Online safety isn’t just about firewalls and parental controls on explicit videos. The past few years will surely be known as the era of fake news: conspiracies that 5G causes COVID-19 led to masts being ripped down by mobs in the UK¹; Donald Trump became the first American president in history to be impeached twice, as a result of inciting violence after he repeatedly insisted that the presidential election was rigged.² These safety threats were literally born online, from forwarded WhatsApp messages to Reddit threads and – almost unbelievably – the Twitter account of the President of the United States.
As web authors, it’s our responsibility to sort the fact from the fiction. Here’s our content team to tell you more.
Ahh yes. Fake news. Donald Trump’s favourite saying in the whole, wide world.
Fake news has been around for… well, ever. Misinformation has been passed around to the general public as fact since ancient Roman times,³ but it’s only intensified with the rise of the media. From newspapers to the internet, it’s only become easier to spread intentional and accidental lies.
Now, don’t get us wrong – we love the internet. From cat memes and streaming your favourite shows commercial-free anytime you want to stalking your ex on social media and creating the perfect website for your business, its uses are endless. You just have to know how to differentiate falsities from the truth.
Right, So What is Fake News?
As its name suggests, fake news is… well… news that is fake. Essentially it’s a news story, published as true, that is fabricated with no quotes, sources or facts that can be verified. And yes, misinformation (false information accidentally shared without the intent to deceive) and disinformation (false information purposely shared with the intent to influence public opinion or obscure the truth) fall into the category of fake news.
Claire Wardle of FirstDraftNews has identified seven types of disinformation and misinformation:⁴
- Misleading content – information used in a misleading manner to frame an individual or issue in a certain light
- Parody or satire – content that does not intend to harm or purposely deceive, but may unintentionally fool someone
- False connection – captions, visuals or headlines that don’t support the content
- Manipulated content – genuine images or information that have been manipulated to deceive
- False content – truthful content that has been shared with false contextual information
- Fabricated content – new content that is false and created to do harm or deceive
- Imposter content – something that occurs when genuine sources are impersonated
There are a variety of reasons someone might create or share false news, but the most common are:
- Journalists or writers with poor standards, training or ethics
- Satirists who want to entertain or make a point
- Partisans looking to influence policies and political beliefs
- Individuals attempting to make money, with no regard for the reliability of the content
Fake news examples
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: fake news was here long before Donald Trump was born and will be around long after he’s dead and gone. Here are some of our favourite examples from history:⁵
- Mark Twain’s exaggerated death – In 1897, reports from New York surfaced announcing that he was ‘dying in poverty in London’. However, Twain was alive and well at the time – it was, in fact, his cousin who had fallen ill in London. When asked to comment, Twain famously said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
- The king has fallen ill – During the Jacobite rebellion in the 1700s, some inflammatory printers reported that King George III was ill in an attempt to destabilise the Establishment. Eventually this rumour was picked up by reputable printers, blurring fact and fiction together.
- The moon has life on it – In 1835, pseudo-scientific (but still believable) articles about life discovered on the moon were published by The New York Sun and falsely attributed to a well-known astronomer named Sir John Herschel.
- Alien invasion – Americans believed aliens were invading in 1938 when a broadcasting network aired a radio adaptation of the novel War of the Worlds by HG Wells. Told as a series of breaking news alerts, many people believed this was real… to the point where soldiers, doctors, sailors and more reported for duty, prepared to fight extraterrestrials and protect their country.
- Jack’s latest attack – When Jack the Ripper terrorised London in the late 1880s, it was all the public could speak about. Unfortunately, not everyone told the truth. Two drunk men were arrested for carrying a stack of newspapers and falsely announcing that Jack the Ripper had been arrested. Later, in an attempt to sell more papers, another news vendor falsely called out that one (and later more than one) woman had been found murdered at Charing Cross.
Distinguishing Fact from Fiction
So you may be wondering what all that has to do with digital marketing – and, as it turns out, the answer is lots! While it’s important for specialists in all areas of digital marketing (and, really, most people in general) to make sure they’re getting their industry knowledge from reputable, reliable sources, it’s especially important for anyone who works in content.
We are in charge of creating – you guessed it – content for our clients and for our own business. This means it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re not regurgitating or spreading fake news accidentally. But how do we ensure we don’t do that?
As you well know, you can find just about anything online – and that includes sources to back up every claim, idea or conspiracy theory you might have. What’s more, a position-one ranking in Google is no guarantee that the page is trustworthy (it just means that the publication is good at SEO!). This is why it’s so important to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. Luckily, there are a few tried-and-tested ways that us content peeps here at Passion avoid spreading fake news.
Before believing everything you read online, make sure you ask yourself the following questions:
Is the publication trustworthy?
Some publications, like the BBC, the New York Times and the Economist, are well known for being trustworthy. However, we all know that anyone can say just about anything online and present it as fact, so for most websites you’ll want to dig a little deeper.
Is the publication using authoritative sources?
Check to see what sources a publication is using to back up its claims. Linking to or citing trusted sources such as a scientific study, government authority or highly respected international organisation (like the World Health Organisation) is a good sign you can trust that content (and is an easy way to fact check what’s being presented).
Healthline labels many of its sources as ‘trusted’ and tells you exactly why.
Is sufficient evidence being presented?
Credible news stories include lots of supporting evidence like verified facts, quotes from experts, official statistics and, in many cases, consistent and corroborated eyewitness accounts. If these things are missing, that’s a good red flag that the content may not be trustworthy.
Are other publications saying the same thing?
It’s always a good idea to check to see if other trustworthy sources are reporting on the story. While no one is immune to bias 100% of the time – so keep our other tips in mind! – this can be a good indicator about whether or not something is true. For example, if ReallyReallyVeryTrueNews.com is reporting that there’s an alien invasion taking place but no reputable news sources are saying the same thing, you may want to take ReallyReallyVeryTrueNews.com’s story with a grain of salt.
Is the content date stamped?
If the content is trustworthy in the other ways we’ve discussed, this is a good way to ensure it’s up to date and still accurate. For example, you should be slightly wary of a scientific study from 2005 simply because new research and information could have surfaced in the 16 years since it was published.
Are you using common sense and critical thinking?
If something sounds off, there’s probably a reason why you’re thinking that. Fake news is often designed to feed into biases, fears and hopes – so if something sounds too good or too scary to be true, take a step back to assess what’s being said critically. Is what you’re reading trying to sway your opinion or sell you something? Is it click bait or purposely triggering? When in doubt, do a bit of digging to make sure what you’re being told is true.
And finally, our last tip is to avoid leaping to conclusions that all mainstream media output is fake – this can be as unwise as jumping aboard each and every conspiracy theory or rumour that comes your way. Remember, professional global news agencies employ highly trained reporters and have rigorous editorial guidelines that they follow, so it’s reasonable to trust the content they put out.
With these handy tips and tricks under your toolbelt, you can go forth and fight fake news (or at the very least, avoid believing and sharing it). And, if you want to ensure that your business is producing fact checked, verified, reliable and interesting content, why not get in touch with our team of content professionals? We can help with everything from blog posts and site copy to innovative and unique infographics, interactives and more.