A Young Person’s Guide to Spotting Fake News
Like many citizens around the world, you may be concerned about media manipulation. It was digital news content, referred to as “fake news,” that spurred international concern that false news reports were misleading voters after the so-called Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States. Trump weaponized the term “fake news” to denounce any reporting he deemed to be inaccurate or inconveniently critical of him or his administration.
As Nolan Higdon notes in The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education, “Fake news is anything but self-explanatory. It extends far beyond news itself and exists in numerous formats such as rumors, lies, hoaxes, bunk, satire, parody, misleading content, impostor content, fabricated content, and manipulated content.”
You are not powerless against the influence of the news media, however. As a critically news-literate person, you can investigate news content and the process behind its production and dissemination. One way to begin is to familiarize yourself with who is likely to produce fake news.
The known producers of fake news include the following:
Political party propaganda apparatuses: Loosely connected groups that work to influence electoral outcomes and policy debates through the promotion of content, including fake news. These organizations include public relations firms and members of the news media who often work in tandem.
The legacy media: These are often called “mainstream” media, but are also sometimes referred to as “corporate” media. Although they reach large audiences and report on many daily affairs accurately, they sometimes report falsehoods that can be minor, such as misattributing a quote, or significant, such as the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which served as one justification for the catastrophic U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
State-sponsored propaganda machines: A conglomerate of government-funded efforts that seek to influence public opinion. Governments, including the United States, have long produced and distributed fake news to domestic and foreign populations through outlets such as Radio Televisión Martí and Voice of America. Other nations, including Russia, engage in propaganda operations that also seek to shape global interpretations of events.
Satirical fake news: A form of entertainment that lampoons dominant culture by simulating a major news outlet’s format and presentation. Examples include The Onion, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee.
Self-interested actors: People who create fake news to serve their own ends. For example, in an effort to promote his own career, Jayson Blair reported fake news in numerous stories he filed while he worked at The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
While all of this may seem overwhelming, you have the power to discern fact from fiction and reject false and misleading content presented as legitimate news. Fake news content comes in print, broadcast, and digital forms. If a news story’s headline evokes a strong “Whoa!” reaction, by making you extremely angry or sad, or by making you laugh out loud, this should be a red flag. Whether negative or positive, emotions could cloud your ability to think logically and objectively. Asking the following questions about news content can help you determine its degree of credibility.
- Is the content journalism? Not everyone in the press is a journalist. Commentators and pundits, such as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel, and Bakari Sellers of CNN, comment on news stories that other journalists originally reported. These commentators or pundits are rarely on-site for the story, in real time or afterward, and are less likely to have been involved in primary-source reporting. By contrast, reporters and journalists generally introduce primary sources, explaining the known and verified events on a timeline while providing further context. They tell audiences what the available primary sources mean when analyzed together.
- Who is the publisher of this content? Evaluate the publisher’s validity. This easy step can be taken early in the process of news evaluation. News users should consider the following questions: Does the publisher have a history of publishing fact-based journalism or biased content? Does the publisher have any conflicts of interest (economic, political, professional, or personal)? Do they have a history of retracting and correcting inaccurate reporting?
- Who is the author of this content? Evaluate the author’s credibility, another crucial early step. News users should consider the following questions: Who is the author? Does the author have any professional, personal, or political conflicts of interest? Do they have a history of having their stories retracted for inaccurate reporting?
- Do I understand the content? Slow down and carefully investigate content. Being well informed is not about virtue signaling or showing that you can share more articles online than any of your peers; it is about finding the truth, and that takes time.
- What is the evidence? Identify, evaluate, and analyze the evidence. Are the news story’s sources clearly identified or not? Are there other newsworthy views or sources that ought to be included? Journalists sometimes have to use anonymous sources to protect the identity of vulnerable individuals and whistleblowers. For example, if a source is providing information about corruption in their workplace or within the government, they could be fired by their employer for doing so or, worse yet, charged with a crime and imprisoned. And at a legitimate news organization, an editor will look for independent verification of the facts before publishing. However, there can also be problems when journalists rely on anonymous sources, because the claims made by such sources can be difficult, if not impossible, to verify.
It is a good idea to be skeptical of anonymous sources, but it is also important to note that at times anonymous sources have been remarkably significant. For example, two of the most famous news stories in the history of U.S. journalism relied on anonymous sources: the revelations of the Mỹ Lai massacre in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal that eventually brought down President Richard Nixon’s administration.
What is missing from the content? Analyze news media not just for what is there but for what is missing. What stories and whose viewpoints are excluded? What identity groups are erased or marginalized, either as newsworthy sources of information and perspective or as journalists? What do these missing people and perspectives reveal about the aims and the validity of the news content? How do these missing perspectives reinforce or extend existing power relations?
What is the bias? Identify and examine the influence of bias on news content. As we’ve mentioned, all content will have some bias, originating from a variety of sources. Corporate news coverage often reflects the values of consumer culture by emphasizing the interests of business owners, while ignoring the lives of working people.
We spend more of our daily lives consuming media than any prior generation. Its influence is undeniable, but we don’t have to allow it to determine our opinions and behavior. Asking the right questions about the content that is presented to us is the first step in becoming savvy media consumers who are less vulnerable to manipulation.
Excerpted from The Media and Me: A Guide to Critical Media Literacy for Young People by Project Censored and The Media Revolution Collective (2022) appears with permission of the Censored Press and Seven Stories Press.
Watch an interview with contributor Allison T. Butler on Rising Up With Sonali:
Project Censored and The Media Revolution Collective has decades of combined experience in critical media literacy. Find out more here.