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How to Quickly Spot Real and Fake News (With Critical Thinking)

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Read Time: 13 mins

Now that information is easier and faster to access, we've got a new challenge: how to spot fake news. Can you tell whether something is fake news?

what is fake newswhat is fake newswhat is fake news
Anyone with a computer or mobile phone and internet connection can be a source of "news." (Image source: Envato Elements)

Anyone with a smartphone and internet connection can now be a publisher, broadcaster, or content presenter. Unfortunately, this also means that content can get disseminated without the rigorous checks and vetting required of mass communications. Hence, the proliferation of fake news.

This article discusses:

  • What is fake news?
  • What is the difference between fake news and real news?
  • What steps you can take on how to know if it's fake news.

What Is Fake News and Why Should You Avoid It?

What is the difference between fake news and real news? “Fake news” is news-like content that’s purported to be factual but is either misleading or downright incorrect. In contrast, real news is factual and verifiable. 

Take note of the term “news-like.” Fake news is crafted to look like mainstream news. Its writing and visual format mimic what we’ve come to recognize as news. This is what makes fake news particularly harmful.

We regard news as factual and vetted—having gone through editors and fact-checkers. So, we’re less likely to be critical of content that looks like news.

Fake news can be the result of the content creator’s carelessness or lack of skills to verify facts and claims. Journalists have been known to inadvertently publish or broadcast incorrect information. And inaccuracies can escape even the most meticulous fact-checkers and editors.

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Fake news can hurt you and the people close to you. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Most of the time, though, fake news is deliberately created and distributed to further someone’s agenda. It takes elaborate planning and work to dress up content to look like mainstream news. It’s reasonable to assume that premeditation exists in the creation of fake news.

Why is it important for ordinary media consumers to spot fake news? Fake news can cause you to mislead others if you decide to share them. You don’t want to amplify information that’s wrong, deceptive, or inaccurate, do you? It damages your reputation and worse, can bring harm to others.

That’s because fake news can cause you and others to make wrong decisions. Take, for example, the claim that drinking bleach cures COVID-19. Instead of seeking medical attention, someone who believes this claim as truth might drink bleach—a substance that can cause serious, even life-threatening side effects. If they got hurt, or worse, from following fake news they heard from you, then you could be legally liable for that injury or death. 

Two Kinds of False Information

what is the difference between fake news and real newswhat is the difference between fake news and real newswhat is the difference between fake news and real news
False information can be either misinformation or disinformation. (Image source: Envato Elements)

There are two kinds of false information: misinformation and disinformation.

  1. Misinformation is false information that’s shared without the intent to mislead. That is, the source truly believes they’re sharing correct information. For example, if your Aunt Sally truly believes a daily dose of lemon water prevents cancer and tells you so, then that’s misinformation.
  2. Disinformation is a deliberate act of spreading false information. Most fake news and other forms of propaganda fall under disinformation. An example is when a group creates a news-looking YouTube channel to spread biased and manipulated content to back a certain political party.

Because of the ease and speed at which false information can be created and shared, everyone needs to learn how to be a critical consumer of content and distinguish fake news from real news.

How to Spot Fake News

Gone are the days when we can trust everything that’s published or broadcasted. The price for having easy access to information is taking the time and doing the work to become critical information consumers. 

Follow these steps to spot fake news and other false information.

1. Have a Healthy Skepticism

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A healthy skepticism can protect you against fake news. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Become a skeptic and don’t assume everything you see or hear is true. Take almost everything with a grain of salt. Something that sounds too good to be true usually turns out to be exactly that: untrue. Use your common sense. Then follow the next steps.

2. Assess the Source

Check the source of the content. The following are good questions to ask:

  • Who are they?
  • What’s their background?
  • Do they have the expertise, training, and experience to be speaking or writing about the topic?
  • Do they have a track record of creating credible content?
  • What are their financial ties? Who’s funding their content?
  • What might their intentions be?
  • What might they gain from spreading this information?
  • Who else is following them?

Just this step alone goes a long way towards knowing if something is fake news. The source may give you enough reason to dismiss a fishy piece of information. 

Let’s say someone publishes a press release that Acme Pill is a proven and safe way for people to lose weight. When you look into the author of the article, you find out that they’re the exclusive sellers of Acme Pill. As you dig a little deeper, you find that their website and social media accounts are all new, and they haven’t been quoted by mainstream media. 

