YOU may (or may not!) have noticed the new ‘True or Not’ section in The Star Online (TSOL), dedicated primarily to debunking fake news or hoax messages.
Thanks to social media and messaging apps – as well as “old soldiers” like email and online forums – misinformation is spreading faster than facts. It’s no wonder that the Oxford Dictionary has declared “post-truth” its word of 2016.
How serious is this problem? BuzzFeed’s Craig Silverman did an analysis, and found that fake news had “outperformed” real news by the end of the recent US presidential campaign.
Did it make a difference to the elections, which saw real estate mogul Donald Trump beating former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite what most polls had predicted?
Well, according to Silverman’s analysis, 17 of the top 20 most popular fake news items were either pro-Trump or anti-Clinton, so what do you think?
It is enough of a problem that both Facebook Inc and Google Inc declared that they would do more to combat the blight on their respective platforms (registration required).
True or Not is our effort to pitch in. (And yes, fake news sites are not the same as mainstream media sites whose reportage you may not like or agree with, and neither is fake news in the same category as plain old sloppy journalism.)
Our focus will of course be on Malaysian news, but we’re only one part of the equation: You, the consumer, are an even more important player in this. You hold the keys to ensuring that rumours are not spread, and that accurate information prevails.
How can you help? By being the gatekeeper. Don’t share without verifying.
Here are some tips:
Where’s the link?
When someone sends you a screenshot of a news article, the first question you should ask is, “Where’s the link?” Why not send you the link to the actual article so you can read it yourself?
That’s probably because the article in question does not exist.
So ask the person who sent you the screenshot for the actual link, or search for it yourself, using the heading and/ or publication’s name as keywords.
If nothing else, if the article turns out to be genuine, at least you can read it and determine for yourself whether that screenshot does justice to what is being discussed.
If there is no such article, gently (or not) scold the person who sent it to you for being irresponsible. You have the right now.
Check the date
Sometimes an article may have been true at the time it was published, but is no longer true and is being revived to mislead people.
For example, a couple of months ago, somebody on Facebook (FB) shared an old TSOL story about toll fares being raised, which raised the ire of many a Malaysian.
Those spared this anger were the ones who actually read the article and noticed that the story was from more than a year ago.
Which leads us to the next point:
Read the article
Misinformation may also come from a lack of information. Not all information can be squeezed into the headline and first paragraph of a story. Actually reading an article will give you the full story.
Discipline yourself: Make it a point never to comment on an article of FB or forward a message without reading the article or verifying the message.
Yeah, that takes up a bit of your precious time, but it will be worth it. This discipline can save you the blushes, or more importantly, save you from being subject to legal action.
Check the source
There are actual websites dedicated to fake news. Check the rest of the site and see if it also runs articles on aliens taking over the White House, or how “Big Pharma” has found the cure for cancer but is keeping it secret, etc.
Also, some fake news sites admit to it in their ‘About Us’ section – sometimes blatantly, sometimes obfuscating it by saying they print news that “entertains.”
Some disclaimers may also be hidden in an obscure corner of the site or within their copyright notices.
Other fake news sites try to fool you by publishing a mix of true and fake stories, so watch out for that too.
Snopes has a list of these sites here.
Check other sources
Something sounds too good (or bad) to be true? It probably isn’t true, then. If it’s really news, chances are that other, more credible news sites would have reported it. Check them.
The ALL-CAPS giveaway
Websites or articles that use ALL CAPITAL LETTERS in their headlines generally cannot be trusted. Apply cynicism here.
Look at the URL (universal resource locater) or web address. For example, a government website should not be using the “.com” domain; that’s what “.gov” is for. There may be exceptions, so this is not a hard-and-fast rule.
Misspellings are however a dead giveaway. If a WhatsApp message directs you to whatapp.com, don’t trust it.
Watch out for website addresses that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sites.
Just the facts, ma’am