How good are you at telling fact from fiction on the Internet? Admittedly, it can be difficult at times – there’s a lot of misinformation floating out there. Some sites and blogs routinely present opinion as fact to score quick political points. Others use misleading headlines to trick you into clicking and sharing content. Yet others will flat out lie to you, suggesting that goji berries, green coffee beans or some other “weird trick” will magically burn off 50 pounds of belly fat without you needing to exercise.
False and misleading information is a big enough problem online that search giant Google is taking action against it. New Scientist reported this past weekend that the company’s research arm has created an algorithm capable of determining the trustworthiness of websites. It works by fact checking sites against reputable sources like the CIA World Fact Book to get an overall read on how accurate its content is. If the site’s factual accuracy is low, Google’s algorithm would then downrank the site in search results.
This truth-sniffing program is only in the preliminary research phase. But without a doubt, there’s a real need for this kind of online fact checking assistance. In January 2014, satire news website The Daily Currant posted a story titled Marijuana Overdoses Kill 37 in Colorado On First Day of Legalization. It wasn’t true, of course. Reputable news sources quickly identified it as a hoax. But the story still spread like wildfire on social networks, quickly racking up tens of thousands of Facebook Likes. It even tricked Annapolis Police Chief Michael Pristoop, who referenced the Currant story as fact in testimony before the Maryland state legislature. “I remember the first day it was decriminalized there were 37 deaths,” he told the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, sealing his fate as a nationwide laughingstock.
Facebook has responded to this incident and others by letting people report news stories as fake or deceitful. If enough people report a story, the content is flagged with a warning stating “Many people on Facebook have reported that this story contains false information.” It’s a helpful change. But for the most part, it’s still largely up to us readers of online content to figure out for ourselves what’s real and what’s not.
Fortunately, sniffing out the truth isn’t difficult once you know what telltale signs of dishonesty to look for. Here are some simple tips for detecting lies online:
- If a story sounds too funny or weird to be true, it probably is. Always check the source of the news story – if it’s from The Onion, The Daily Currant or The Borowitz Report, the item is satire, not news. Both emergent.info and Snopes.com are great sources for weeding out popular hoaxes and debunking false claims; reference them if necessary.
- Be wary of stories from politically biased sources. Popularly shared websites ThinkProgress, Mother Jones and The Nation are all left-leaning; The Drudge Report, Newsmax and The Blaze are all right-wing sources. These outlets offer a massive dose of opinion with their news, potentially burying or ignoring facts that don’t support their worldview. If you’re not sure if you’re getting the whole story, factcheck.org and politifact.com are great resources for fact-checking political claims you hear online and elsewhere.
- Stay on guard for fake reviews on Yelp and Amazon. Some less-than-reputable businesses will post glowing reviews of their own establishments on Yelp or post negative reviews of their competitors. On Amazon, some authors may add glowing reviews of their own books. If a review sounds like marketing copy, it probably is. Christina DesMarais has a great article here on Techlicious titled How to Tell if a Review is Fake that you should check out for more information.
- Look for confirmation elsewhere. Big news travels fast, especially on social media. But hoaxes travel fast, too. If major news is happening – say, the death of a celebrity – reputable news sources will quickly pick up the information. If you’re not sure whether something is true, check to see if CNN, The New York Times, the Associated Press or some other reliable news organization is reporting it. If you can’t find confirmation of the story elsewhere on the Internet, it’s probably not true.
- Beware of the Green Dot Moneypak. Scam artists are incredibly fond of requesting payment via Green Dot Moneypaks and Western Union transfers because the transactions are incredibly hard to trace. Any request for a payment or refund via these methods should raise a huge, immediate red flag in your mind for fraud.
- Online dating websites are hives of scum and villainy. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to find love online, but know that many people take extreme liberties with their online dating profiles. Some people will even post other people’s pictures, pretending they are someone they’re not to gain attention or to pull a scam. If someone’s profile picture looks like a modeling shot, it probably is one. (You can run a picture through a reverse Google image search to find out for sure.) Be wary of people who avoid writing in the first person, warns Psychology Today – it’s a sign they may be distancing themselves from their own deceptive statements. And never send money to someone you’ve met on an online dating site, especially if you’ve never met them in person.
[Woman with magnifying glass via Shutterstock]