3. Check the Facts

what is fake newswhat is fake newswhat is fake news
Use fact-checking sites to spot fake news. (Image source: Envato Elements)

If the source passes your credibility assessment, the next step is to check the facts. Track the original sources of data, quotes, and stories. These details are easily attributed to the wrong persons or groups. You also want to see the first time a fact is published, because a lot could become distorted or lost in translation.

An example is when a detail, while correct, is used out of context. A quote, for instance, could be 100% correct, but without the right context it could become misleading.

This can take time and work, and that’s why you might want to turn to fact-checking sites. The following are recognized to be reliable and credible:

  • FactCheck.org. A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, FactCheck.org is a nonpartisan and nonprofit advocate for voters. Its mission is to “reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” its companion site, FlackCheck, gives viewers resources to become more critical media consumers.
  • The Fact Checker. This is a feature of the Politics section of The Washington Post. It was created to “‘truth squad” the statements of political figures. But it's expanded to analyzing and explaining statements from politicians, diplomats, and others.
  • Politifact.com. This fact-checking site was created by The Tampa Bay Times and later acquired by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit school for journalists. It’s a self-sustaining endeavor on a mission to “sort out the truth in American politics.”
  • Snopes. Going beyond politics, Snopes has existed since 1994 to fact-check “urban legends, hoaxes, and folklore.” It claims to be the oldest and biggest fact-checking site.
  • Duke Reporters' Lab Database. Find fact-checking sites around the world with the help of this database. The Reporters’ Lab is the journalism research center of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, with a focus on fact-checking and research on trust in the news media.

As you can see, most fact-checking sites deal with political news. What if you want to verify something on another topic, such as health claims? You may need to take the next step, which is to examine the evidence yourself.

4. Look at the Evidence

Claims are usually backed by evidence in the form of research, interviews, or literature reviews (study of other published content on the topic). But not all evidence is created equal.

Some research is more reliable and credible than others. When it comes to research on the efficacy of treatments, for example, the gold standard is the double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. This is the most rigorous experimental research design to establish a cause-and-effect relationship. It’s most commonly used to show that a specific treatment cures a particular disease.

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The double-blind, randomized, controlled trial is the gold standard in scientific research. (Image source: Envato Elements)

A double-blind, randomized, controlled trial is more credible than a study that merely compares the outcomes of groups of people over time.

For example, you may come across a report saying researchers have found that drinking 3-4 cups of coffee a day is associated with longer lifespans. This means that coffee drinkers tend to live longer than those who drink less than three cups per day or none at all. While researchers may reassure coffee drinkers that they’re not likely to be harming their health, they can't claim that coffee causes longevity. 

Take note, though, that not all treatments can be subjected to a double-blind, randomized, controlled trial. Sometimes it would be unethical to do so. There may be practical limitations as well that prevent rigorous research.

Aside from data and statistics, you also have to examine images. It’s easy to digitally manipulate images to make them look like something they’re not. Another “trick” fake newsmakers like to pull is to take an image from one event and associate it with another event. 

For example, during the truckers’ convoy in Ottawa in February 2022, pictures spread on social media allegedly showing excessive use of force by police. But those pictures turned out to have been taken at the G20 Summit protests in Toronto in 2010.

If you’re suspicious of an image, you can use Google’s image search to see where it appears online. Go to https://www.google.com/imghp.

how to spot fake news - imageshow to spot fake news - imageshow to spot fake news - images
Use Google's image search to determine the origins and context of an image.

Click the Search by Image icon. Then, either paste the image URL or upload an image into the search dialog.

5. Beware of Confirmation Bias

As you go about examining and evaluating the content you read, watch, and listen to, make sure you’re not succumbing to confirmation bias. This is our human tendency to look only for evidence that supports the beliefs we already hold to be true. Nobody is immune from confirmation bias. We all have this tendency. The first step is to be aware of it and acknowledge it in yourself.

Next, make a deliberate attempt to prove yourself wrong. Don’t just look at sources you agree with. Keep an open mind to credible sources that contradict your beliefs.

For example, if you’re someone who believes in home remedies and alternative treatments, you’ll be tempted to consume only those blogs, books, podcasts, and other content that promotes these, and to avoid sources that support Western medicine.

This makes you susceptible to fake news, propaganda, and fanaticism. You'll also miss out on new, evidence-based treatments discovered by scientists.

