Or, did they really dig up a mummified, three-fingered alien in Peru?
You get up, grab a cup of coffee and head online to catch up on what happened overnight. You look at Facebook and gasp. After you stop coughing from the coffee you just inhaled, you think, "This is terrible! A napping morgue employee was cremated by mistake! I have to share this one!" And you do. But guess what? It's not true.
The incredibly detailed story of the ill-fated morgue employee was the brainchild of fake "news" site WNDR. And it was believed and shared by millions.
Sharing a fake story like this one is probably harmless, but that's not always the case. A false meme that's been around for years came across my Facebook feed again this week.
The graphical chart entitled "Think Before You Donate" depicts several charities, including Goodwill, UNICEF, The United Way, March of Dimes and the American Red Cross as not worthy of donations. The graphic cites erroneous CEO salaries and other false information to support its creator's view.
Not only is a chart like this inaccurate, if believed it does harm to the very people the charity serves by reducing donations. So how can you figure out how to spot real from fake?
Follow these fake news spotting tips:
1. From Whence Did It Come?
OK, enough of the flowery language. Your first clue to the legitimacy of a news story or graphic is figuring out where it originally came from.
If there is a link to the source, look closely. For example, ABC News, a legitimate news source, has a web address that looks like this: "http://abcnews.com/." Fake news sites mimic legitimate addresses, so even though at first glance it looks legit, "abcnews.com.co" is fake.
You can also find clues on the website itself. Look at the "About" section. Many fake news sites cover themselves by describing what they do as "satire." Unfortunately, this "satire" is made to look like accurate information and is believed by millions.
Some fake sites use names that sound legitimate. For example, if you don't live in Boston and see the name "Boston Tribune," you'd probably think it's real. But it isn't. One look at the contact page and it's obvious the "Boston Tribune" is not a legitimate news source. The only contact is a single gmail address. No editor names, dedicated email addresses, mailing addresses or phone numbers. A big red flag.
2. Oh, That Headline!
Fake news stories use a lot of provocative language. Typically, they're written to inflame anger. Before you share that story as truth, read the article itself. You'll often find indications the story is not true.
Look at sources cited and names of people quoted. They'll often be tongue-in-cheek or obviously phony.
3. Who Wrote It?
Take a gander at the byline. The writer's name itself might give you a clue. If it's linked, check the writer's qualifications and background. If the writer sounds too good to be true or his or her qualifications are general without specifics, such as winner of a "handful" of awards, raise your inner red flag.
4. It Looks So Real
Some fake news creators are adept at making their stories look authentic. They cite government sources which either don't exist or say something completely different. In some cases, they'll use old stories from legitimate sources and republish them as their own. The problem with that is the story is no longer in the same context and could at the time its reprinted be blatantly false.
5. Is It Really Satire?
To be honest, it's sometimes hard to tell. Columns by Andy Borowitz or "news" published on "The Onion" website are satire. There's no question about intent with either. But when news fakers hide behind the "satire" label to protect themselves when they lie, they are trying to fool readers into believing what they're saying is true. And worse, they try to fool us into sharing the lies. And boy, does it work!
6. Watch Your Bias
Fake news stories often appeal to people who already hold the beliefs contained. That's why so many false stories go viral - people read the headline and because they already believe what they read is true, they share. We're all guilty. We all have to stop.
But, Research Takes Time...
Yes, it does. As a writer, I know how time-consuming research can be. But it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to be smarter when it comes to sharing information. Passing around fake news as truth is just plain wrong.
Fortunately, there are fact checking websites you can use to find out if a story is true or not. Here is a list of some of the best:
Charity Navigator: Charity Navigator rates and evaluates charities and nonprofit organizations. The organization makes available CEO salaries, financials, accountability and transparency procedures and assigns an overall rating for each.
Fact Check: A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, Fact Check is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, searchable political player fact checker.
Open Secrets: Run by the Center for Responsive Politics, Open Secrets tracks how much money candidates receive and where it comes from.
ProPublica: ProPublica is an independent nonprofit organization and winner of several Pulitzer Prizes. It focuses on public interest investigation journalism.
Snopes: Snopes is a nonpartisan independent fact checker that covers politics as well as urban legends and those wild stories that come across your feed every day — like the napping morgue employee who wasn't accidentally incinerated.
Snopes has been accused of having a liberal bias and a "shady" past. Snopes fact-checks are well-researched and sourced. I have found the site to be reliable. As a writer and researcher, however, I use multiple sources to support what I write.
Snopes is widely regarded as a reputable fact-checking source by many authoritative organizations including the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).
Why Should You Care?
Maybe you think it doesn't matter if a story is true or not. It's all in fun, right? But it does matter. The previously mentioned false charity chart graphic is just a tiny tip of the iceberg when it comes to the damage fake news stories can do.
So what do you do if you share something and find out later it's false? Your first step is to delete it from your feed. If it's something that might negatively affect someone or an organization or group, post a retraction as well.
With practice, you'll begin to spot fake news without doing a lot of research. You can either ignore it or call it out. But you won't pass it on now, will you?
Do you have any other "go to" sites to check out false news stories? Let me know in the comments section.