Weed out fake news with real scepticism

Contact information, sources, domain name and user comments can provide clues on the veracity of a post

Did President Tony Tan Keng Yam invite Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun to visit Singapore to eat fried chicken?

That may have been the impression some readers got if they had checked their Facebook news feeds on Dec 3. After all, the sensational headline was linked to an article in The Straits Times, and "straitstimes.com" appeared prominently under the text.

It turned out that the headline of the Facebook post was entirely doctored by a satirical page which took advantage of a small loophole in the social media platform's posting system.

While Facebook does not allow the average user to tweak headlines when sharing posts put up on a personal account, changes can be made to posts that appeared on a Facebook Page - which is a public profile specifically created for a business or brand.

This means that entirely legitimate headlines, such as ST's original one - President Tan Conveys Best Wishes To Thailand's New King, Invites Him To Visit Singapore - can be altered to look like something else entirely with a click of the mouse and some editing.

While the satirical page has since removed the post, it did not stop users from reacting strongly to what they perceived to be a disrespectful act towards a foreign head of state. Despite several Facebook users pointing out the ease with which such headlines could have been doctored, the post had already gone viral.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

  • Getting to the truth

  • Some ways to determine if an online article is genuine or not:

    • Users can navigate through the site to check if the contact information provided is legitimate.

    • They can navigate around the site to see if the rest of the site works. If it leads to just a bunch of dead links, then that's a sign something is not quite right.

    • They can also do a simple look-up search (https://www.whois.net) to find out who or which organisation the website is registered to.

    • If their information source is a Facebook Page, they can check to see if the entity regularly posts real or satirical content.

    • Another telltale sign: Check if the people leaving comments on the posts have called it out to be fake.

As a rule of thumb, it's always wise to play it safe if there are doubts, rather than risk propagating false information or giving up personal information. After all, a healthy dose of scepticism is required given the wide range of content in cyberspace.

"What headline was that? How could ST do something like this?" said one user.

Another Facebook user called for the reporter to be sacked.

The users could have verified the veracity of the headline by simply clicking the Facebook link through to the article.

Not only was the headline to the linked article different, the story made no mention of fried chicken or any invitation to consume it.

The prank is the latest in a long line of spoofed content and fake news on social media, which has come into the spotlight recently in the wake of the United States presidential election. Concerns have been raised about this by leaders from the US to Germany.

Other imitations are more nefarious. An article which made its rounds on the Internet in October copied ST's layout, including the logo. It had offered iPhone 7s for just $1. The catch was that users needed to register at the site and provide their credit card details.

The fake report has since been taken down.

The clear giveaway in this case, however, was the domain name, which was www.business.news-reports.net, instead of www.straitstimes.com.

Many Internet users may not have noticed the change in the website name in the address bar, and could have been misled into giving up vital information to unknown sources.

As a rule of thumb, it's always wise to play it safe if there are doubts, rather than risk propagating false information or giving up personal information. After all, a healthy dose of scepticism is required given the wide range of content in cyberspace.

And if in doubt, there is always the askST site (www.straitstimes.com/askst) to turn to for answers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 12, 2016, with the headline 'Weed out fake news with real scepticism'. Print Edition | Subscribe