The ST Guide To... Spotting fake news

How to avoid being fooled by false reports

Ai Takagi and her husband Yang Kaiheng were sentenced to jail last year for making seditious remarks on The Real Singapore, the now-defunct sociopolitical website that they co-founded.
Ai Takagi and her husband Yang Kaiheng were sentenced to jail last year for making seditious remarks on The Real Singapore, the now-defunct sociopolitical website that they co-founded.NEW PAPER PHOTO
Protesters staging a demonstration near the Trump Tower in Chicago on Feb 20, during the country’s annual Presidents’ Day. What constitutes fake news can be hard to nail down, especially when the term is co-opted by leading figures to refer to an
Protesters staging a demonstration near the Trump Tower in Chicago on Feb 20, during the country’s annual Presidents’ Day. What constitutes fake news can be hard to nail down, especially when the term is co-opted by leading figures to refer to anything they disagree with. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Misinformation can take many forms but staying alert will help stop its spread

Around the world, governments and news organisations are focusing their attention on fighting the spread of misinformation.

But it has been hard to nail down a definition of fake news, with the term having taken on different meanings for different people.

With fake news widely used these days to describe anything from completely fabricated stories to propaganda to Internet hoaxes, people are understandably confused about what the term really encompasses.

Here is a guide on how to spot fake news and prevent its spread.

REAL FAKE NEWS

The first step is learning to recognise fake news. Bogus reports generally have certain features: They are factually inaccurate or deliberately made up to deceive, or masquerade as credible news.

They come in many forms, such as a doctored photo of an accident, a hyperbolic report about an election, or click-baiting headlines designed to mislead.

Not all news that is classified as fake is obviously so. Some pieces are disguised better and include a mix of fact and fiction - for instance, reports with false quotes attributed to real people, genuine content taken out of context, or factual information that is sensationalised to frame things a certain way.

Take a recent report in Australian Teacher Magazine that quoted Singapore's director-general of education, Mr Wong Siew Hoong, as criticising his own ministry.

While the event mentioned in the report did take place, and Mr Wong did give a speech, he did not make the remarks attributed to him.

After the Ministry of Education released a video recording of his speech, the magazine withdrew the article.

WHAT IT IS NOT

The fake news label has also been conveniently co-opted by some people to refer to verified news, op-eds or reviews that they disagree with.

United States President Donald Trump, for instance, tweeted in February that "any negative polls are fake news". But a news report or commentary is not fake just because people do not like it, or find it inconvenient.

Satire and parody, from sites such as New Nation, The Onion and The New Yorker's Borowitz Report, meanwhile, fall into a sort of grey area.

While they employ false information, it is used in a humorous way to comment on current affairs, and is typically not meant to deceive. However, people have mistakenly taken such articles at face value.

WAYS TO SPOT FAKE NEWS

Often, the website that a purported news article comes from can provide some clues to help you sift out the phony.

Many sites dedicated to spreading fake news have names that are similar to those of real news organisations, and also use URLs, or Web addresses, that closely resemble those of the authentic news sites.

For instance, ABC News Co could be easily mistaken for the legitimate news outfit ABC News.

Also, the dodgy site's Web address, abcnews.com.co, is deceptively similar to abcnews.go.com. Indeed, fact-checking organisations have found that many offending sites have Web addresses ending with ".com.co".

Other telltale signs can be found on the "About Us" and "Contact Us" pages. Fake news sites are often missing these two pages; if the pages are included, they provide scant or unrelated information.

Another thing to look out for would be disclaimers on websites warning that some articles are submitted by readers and therefore not fact-checked. Such statements can often be an indication of a site's tendency to publish fabricated or unverified content.

Many alternative news sites, such as The Real Singapore (TRS), which is now defunct, often use such disclaimers as a licence to publish false reports.

One example is a 2015 TRS article claiming that a Filipino family had complained to police about participants at the Thaipusam procession that year. The husband-and-wife team behind the website said it had come from a reader's tip-off, which turned out to be a lie.

A healthy dose of scepticism is helpful. If you come to know of a shocking or major piece of news from an obscure website, and cannot find it on any mainstream media outlets, chances are that it is fake.

To be very sure, do a Google search of the figures or quotes used in the article or the names of people cited, to see where else they pop up.

CONSULT THE EXPERTS

There are many legitimate news outfits and fact-checking organisations that help to suss out whether an article is real.

To check on news originating from the US and Britain, try websites such as FactCheck.org, Snopes.com and Fullfact.org.

In Singapore, the Government has set up Factually to debunk lies about issues that have included fake eggs being sold in Singapore and election campaigning rules.

Internet firms such as Google have also launched initiatives to crack down on misinformation.

For example, there are several plug-ins that work with search giant Chrome's Web browser to alert users when a site they are viewing is a fake news site.

STOP THE SPREAD

So how can you help stop the scourge? Think before you click.

Take a moment to follow the steps described above to verify articles you are not sure of, and share only those you know to be true.

ASK US A QUESTION
Send an e-mail to askST@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2017, with the headline 'How to avoid being fooled by false reports'. Print Edition | Subscribe