What is hoax news and why you should monitor it

If you’ve been browsing the web recently, you might be surprised to discover that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President, or that Halal certified Snack Packs have been funding terror organisations in the Middle East. Although these headlines may seem implausible to an informed reader, thousands of fake and hoax news stories circulate the internet daily, leaving readers confused, frustrated and dangerously misinformed.

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A viral story published on satirical website WTOE5 News claimed that Pope Francis II had endorsed Donald Trump for President.

Facebook is the latest of many online companies to announce measures to curb the spread of false news reports. In December 2016, the company introduced a set of tools to make it easier for users to flag fake articles on their news feed as a hoax. If a story is identified as dubious, Facebook will flag it as ‘disputed by 3rd parties’ and it may appear lower in the news feed.

Although many social media platforms have begun to acknowledge the problems created by the proliferation of fake news on their platforms, most algorithms struggle to determine the authenticity of breaking news.

Fake news featured heavily in the coverage of the 2016 US presidential elections. A study by Ipsos Public Affairs revealed that in the 3 months preceding the election, 20 top-performing fake news stories on Facebook outperformed 20 top-performing factual stories from 19 major media outlets in terms of engagement. But the spread of fake news hasn’t just been limited to the US.

In Germany, rumours circulated denouncing German chancellor Angela Merkel as a member of the East German secret police, the Stasi. Australian readers also fell prey to misinformation when an incendiary fake news report linking terrorism to the halal certification industry gained coverage across genuine media outlets. Concerns over halal certification flourished on Facebook and were repeated by politicians despite a lack of evidence, eventually culminating in a Parliamentary inquiry.

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A hoax news story about the humble Halal Snack Pack became the source of a federal parliamentary inquiry

Over half of Australia’s population is connected to the internet, and more than half of that number are active on Facebook. Misinformation, dubious claims, deceitful stories, trolling and clickbait have become a fixture on social media, and determining their authenticity can be frustrating and time-consuming for those responsible for compiling and distributing news.

Fake news is particularly prevalent on social media, which is problematic for government bodies, corporations and public figures because many of these sites masquerade as legitimate news distributors. Exposure to fake news is even more pronounced amongst younger demographics, who almost exclusively gather news from online sources such as Twitter, Reddit and Facebook.

“Pretty much everything conspires against truth [online],” wrote Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times in an article on fake online news. Despite the frustration voiced by misled citizens and aggrieved public figures, news aggregators have expressed discomfort at the idea of filtering fake news from the genuine product.

“We believe in giving people a voice and that we cannot become arbiters of truth ourselves,” Facebook’s news feed vice-president Adam Mosseri said in a statement. So how can media monitors draw the line between rumour, scandal, satire and genuine breaking news? Below is a quick checklist to help you determine fact from fraud:

Fact Checking Dubious News

  1. Read beyond the headline and subtitle
  2. Check the authenticity of the news outlet
  3. Check the author
  4. Check the date and time
  5. Click through links and examine the sources used
  6. Cross reference quotations
  7. Check the authenticity of photos
  8. Are other legitimate news outlets reporting it?

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