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Fake news experts share 7 tips to separate fact from fiction

Mark Abadi
man reading newspaper magnifying glass

(Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
With fake news lurking around every corner of social media, it seems more difficult than ever to separate fact from fiction.

No one is more aware of that than news literacy professors, who teach the critical-thinking skills necessary to evaluate any piece of journalism.

We spoke with three news literacy experts who shared their advice for being a responsible news consumer. Here are seven quick things you should do to judge whether you can trust what you read.

Read the article

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it's essential to actually read an article before letting it form your opinion — especially if the headline makes an outrageous claim. A recent study found that only 59% of articles shared by Twitter users have actually been clicked, suggesting that many people share links based on the headline alone.

"Clicking is a good place to start," Jonathan Anzalone, assistant director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy, told Business Insider.

Check the URL

abcnews.com.co fake news

(The fake news site abcnews.com.co tricked readers into thinking they were reading the real ABC News with similar branding and a nearly identical URL.BI)
Some purveyors of fake news choose domain names suspiciously similar to those of established news companies.

Leading the pack is the notorious abcnews.com.co, whose name and logo mimic the branding of the real ABC News. During the 2016 election, the website attracted readers with bogus stories like one claiming President Barack Obama banned the Pledge of Allegiance in schools, and another that "quoted" a fictional person who claimed he was paid $3,500 to protest against Donald Trump. Both stories were debunked.

"Go beyond the masthead at the top, because it's really easy to copy a brand," said Peter Adams, senior vice president at the News Literacy Project.

Other culprits that fail the URL test are cnn-trending.com, washingtonpost.com.co, and bloomberg.ma. Make sure the site you're on isn't an impostor.

Who is the author?

Always check the author of the news you read. If you don't recognize the name, you may want to inspect other articles by the same person to see if they're a reliable voice. Bonus points if the site provides a way to contact the author.

And if no authors are listed, ask yourself: Why don't they want to stand behind their work?

"A story without a byline is a huge red flag," Hunter College journalism program director Sissel McCarthy told Business Insider.

Check the receipts

comet ping pong pizzagate

(Some fake news writers pushed the debunked "Pizzagate" conspiracy, which alleged that Hillary Clinton campaign members were involved in a sex trafficking ring at a Washington, DC pizzeria.Associated Press/Jose Luis Magana)
Any factual claim in a news article should be backed up by a source. Ideally, an article will cite verifiable sources like government figures, scientific studies, court documents, and the like.

Be especially vigilant when an eyebrow-raising claim doesn't have a source to back it up, McCarthy said.

For example, take the notorious "Pizzagate" conspiracy, which claimed members of Hillary Clinton's campaign were involved in a child sex-trafficking ring run out of a Washington, DC pizzeria. Countless fake news pieces were written about the alleged scandal, without a shred of evidence. But do some digging, and you'll find that the entire conspiracy originated from a single unsubstantiated tweet from a white-supremacy account.

Cross-check with other sources

pope francis

(Despite the claims of one famous fake news story, Pope Francis did not endorse Donald Trump for president.Franco Origlia / Getty Images)
If you think you might be reading fake news, try to find an article about the same subject from different media outlets. If you can't find the story on any other site, you may have been bamboozled.

"If the article seems too good to be true, or we really want it to be true, there should be extra incentive to double-check or triple-check," Anzalone said.

One of the most notorious fake news stories of the election season purported that Pope Francis endorsed Trump for president — a stunning revelation. But you wouldn't find the story in The New York Times, the Associated Press, or USA Today. You'd only see it on a little-known site called WTOE 5 (or other fake news sites that copied the article verbatim).

That's because it wasn't true. If a story of that magnitude is legitimate, expect multiple news outlets to write about it.

Quality control

How's the quality of the writing in the article you're reading? Are there words in all caps, or a plethora of exclamation marks? Both are rarities in the world of legitimate journalism.

How about the photos — do they appear photoshopped or doctored? That's another sign the site you're on may not be trustworthy, Anzalone said.

Find out more about the site

obama iraq pledge

(One popular fake news story purported that President Barack Obama banned the Pledge of Allegiance in US schools.Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Does the article's website have an "about us" page, or another way to learn more about the company? Having one is a good way for a site to establish credibility and clue readers into its legitimacy.

Some fake news sites disguise themselves as local media outlets with names like "Denver Guardian," "Boston Tribune," and "Dallas Star News."

"People weren't familiar with the names of local papers outside their own cities, so they didn’t detect it," Adams said.

"It's mocked up to look like news from institutional organizations, but there's no such paper as the Dallas Star News. People outside of Dallas will never know."

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