“Suspected child lifters are carrying sedatives, injections, spray, cotton and small towels. They speak Hindi, Bangla and Malayali. If you happen to see any stranger near your house immediately inform the local police as he could be a member of the child lifting gang.” This viral WhatsApp message was circulated around Guwahati, Assam in June 2018.
I was in Guwahati for a conference then when I heard about the mob violence that killed two young men who were passing through a village in Assam. The city was put on curfew as people tried to make sense of the violence. That WhatsApp message had no credible source but played effectively on people’s fears.
What exactly is fake news?
News is all around us these days. It comes from various sources including newspapers, radio, TV, Internet, and most notably, through social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. In a news saturated world it is important for us to learn to wade through this complicated maze. It is even more important for us to teach children skills to identify fake news and immunize them against undue persuasion and false information.
“Jama Masjid in dark due to non-payment of electricity bills over four crores.” Republic TV, August 30, 2017
“Fatwa in Saudi Arabia that men can eat their wives if hungry.” AajTak, April 10, 2017
These are some news reports aired on popular news channels and social networks like WhatsApp in the last couple of years that were found to be fake.
Fake news comprises
• Stories that are not true and
• Stories that have a kernel of truth, but are not completely accurate.
• Stories that are deliberate exaggerations or misrepresentations of the truth.
Fake news stories are biased, deliberately meant to confuse or mislead. Although fake news is not a new phenomenon, it is now easy to share these stories at a rapid pace to large audiences.
Types of fake news
There are several kinds of fake news but they broadly fall into:
- Hoaxes or completely fabricated news: These stories are completely made up and unverifiable. This means that you cannot confirm that the same news is present on other reliable sources. The authors are not qualified journalists or experts.
- Partisan news: News of this kind combine facts and opinions to support one political viewpoint or party, and often position themselves as alternatives to the mainstream media.
- Advertorials: These are newspaper or magazine advertisements giving information about a product in the style of an editorial or article.
- Satire: Such sites deliberately exaggerate facts and reveal their satirical status. Such stories are generally humorous and include commentary on real news but in an exaggerated manner.
- Fake posts: Swarms of people post doctored or misleading photos, adverts on Facebook, videos on YouTube making unverifiable or patently false claims like the gang of child lifters mentioned above.
Why do people create fake news?
People are motivated to create fake news for many reasons including
• For financial gain
• To persuade others to buy a product
• Vote for or against a particular candidate
• To promote one ideology over others
• To deceive people or as a prank
Before we get to how to spot fake news, it is important for us to differentiate between fact and opinion.
• Facts are accurate reports of what happened or what exists.
• Opinions are an interpretation of the meaning or impact, usually from an individual’s perspective.
While it is legitimate for an opinion to be influenced by a person’s world view, it is important that those who express an opinion should back them up with facts rather than inaccurate information.
How to spot fake news
When you look at news on a website, a video on YouTube or if someone sends you a video or picture via SMS or WhatsApp be to check:
- Always check the source of the information to see if it is reliable or whether it comes from unidentifiable sources.
- Check if the author/s are an authority on that subject. Have they written on this subject earlier? Looking at other articles they may have written also helps.
- Cross-check the information with other reliable sources such as newspapers, television and radio.
- If you are unsure then it’s best to ask a teacher or a parent.
• It is important to check whether the content is based on facts or on opinions.
• The news is badly presented with grammatical or spelling errors.
• The information is devoid of any details or has only few details about the persons involved, time and places of incidents.
• The tone-of-voice used by the sender tends to be largely persuasive and emotive, emphasizing strong emotions over cold analysis.
Fake news stories generally don’t cite verifiable evidence, reputable websites or relevant information. It helps to check for any references to outside sources of information like facts and figures.
A Google reverse image search can tell you whether an image is fake or genuine. All you have to do is upload a picture onto the Google Image Search site and you will see all the other web pages that have similar images – and if they’ve been used out of context.
Sometimes by copy pasting text into a search engine like Google can tell us if the story is true or fake. Often (but not always) this will bring up sites that may dispute or confirm the story, but it may also bring up other fake news sites that repeat the story.
There are several websites that can help you verify if the news is fake or real. Some of the best ones in use currently are Altnews, Media Bias/FactCheck (MBFC News), PolitiFact, Snopes, FactCheck.org and Google Search.
Based on the steps mentioned above and all the information you have gathered, you can evaluate if a particular article, email, image or video is credible or suspicious. Always think before you share and inform the sender of the message that the news is false.
The author is a communications professional and works for The Public Health Foundation of India. Apart from public health she has an abiding interest in the digital lives of young children and health communication. She can be reached at email@example.com.