Fake news: How do you know what to believe online?

President Donald Trump at his first major news conference in the White House

President Donald Trump at his first major news conference in the White House

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The trouble with news websites is that they all look more or less alike - and spotting the real ones from the fakes is not always easy.

This has become a problem only recently - partly because sites dedicated to fake news did not exist, except for purposes of satire or advertising, but mainly because of the attention drawn to them by President Trump.

Until a few years ago, nearly all online news sites (like the one you’re reading now) existed on the back of a long-established publication or broadcaster. That was because no-one had figured out a way of making enough money from news online.

But that changed with the advent of internet-only news sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post. The proliferation of them since means it’s hard to tell their provenance at a glance.

How do you spot a fake site?

Depends how you define fake. If you’re Mr Trump, anything with a point of view different to your own may qualify - hence his scattershot accusations against mainstream broadcasters like America’s CNN and even the BBC (“There’s another beauty”, he told a BBC reporter, apparently with more than a note of sarcasm, at his first press conference.)

The news organisations he appears to approve of are right-skewing ones such as Fox News

So, who should you believe?

Well, if you’re looking at the website of a news organisation whose brand you recognise and trust, let that be your guide. If not, be wary. And if you get your news first-hand from non-news specific sites like Facebook, be especially careful - the whole system of “sharing stories” is one big game of Chinese whispers.

How big a problem is it?

It’s a big problem for Facebook, because its own credibility - and therefore profitability - is at stake. But on a wider scale, let’s put it this way: some stories are outright faked and others are skewed to illustrate a point. Neither phenomenon is new: back in 1983 a German magazine believed it had found Hitler’s wartime diaries, and sold the rights to The Sunday Times in Britain, which published them in good faith. But they were forgeries, and crude ones at that.

Around the same time, a number of equally mendacious serial hoaxers set out to trick as many newspapers as they could with plausible-sounding stories that had no basis in reality.

In today’s internet age, such people have no need to fool real newspapers because they can set up fake ones of their own, online, and print what they like. Several fake stories concerning Hillary Clinton circulated before last November’s US election, and some sources have claimed that foreign agents were behind some or all of them.

Grey news vs fake news

Stories which contain a grain (or more) of truth can be manipulated to create a false impression of events, and here is where the water gets muddier. Many respectable publishers, including some in Britain, “slant” stories to propagate a particular political viewpoint - but the acceptable degree of slant is hotly debated.

In America, some sites representing the so-called Alt-right, a term that includes everything from white supremacy to overt fascism, have been accused of bending stories so far as to make them complete distortions of the truth. They may be easy to spot in their original form but when repeated by an apparently credible source, falsehoods can more easily take root.

For instance, a story alleging that Democratic senators wanted to impose Muslim sharia law in Florida, was repeated by Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s nominee for national security adviser. Conversely, a false report that Trump supporters at a rally had chanted, “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back” was reported as true on election night.

So, who should you believe?

Use your common sense. If you see something on Facebook, treat it with a pinch of salt, even if it was shared with you by your mother, unless you can trace it back to the source and the source turns out to be an organisation you can trust.

And if you see a website with an unfamiliar name and an ambiguous sense of geography, instinctively distrust it. Even if it isn’t peddling fake news, it’s probably trying to sell you something.