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How to Spot Fake News

When you browse online or scroll through social media, it’s only a matter of time before you’re confronted with fake news. But knowing how to spot and differentiate between false news, biased news, and satire isn’t always straightforward. Read our guide to identifying fake news and learn how to sort the wheat from the chaff. Then get Avast Secure Browser and its news verification feature to easily confirm the trustworthiness of any news source.

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What is fake news

Fake news is misinformation disguised as genuine news that’s usually published to deceive or simply influence people. Although always misleading, fake news isn’t always based on outright falsehoods. Facts or true stories can be spun or presented without critical context and end up being just as deceptive outright lies.

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    Fake news can be very convincing and hard to debunk. And the prevalence of disinformation online makes it hard to know what’s genuine and what’s fake. While fake news is often harmless and sometimes fun, it can also be used by people to sway public opinion or even by hackers as a means of social engineering.

    To understand the fake news definition, it’s important to look at the entire spectrum of fake news sources, including biased news, propaganda, and clickbait, which may contain malware or adware.

    We all like to think we can spot fake news, but as fake news proliferates and specific examples become more polished and sophisticated through the use of, among other things, deepfake technology, even discerning readers can be easily duped — particularly as fake news is often rooted in fact and designed to exploit known biases.

    When did fake news start?

    The recent rise of fake news is closely tied to the 2016 US presidential election campaign, and the campaign of Donald Trump, who helped coin the term by denouncing news stories he didn’t like as “fake.” During Donald Trump’s presidency, he mentioned the term “fake news” in about 900 tweets — approximately once every other day.

    Donald Trump tweeted "fake news" approximately 900 times during his presidency.Donald Trump mentioned “fake news” on Twitter throughout his presidency. (Source: CNBC)

    But long before we were wondering how to keep kids safe on Facebook and away from fake online news online, there were offline equivalents in the form of misleading, sensationalized headlines and political propaganda meant to pull at heartstrings and manipulate opinions and behavior. The fake news problem in print media was so widespread during the 19th century that a new term even emerged to describe it: yellow journalism.

    In a sense though, fake news started when the very first lie was told around a campfire. But while false claims, deceptions, and misleading opinions dressed up as fact have been around since time immemorial, false information spread by online outlets masquerading as legitimate, authoritative new sources is a more specific and modern phenomenon.

    The democratization of publishing thanks to the internet also makes answering the question of who creates fake news harder to answer. It can be part of an organized campaign orchestrated by powerful groups, but it can just as easily be spread by opportunistic individuals writing fake content to make a quick buck, harvest clicks, or further online scams.

    Examples of fake news stories

    Fake news articles and reports can be found practically anywhere, including on social media, web forums, newsletters, television, and print media. But fake news examples tend to fall into one of a few categories, and the more you know about them, the easier it is to spot bogus stories — no matter where you encounter them.

    Biased news

    News that’s biased to the point of being misleading — particularly when it excludes critical context — is a form of fake news. And it’s not hard to find examples of fake news stories arising from biased reporting.

    For instance, when critiquing President Trump’s hardline immigration policy in 2018, some media outlets published images allegedly showing a “first glimpse” of children held in cages at the US-Mexican border. The problem was they used photos from 2014 of detention facilities established under the administration of former US President Barack Obama. So while immigrant children were being separated from their families and held in cells at the border, it was absolutely false that this was a “first glimpse” of something new.

    Fake news example shows poor journalism and missing context of immigrant children in cages.Stories presented with a clear bias, like this one from the online outlet azcentral, can often be considered fake news. (Source: azcentral)

    Propaganda

    Propaganda is a form of fake news that pushes an agenda through inflammatory rhetoric designed to evoke an instinctive and emotional reaction. Social media is awash with propagandistic memes and other highly deceptive, viral content that make it hard to avoid fake news altogether.

    Propaganda is most effective at reinforcing and radicalizing preconceived ideas.This kind of fake news is usually highly targeted to specific audiences who either already have biased opinions on a topic or are particularly susceptible to certain ideas or methods of persuasion.

    Here's an example of modern day propaganda. It uses simple words and images, plays on emotions, and steers past logic and nuance straight to a foregone conclusion.

    A propaganda meme on social media assumes a lot in a few simple statements and pulls at people's emotions.A meme that became popular on Facebook after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. (Source: Facebook)

    Clickbait

    Clickbait is a news article that pulls readers in with false or exaggerated headlines. The aim of clickbait is simple: to get you to click. At best, it's a tacky way to boost website traffic. At worst, it's a way for hackers to infect your device with malware or scareware.

    Clickbait usually opens a story in its headline, but you have to click to get the final hook. Not all examples of clickbait are misleading or untrue news articles, but they’re not newsworthy, lack integrity, and are almost never substantive.

