GUIDE: How to stop falling for fake news

In South Africa, fake news websites are mushrooming. How do you recognise a fake news story and what can you do to stop these websites? Anim van Wyk provides some tips.

Think of the most horrible or weird thing that could happen to people in the news or in your country. A petrol bomb thrown in the Oscar Pistorius judge’s car? South African universities now offering a B.Sc degree in Witchcraft?

Write it down, post it to your website and voila! You have now joined the ranks of the fake news websites that are mushrooming across South Africa.

These websites exist to make money from the ads they display, media attorney Nicholas Hall explained to Cape Talk radio. The more outrageous the story, the higher the traffic to their sites and the more money they can make.

So what’s the harm in fooling people and making a buck from that? Besides causing pain and suffering to people mentioned in these fake stories, they can harden stereotypes and lead people to make poor health decisions, among other reasons.

Facebook is the most important weapon in these websites’ arsenal. You may have heard about the social media network’s “algorithm”. That’s just a fancy word for the calculations that Facebook does to work out which posts are the most popular.

The more people click on a post, comment on or share it, the more people Facebook shows it to – and that is how a post can go viral.

How do I recognise a fake news story?

We have all become reporters in some way, writes the editor-in-chief of Eyewitness News, Katy Katopodis. Every internet user now has the power to publish stories or videos that only journalists used to have.

As our tools for getting and spreading information become more sophisticated, so should we.

It starts with a simple step: by pausing for a minute and looking closely at the thing you want to share. Then follow some of the tips shared by Mybroadband.

1. Click on the website’s “about us” section or look for a disclaimer

Many fake news websites attempt to soften their dishonesty by saying that they cannot guarantee that their content is true – either in the “about us” section or in a “disclaimer”. You will usually find these links at the top of the website or right at the bottom.

African News Updates "desclaimer"2. Look for a “satire” or “fauxtire” label

Genuine satirical websites – like South Africa’s ZANEWS – try to make you laugh about real news events. Dreaming up false stories is not satire, but labelling it as such is another way in which fake news websites attempt to get away with their lies.

Dreaming up false stories is not satire, but labelling it as such is another way in which fake news websites attempt to get away with their lies.3. Check whether the site is an Interactive Advertising Bureau member

The member base of the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) includes all of South Africa’s big name publishers such as 24.com, Mail&Guardian, IOL and Daily Maverick. Look for the IAB logo at the bottom of a website or search the bureau’s membership directory.

Look for the Interactive Advertising Bureau logo at the bottom of a website or search the IAB's membership directory.4. Search for the owner of the website

By typing in the website address on a lookup website you can see who registered the address (called a domain). Compare the results for News24 and Mzansi Stories: News24’s registration clearly shows the address, telephone numbers and email addresses of its owners, Media24. By contrast, Mzansi Stories hides behind a domain registration company, making them virtually untraceable. This is of course not a guarantee that the site is fake but should set alarm bells off.

Use these lookup websites:

What can I do to stop fake news websites?

  1. Be a responsible internet user

The internet has the potential for great good and terrible harm. It is in your hands. Play an active role in limiting the harm by vetting the content you want to share. If you don’t have time to follow the verifications tips listed before, rather not share the story.

  1. Get quality content

Before the US presidential election, the UK’s Guardian had conservative and liberal Americans swap typical Facebook news feeds. After that, one participant said she realised she must “be more proactive about getting good quality content”. The same goes for you.

  1. Support real news organisations

One reason why people choose low-quality content is that it is free. That is another reason why fake news sites make money: it costs nothing to produce, unlike the money needed to pay reporters and provide them with cars and equipment to chase a story. (Yes, sometimes they get it wrong but they try not to.) Take out a subscription to a news site or donate. Democracy needs journalism to function.

  1. Help spread the debunks

It sucks to be a party pooper pointing out that a juicy bit of information is untrue. (Ask us!) But we need your help to counter false news. That is because research has suggested that false stories travel much further than the articles that debunk them. Let’s change that.

  1. Flag false news on Facebook

While Facebook has promised to act more decisively against false news, there is currently an option available to flag news feed items as false news. This will help it appear less in the news feed. There are issues with this method, though, but until we have a better way take the time to help bring the fakes down.

Be warned: Known fake news websites in SA

Spotted another one? Let us know in the comments so we can add it to this list.

[18 November 2016]

 

Additional reading

Fake-news alert: Male circumcision NOT linked to cancer of the penis

An open letter to Mark Zuckerberg from the world’s fact-checkers

GUIDE: How to spot fakes and hoaxes online