outlet takes an editorial position with some degree of ideological bias. However, editorial bias is not, by itself, the equivalent of propaganda or willful disinformation. This chart demonstrates the differing intent of each media outlet, from those which provide completing objective fact reporting or complex analysis, to those which combine factual analysis with editorial opinion, to those which engage in willfully selective and incomplete reporting, or outright fabrication.

Deciphering fact from fiction requires you to make a meaningful evaluation of any given news source. A few ways to this include:

  • Researching the source’s ratings in neutral outlets (i.e. Wikipedia, NewsGuard)
  • Reviewing other headlines and news items from the same news source to determine general credibility
  • Identifying an article’s author, reporting history, and credentials
  • Looking for political or commercial motives underlying a source

Take a closer look at the Media Bias Chart for a sense of where popular outlets tend to skew.

Number of Publications
Media Bias Chart

Check Source Citations

This is another critical step when conducting research of any kind. Don’t just take citations on face value. Follow up on these citations. A credible news story will provide citations and links to sources for its findings. The quality of these citations will tell you a great deal about the quality of the information claimed within. When you’re reading the news, you generally like to see citations leading to scholarly journals, peer-reviewed research, primary documents, verifiable quotes, and other immediately provable sources. If, by contrast, citation links lead to blog entries, homemade YouTube videos, or only to the author’s own prior work, you should view the information with skepticism.

In Fact, Read Everything With Healthy Skepticism

Speaking of skepticism, it’s important to find the balance between respect for expertise and scrutiny of your findings. When confronted with new information, ask the right questions. Where is this information coming from? What are the objectives and biases of this source? What are the objectives and biases of the information itself? Can the information be verified? For instance, if a trustworthy news source quotes a politician running for public office, and this politician has a provably strained relationship with the truth, you may want to vet the quote in question.

While the news outlet itself may not be willfully guilty of disinformation, it may wittingly or unwittingly give voice to an individual or agency that is guilty of disinformation. It’s up to you to approach even reliable news outlets with measured skepticism. But note that healthy skepticism does not mean rejecting otherwise trustworthy news sources simply because they contrast your expectations. It is your job to cure yourself of skepticism through meaningful findings. Seek confirmation of information from a source you can trust. After all, the danger that comes from undermining expertise is equally as great as the danger of embracing untruth. Address your skepticism with a visit to one of several well-regarded fact-checking sites, including:

Confirm Questionable Information Elsewhere

If you can’t determine whether or not a source is reliable, but you suspect the information provided might still be true, confirm this exact information elsewhere. Just because you read a claim from a deeply biased media outlet doesn’t mean it’s untrue. But it does mean that you’ll need to verify it using a more neutral and reliable news outlet. Do not quote a meme from your Twitter feed during your next political debate. Instead, distill the information claimed by that meme, then look that information up using trustworthy sources. Your friend’s Facebook post about the unemployment rate may or may not be accurate. But the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) information on the subject is absolutely accurate. The politically-motivated drive-time radio squawker may or may not be telling the truth about a newly-drafted piece of legislation. But you can easily visit the United States Congress website to read the draft itself.

Simply stated, if it’s true, you should have no problem confirming as much with a quick Google search and a look at a meaningful source. If you can’t find the information in a source that you recognize as trustworthy, it’s a safe bet you’re reading fake news.

Bias is Everywhere. Recognize It

Source bias is a critical piece of the fake news equation. Every source has some degree of editorial bias, even those which are fact-based and trustworthy. And, as the reader, you also have implicit biases that impact what you choose to read, and how you perceive what you read. Make sure you understand these biases, both in your media sources, and in yourself. This is important, and potentially illuminating, as you navigate a media landscape with all sorts of prejudicial pitfalls.

According to The Atlantic, “One of the biggest risks often imputed to the current media environment, in which audiences can pick and choose news outlets that agree with them, is that people will become more and more siloed, cutting themselves off from information that they don’t like or that contradicts their prior assumptions.”

This trend has intensified under the microscope of social media. Vox explains that social media algorithms are not organically intended to cultivate our political differences. Instead, engagement is driven by outrage. That which outrages us inclines us to greater consumption and sharing. Therefore, we are targeted by algorithms which stimulate our outrage against opposing ideas, and more problematically, against one another. The spread of fake news through social media is a mere byproduct of this effort, and so too, is our growing division as a nation.

Vox notes that “people are increasingly being drawn to unreliable content—and often, unreliable content that has a conservative bent. And that content can influence all sorts of attitudes and cause confusion on even basic facts.”

This, in turn, is producing an intensification of bias through media outlets both on the ideological fringe and those in the mainstream which profit from America’s political divisions. This profit-motive means that bias and disinformation share a close relationship, with the latter being used intentionally to convey and stimulate the former.

“From that perspective,” says the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), “a Facebook or Twitter newsfeed is just confirmation bias backed with computer power: What you see when you look at the top of the feed is determined algorithmically by what you and your friends like. Any discordant information gets pushed further and further down the queue, creating an insidious echo chamber.”

If you choose not to recognize your own biases, or to critically evaluate the biases even of those sources with which you tend to agree, you make yourself more likely to become an unwitting victim of disinformation.

Be Part of the Solution, Not the Problem

Speaking of which, nothing makes you a more obvious victim than sharing falsehood on social media. You know those death hoaxes that pop up every few years? Sure you do. In November of 2020, the inexplicably popular Canadian rapper Drake was reported dead. #RIPDrake began trending on Twitter, and a headline purported to be from the L.A. Times confirmed his death. Of course, when you clicked on the link, it would take you to a video of Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up.” That’s when you know, you’ve been Rickrolled. This example is relatively harmless (depending on how painful you find a 5-second clip of Rick Astley singing) but if you did happen to post your condolences for Drake without actually checking the link, you probably felt like a dummy.

As it happens, Drake is alive, well, and still inexplicably popular.

The lesson here—don’t share it, unless you can prove it. Before you post, do just the bare minimum of research. Before you Tweet, make sure you’re adding to the right side of the balance for online truth.

***

Speaking of adding to the balance for truth, this should generally be a part of your strategy for research, education, and personal enrichment throughout your education and life. But if you want to take a more direct and active role in combating the spread of fake news, there are a few career paths that can help get you there.

Fight against malicious disinformation with a bachelor’s degree in law.

Promote accuracy and fairness as a journalist, reporter, or public relations specialist with a bachelor’s degree in communication.

Or become an author, and shine a light on the truth through your writing with a bachelor’s degree in English/Literature.

Want to be an Academic Influence Insider? Sign up to get the latest news, information, and rankings in our upcoming newsletter.