    Take the example below from the website Elite Daily. We'll save you the apparently “outrageous” truth about green gummy bears: They're strawberry flavored. That's it.

    Example of clickbait. Spoiler, the green gummies are strawberry flavored. Don't click!Clickbait stories often alleged to offer profound information or deep, hidden truths. (Source: Elite Daily)

    Satire

    Satire is a playful form of fake internet news that features intentionally humorous, exaggerated, sometimes provocative or even offensive stories that poke fun at current events and highlight irony in the world.

    Most satirical news outlets like The Onion, The Daily Show, and CAP News do not try to hide the fact that they are fake news. Their stories and headlines are intentionally so outrageous or absurd as to be obviously fake, but it isn’t always immediately apparent.

    Like other more malign forms of fake news, effective satire is usually centered on a kernel of truth — like this playful but relatable “news” story from the satirical Daily Mash.

    Satire news story from the Daily Mash, a British satirical news site.Satire is a particularly effective way to highlight absurdity in the world. (Source: The Onion)

    Fake news checklist: how to identify fake news

    So, how do you spot fake news when it reaches you? Just as there are common characteristics that help spot fake apps, there are a number of red flags to watch out for that can help you recognize a false narrative.

    Here’s how to tell if a news story is fake:

    Unreliable sources

    Once you know the prime sources of fake news, knowing how to identify and avoid fake news gets a lot easier. For every story, graphic, or other form of news media, always verify who the original publisher is. Keep an eye out for notoriously unreliable websites, unknown blogs or organizations, or posts on social media that don’t name a source.

    The deluge of unreliable news sources on social media raises questions about how safe Twitter is for children, and may even tempt you to delete your own Facebook account. But getting in the habit of checking the reliability of sources won’t just make you more adept at spotting fake news; it’ll also help you identify clickjacking and avoid Facebook phishing and other scams before they affect you.

    To make fake news detection even easier, the Avast News Companion plug-in for Avast Secure Browser and Chrome checks the bias of news sources as you browse, includes a multi-source fact-checking feature, and helps catch bogus content that slips past your website safety check.

    Contradicting coverage

    If the reporting of a story is out of step with the majority of other publications, this may be a sign that it’s fake news. Before jumping to conclusions, seek out more coverage of the event or topic to see if other, reputable sources confirm the story.

    Knowing how to distinguish fake news from contradicting news is often a matter of confirming the trustworthiness of the journalist or news outlet. To explore contradictory coverage, you might need a VPN in order to access geo-restricted content, or evade state censorship with the help of the best browsers for privacy.

    Sensational headlines

    Bogus news can sometimes be identified simply from a sensational headline. Even stories rooted in fact are often manipulated to draw readers in or spin a particular narrative. The more sensational the headline, the more likely the article is likely to be clickbait, propaganda, or even a source of malvertising.

    Treat any content introduced by a sensational headline with skepticism and caution, and check to see what other news outlets or trusted sources that are covering the same story have to say.

    Outdated coverage

    If an article is outdated it may no longer be relevant. Most reputable news outlets update or remove outdated coverage, but information shared in good-faith can become fake news as context evolves and the understanding of events and subjects develops. Check for fake news by ensuring you're reading the most up-to-date information on the topic.

    Satirical coverage

    If a piece of news seems particularly outrageous or bizarre, question if it's meant to be taken seriously. Often satirical pieces about current affairs are posted alongside real news, particularly on social media, which can lead to confusion. Satire is easy to spot when it comes from a popular fake news website, but it's harder to tell if something is fake or a joke when it’s seen out of context.

    The Onion is a popular US satire news site which posts ludicrous headlines meant to point out irony and make people laugh.The Onion is a popular US media site that publishes satirical articles about international and local affairs. (Image source: The Onion)

    Follow your instinct

    Knowing how to tell fake news from real news isn’t always easy, and sometimes you have to rely on common sense. Fake news is convincing precisely because it’s designed to play to readers’ biases, hopes, and fears. But just like with phishing schemes, and other scams, things usually seem a bit off with fake news articles and other media. Trust your gut.

    Protect your device from fake sites

    From fake news story websites to malicious downloads and phishing links, the web is awash with bogus sites designed to trick you. And being vigilant isn’t always enough. But with Avast Secure Browser’s arsenal of built-in security tools, safer browsing is just a click away.

    Specifically engineered by security experts for maximum protection, Avast Secure Browser prevents web tracking, masks your identity, and automatically blocks fake sites, pop-ups and dangerous links to shut down clickbait and other scams at their source. Plus, with the News Companion feature, Avast Secure Browser makes it easy to verify the authenticity of any news story you come across online.

    Verify your news sources with Avast Secure Browser

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    Carly Burdova
    22-07-2022