Think you can't be fooled by a hoax? Don't be so quick to flatter yourself.The types of rumors that used to stay relatively sequestered in more obscure corners of the Internet have increasingly received mainstream play, creating a big-time headache for Facebook, the most popular venue for sharing them.
On Thursday, Facebook said it will begin relying on outside help to flag misinformation in users' feeds and curb its spread so it never again gets accused of influencing an election with viral hokum. Among the journalistic organizations contributing their expertise are fact-checking sites Snopes and Politifact.
These sites and others already fact-check politicians and pundits, flag sources known for shamelessly promoting misinformation, and investigate "seems like it could happen" stories in mainstream outlets. Users who attempt to share a story flagged by Facebook's truth squad as phony will get a pop-up containing a warning to that effect.
Whether this will prove a meaningful solution to the PR nightmare that has enveloped Facebook in the weeks since the election -- or whether consumers' shattered trust will simply cause them to disbelieve the fact checks -- remains to be seen.
What's certain is that even better than relying on Facebook or a lie-detecting Chrome extension to guide you is learning the signs that information may not be trustworthy. For example, if the site runs content copy/pasted from other sites without attribution, that's a major red flag. If you've never heard of the site or it doesn't have a lot of content, that's another reason to be skeptical. This Google document created by a communications professor has more tips.
For cases where even the sharpest eye needs a helping hand, here are some places to get started in distinguishing fact from fiction.
Snopes.com has been in the game of documenting and debunking internet rumors for decades. The site's writers demonstrate why particular stories are questionable, by pointing out information that conflicts with those stories and explaining how claims underlying the content in question are baseless or unverified.
The site's content ranges from posts explaining how Wikileaks' claims Hillary Clinton called to kill Julian Assange by drone strike were unsubstantiated, to debunking of a story run by news organizations including Mashable and Variety claiming CNN had broadcast porn for half an hour in late November.
Like Snopes, but for political speech. The site fact-checks statements by politicians and pundits and assigns them a rating between "pants on fire" (as in, "liar, liar, pants on fire") to "true." Want to know whether Democrats are planning to impose Islamic law in Florida? (Not true.) Or whether a bunch of people at a Donald Trump rally in Manhattan chanted "We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back?" (Didn't happen.) Then check with PolitiFact.
There are some lists floating around the internet of sites identified as peddling untrustworthy content. These lists have drawn some backlash for including blogs and and other sources many consider trustworthy. A prominent example is anonymous organization PropOrNot, which labels content it believes to be Russian propaganda. The Intercept criticized the organization for striking a McCarthyite tone in its labeling of a wide range of sites as peddlers of Russian propaganda. The organization's list included a number of sites many consider trustworthy.
The thing about lists is that sites might get removed from the internet and others will inevitably crop up, and that's a hard thing to keep up with. Any list of untrustworthy sites is likely to be incomplete, and may erroneously include sites that don't merit the "fake news" tag. Responding to criticism over a list she compiled of a mix of untrustworthy and satirical sites, communications professor Melissa Zimdars replaced the list with tips for identifying misinformation.
Slate recently came out with a plug-in called "This Is Fake" that does some of the work of identifying misleading content for you. The tool highlights articles that have been debunked with a banner, and links to a reputable source debunking the story and encourages the user to share the debunking story. "This is the antiviral functionality, one whose success depends on your participation," explains Slate's Will Oremus in a post explaining the plug-in. It's the highlighting of specific stories and linking to story debunking the story that sets the plug-in apart from other tools and lists of websites.
This Is Fake also highlights websites known for spreading fake news. Slate acknowledges that identifying so-called fake news sites is more of an art than a science. "So how do we decide which stories count as fake? It's a crucial question, and a surprisingly tricky one. The short answer is that we rely on crowdsourcing and human moderation by Slate staffers and contributors, who will manage a database of flagged sites and links," writes Oremus.
New York Magazine's Brian Feldman also came out with an extension to highlight fake news, which based its highlighting on Zimdars' list. As that list morphed and changed in response to criticism, the publication tried to keep up with the alterations. The list had "already been edited to remove some sites that might have been unfairly brought up in the dragnet, and we're trying to update the extension as the list itself is updated," Feldman wrote in a November story about the plug-in. Zimdars, as we've mentioned, has as of my writing replaced her list with tips for identifying misinformation.
Feldman tells Inc. the extension still functions as far as he knows, but that he's not actively developing it. "I made it in an hour with no prior experience and threw it up on Github in the hopes that people with more expertise and time would run with the idea," he says.
To roughly rank options for identifying false news: Looking at lists of websites that commonly spread false headlines is helpful for considering what sites might be problematic, but isn't necessarily the ideal option. Posts that debunk individual stories in detail are more helpful, and the best defense is to learn how to recognize misinformation on your own.
That last part is harder than it might seem. (That porn story sure fooled Mashable and Variety!) While some sites are blatantly misleading, others imitate sources that may be familiar to you. Abcnews.com.co, which is littered with blatantly false stories, is designed to look like it's ABC's real website.
In short: If content seems a little too outrageous, a little too funny, or just a bit too on the nose, it might not be accurate.