How to Identify Fake News and Hoax Stories on Social Media

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The proliferation of false stories on social media is the news right now. As more viral fake news headlines make the rounds on social media, scores of people are being mislead. People are believing news that isn't true.

During the recently concluded 2016 U.S. presidential election and campaigns, the churn of fake news became more pronounced than ever before. Hoax news websites spread exceedingly misleading and fabricated news stories mixed with true or mostly true stories about the election.

These fake news stories were deliberately crafted to demonize or elevate presidential candidates. Among the many fake news items you may have spotted is a sensational story with the headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.”

Across the pond in the U.K., fake news is also a big problem. There was a fake story - not least because the author is "Doug Trench" - shared on social media with the headline, “Britain Threatens to Invade Switzerland Over Tobleron Shape Row.”

In Canada, there was another widely shared fake scoop concerning Canada's leader. The fake story had the headline, “Truedue Promises Canadian Citizen A Wall. U.S. Will Pay.”

All these false stories are designed to be believed and are aggressively shared on social networking sites, particularly Facebook .


Fake News a Big Issue on Facebook.


The sheer size and alarming reach of Facebook attracts many fake news posters, which has prompted critics like President Barack Obama to call out the social networking giant for the proliferation of fake news on its platform. Critics accuse Facebook, and to a lesser extent Google, of influencing the U.S. elections by incentivizing fake political news. 

“Google has more of an incentive to make information reliable because Google’s business is based on providing accurate information to people who are looking for it,” David Carroll, an associate professor of media design at the New School, and an expert in advertising tech, told The Washington Post. “Facebook, though, is about attention, not so much intention.”

While Facebook denied that fake news on its platform influenced the elections, the attention was enough for both the California-based social networking service and Google to announce plans to combat the problem through restrictions on advertising. Some fake-news writers have reported earning of as much as $10,000 a month from self-service ad technologies like Google's AdSense. This is among the big incentives driving people to make stuff up and put it on the Internet.

The move by Facebook and Google to crackdown on fake-news sites by limiting their respective advertising services is welcome because it can stifle the hoax sites’ ad revenue incentive. However, some fake-news websites are not incentivized by ad revenue alone and could continue to produce fake stories.

Some websites churning out fake news merely exist as propaganda tools. As Claire Wardle from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism notes, "It's difficult for people scrolling through Facebook quickly, often on small mobile screens, to get a sense of what's real and what isn't."

So, what can you do to hone your ability to identify a hoax story on social networks like Facebook and avoid being duped? 


5 tips to spot hoax news on social networks.


Fake-news sites vary in sophistication. Many of them have little or no name recognition. A quick tour of the usual suspects makes it clear that they don’t really put much thought into the design or functionality of the site. Others are cluttered, filled with barely readable text and, frankly, tough on the eye.

Melissa Zimdars, assistant professor of media studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, recently put together a useful list she calls "False, Misleading, Clickbait-y and Satirical 'News' Sources." Zimdars' list features over 120 fake-news sites, some of which include Politicalo and Zimdars adds handy tips that can help you break down some of the red flags that identify purveyors of fake stories on social media.

Here are Zimdars’ tips for spotting fake news on social media:


  1. Avoid websites that end in "lo" (example: Newslo). These sites specialise in taking a piece of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading "facts".
  2. Watch out for websites that end in "" - they are often fake versions of real news sources.
  3. Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story. Sometimes, lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
  4. Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.
  5. Lack of author attribution may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.

Overall, spotting fake news is not always easy, but keep in mind if a story seems a little bit unbelievable—it probably is.


See Also: 5 Things You Need to Know about Facebook (The Possibilities and Limitations).