Spotting Fake news & Scams

26/03/2019

How do we go about sifting the good news from the fake? This week's blog offers some tips.

Firstly, it's important to understand why there is such a plethora of dodgy news out there, along with all the memes and posts encouraging us to share, click and follow. Effectively, the internet runs on advertising - businesses pay to put adverts on the websites you use. Where those sites (such as Facebook) have details of your demographics (Age, gender, interests) those adverts will be targeted at your demographic.  The reason so many sites offer free options is because they can use your data for targetted advertising. This means you are more likely to buy the items. Google adverts are often based on your search history.

The amount a site can earn from advertising will depend on the web traffic - ie how many clicks. The more they can get you to click on the site, the more their number of visits increase.

In the case of click bait (startling headlines designed to get you to click to read the story) the story is often spread over multiple pages, so to read it, you have to click on all of them. That can substantially boost their number of visits, and so too their advertising revenue.

Tips for spotting fakes

  • Who is the source?

Check the source of the information - is it the BBC, or is it Joe Bloggs down the street? Professional broadcasters are still held to standards, while this is not entirely true of individuals.

Is the source an authority in the area of information? ie: Space information from NASA is more reliable than information from Joe Bloggs

What are the qualifications of the source? Are they someone with a Phd writing about their area of expertise? Is the Youtube video on how to plumb in your washing machine done by a professional plumber?

If you received an email with a bill, or offering you money etc, particularly from a company you do deal with, then check the actual email address - is it the genuine Amazon email, or is it something else. If in doubt, go to the website (NOT CLICKING on any links in the email) and check with the customer services team. (if you use the links on the email, they will take you to a false website, designed to separate you from your cash.)

If your answers to these questions are no, then the chances of the information being accurate are dramatically reduced. Of course, sometimes, we simply want public opinion, in which case, blogs and social media are perfect.

  • Language

One of the most common indicators of a scam email or dodgy website is the use of poor writing skills - bad spelling and grammar, and often clumsy phrasing. Many of the email scams come from sources that do not speak English as their native language, and if you receive an email that is riddled with poor language skills, it is more likely to be a fake.

The occasional mistake is inevitable, but most reputable websites and emails will try to ensure their work is free of language errors.

  • Check it out

I often encourage people to use Snopes to check out scams. They keep an up to date list of false information, scams and other dodgy bits of the internet.

In information research, I always encouraged students to use the '3 source rule'. Don't regard something as a fact until you have verified it from 3 separate, independent sources.

  • Our responsibilities

Some false information has relatively little impact on us or the world, but some of it can cause major damage. People have lost their jobs, been sued for libel, and even been driven to suicide through false information. Just because you see a picture saying 'someone did this' does not mean it's real - it's amazing what you can do with Photoshop!

It's easy to vilify social media platforms and blame them, but they don't put the information out there, and they don't share it. We do that. While there is possibly more they can do to weed out the rubbish, as long as we continue sharing it, we make their job impossible.

We should value truth, and do our part to keep it alive.

- Check before you share (don't share unless you know it comes from a reputable source) if in doubt, don't share.

- don't manipulate our friends. No one likes to feel manipulated, and personally, I hate the memes that say you don't care if you don't share. It's not true - I care more about my friendships than to manipulate them.  All those shares and likes earn money for scammers.

- protect your data, and that of our friends. You may not care about your digital information (until someone uses it to clean out your bank accounts) but sharing and posting on social media can open your friend's accounts to scammers too.  (Limit the information in your social media profiles, never include your real date of birth, and keep most of it private, excepting to friends. Of course, don't accept friend requests from people you don't know!)

The internet dominates our world. We have a big part to play in keeping it accurate.