6. Examine the Logic

what is fake newswhat is fake newswhat is fake news
Train yourself to think logically and spot logical fallacies. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Sometimes the problem with false information isn’t the lack or poor quality of evidence, but the logic. Our brains are wired to take shortcuts. That is, we easily jump to conclusions. 

This can serve us well, especially in urgent, life-or-death situations. Imagine you’re walking down the sidewalk and everyone else starts running the opposite way. If they’re running away from a wayward van, you don’t have the luxury to stand there evaluating the crowd’s wisdom. You need to turn around and run in the same direction as everyone else!

But more often than not, we do have the time to raise questions and examine the thread of other people’s logic. Shortcuts can lead to logical fallacies or arguments that sound correct but are, in fact, wrong. 

Here are three of the most common logical fallacies:

  1. Anecdotal Evidence Fallacy. It worked for her, then it must work for me. This fallacy generalizes from anecdotal evidence, such as the experience of one person.
  2. Bandwagon Fallacy. If everyone’s doing it, then it must be good. This may or may not be true, as we’ve seen in the example of the running crowd.  
  3. Correlation as Causation Fallacy. If A always exists with B, then A must be the cause of B. This is the fallacy behind our coffee example. Just because coffee drinking is associated with longevity doesn’t mean coffee is the cause of a long life.

You can read more about logical fallacies at the Purdue Online Writing Lab.

7. Slow Down 

Fast, automatic reasoning can lead to fallacious thinking and accepting false information. The antidote is to slow down and give yourself time to think more critically.

The steps above take time and effort. Give yourself the space to challenge claims, statements, and even the images you encounter. 

Certainly, slow down before you click that Share or Forward button. One false move and you could be an accessory to the murder of truth and the spread of fake news. Just pausing and doing a quick check could be all it takes to spot false information.

Qualities of a Critical Thinker

how to spot fake newshow to spot fake newshow to spot fake news
Greater access to information means we all need to become critical thinkers. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Here’s the bottom line: To spot fake news, you've got to be a critical thinker. According to the book The Habit of Critical Thinking: Powerful Routines To Change Your Mind And Sharpen Your Thinking by Thinknetic, the winning characteristics of critical thinkers are:

  • Skeptical. Don’t blindly accept what’s widely accepted to be true. Have the courage to ask if something is true.
  • Curious. Be more inquisitive about the world and ask questions.
  • Open-minded. Be aware of and question your own assumptions and biases.
  • Objective. Set your emotions aside and look at issues objectively.
  • Fair. Strive for impartiality, giving both credit and criticism where they're due. 
  • Humble. Acknowledge that you don’t know everything and that you sometimes get things wrong. At the same time, don’t dismiss what you do know.
  • Tolerant. Accept perspectives that are different from yours.
  • Flexible. When confronted with new evidence, be willing to change your beliefs and actions.

The good news is that you can develop and strengthen these characteristics. You don’t have to be born with them. Make up your mind to become a critical thinker by making a conscious effort to develop these qualities in yourself.

Share Real News

Once you've gathered news information and determined that it's accurate and logical, you may want to share it with others in your organization. One of the best ways to share information is through a presentation. 

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Share real news with professionally designed presentation templates.

A professionally designed presentation template can help you present information in a way that’s both attractive and persuasive. The presentation templates from Envato Elements aren't just created by professional designers. They’re also designed to be easy to use and customizable for a variety of topics and applications.

What’s more, for a small flat monthly fee, an Envato Elements subscription gives you unlimited downloads of the assets you’ll need for your presentation:

  • fonts
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And everything comes with a commercial license, so you can use them for either personal or business use.

If you need a presentation template for one-time use, then explore Graphic River. You'll find professional designed presentation templates on a pay-per-use basis at budget-friendly prices.

Be a Smart Information Consumer 

what is fake newswhat is fake newswhat is fake news
Now you know how to spot fake news. (Image source: Envato Elements)

Today we can access almost any information we want. And we can be our own reporter, broadcaster, or influencer. It used to take days to disseminate information. But today, content can go around the globe in seconds. This easier and faster access to information is a double-edged sword. It can serve us, but misused, it can harm us.

The key is to be able to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, to distinguish real news from fake news. Now that you know what is fake news and how to spot fake news, you can make decisions based on the best—and most accurate—information available to you.

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