Here’s a quick and easy example of how to discern fact from fiction in an article you see shared online. This is a link I happened to come across on Facebook that made me curious. The headline is “BREAKING: Rosa Parks’ Daughter Praises Trump’s Response to Charlottesville.” I won’t give it a link because the story doesn’t deserve clicks, but you could probably find it by searching. I thought it was a provocative headline, but it didn’t seem very likely, so I checked it out.
First clue is the website is a random blog I’d never heard of (I know, funny criticism from a random blogger like myself but I don’t claim to have “BREAKING” news here). So I read further and looked for a source. There was actually a link to a source (if there’s not, I call bullshit pretty quickly). So I clicked the source and the source was another website I’d never heard of, so I checked for an “about” page. The “about” page said that the site “makes no guarantee that anything you find here will be based at all in reality. All posts should be considered satirical and all images photoshopped to look like something they’re not. It’s not you, it’s me.” So that was an easy check that the original article I clicked on was totally fake. Also, my judgment is that the site is very bad at satire and writing–so I’m not giving them clicks, either. Had there been no “about” page, the ridiculousness of other articles on the site would have been another easy clue.
In addition to my very quick sleuthing (it really took very little time so don’t worry that it takes too long to check a source before sharing), I decided to also check on the person the story was about, because I didn’t remember hearing about children of Rosa Parks before. A quick search revealed that Rosa Parks never had children, so there couldn’t possibly be a daughter of hers making breaking news. Another easy way to debunk a story.
So my tips from this example:
- Check the source. Sometimes this will lead you on a longer chase where one site links to a source, which leads to another source, and then another, until you find what may be the original.
- If you don’t find a source, that’s a red flag right there, unless it’s an original article by a real reporter who talked to real people.
- Check if the people or locations or whatever mentioned in the article actually exist. If they’re quoting someone notable, that person should be easy to find in other news articles. Some false articles will quote a professor at a particular university. If that person is not on staff at that university, there’s an obvious red flag.
- This is not really related to this particular “news” item, but another good tip is to check the date on the original source. Sometimes sites will link to really old news with a breaking news sort of headline like it’s something new.
Edited to add: Politifact has also debunked this article, but not at the time I first looked into it, so I checked on my own. Sometimes a quick check will show a site like Politifact has already debunked or confirmed a story, but if it’s a new thing they haven’t gotten to yet, it’s helpful to know how to do some checking yourself.