The Internet is a double-edged sword when it comes to breaking news.
On one hand, we know what’s going on halfway around the world in minutes, but this comes with the cost of typically inaccurate information when things do happen. Throw in the open-ended nature of social media sites where anyone can make a claim, and often false news spreads around the world ahead of the truth.
It’s easy to get caught up in the fake hype when a crisis happens. It’s easy to fall prey to misinformation. It’s easy to be misled. Unfortunately, outrageous news are regular events now.
The next time there’s a news event that whips you into a frenzy, take a step back and remember these tips.
News Outlets Don’t Know Enough
Whenever a breaking bit of news develops three things might happen.
- Every major news website will have a banner across their home page with the words “BREAKING”.
- Everyone will tweet the news starting with “BREAKING”.
- And, news websites will want you to come to their site to find out what’s happening.
The problem with this? In all likelihood, they probably don’t know what’s going on.
Think about it: if there’s a shooting situation in Arizona that’s still developing, how would news outlets in New York know enough to reliably communicate it to you? Hopefully, sites will be decent and feature a brief post on the situation, letting you know that they’ll add more info as it happens. Some, however, might try to make up details or fill the post up with rumors.
Don’t believe them.
In a similar vein, Wikipedia will add a disclaimer on pages that are affected by a current event, letting you know that its information may change rapidly and asking users not to add information that isn’t confirmed.
Do not take any news stories at face value. News companies want you to visit their pages, and they’d rather put out some speculations than leave you wondering and risk losing you to a competitor.
Give local news its due. It’s best to check for news outlets that are near the issue, so check the websites of local news TV stations or newspapers before you go to CNN or other national news.
There is a general rule — there is almost never a second shooter.
Compare Multiple Sources
Continuing off the last point, it’s really easy for one reporter or network to get information wrong. You’re better off making sure that several outlets are confirming the same story, but this too comes with a caveat.
Watch out for breaking news that cites another news story as its source. If you followed these, you could discover a daisy-chain of citations that all leads back to one news outlet who had no idea what they were talking about. As the story develops, you can compare new details that one source adds to others and see if they seem to be legitimate.
oh the twitter struggle of wanting to rt breaking news but not finding multiple independent sources to confirm it
— Defective Bad Janet (@igitot) April 21, 2016
You should also be careful of the language that news posts use, and how they compare to each other.
When a reporter says “We are getting reports,” it could be totally off-base. If they “are seeking confirmation,” they don’t have it, and you shouldn’t get caught up in what they’re saying. When they say that they “have learned” or “have heard” new information, they could have heard from an unreliable source or be making a far-fetched connection.
If you ever see an anonymous source, don’t pay it any mind. If someone is knowingly fabricating details in a major story, they could get into serious trouble if the falsehood was traced back to them, which leads us to…
Watch Out for Faking
The hype of breaking news brings out people who want to capitalize on the situation and get their fifteen minutes of fame. With Photoshop and other editing tools, it’s not hard to make a convincing fake image, and news outlets hungry for a story could gobble it up without checking its authenticity.
This doesn’t just apply to breaking news, either — the controller for Nintendo’s upcoming NX console was supposedly leaked via some internal photos, but they turned out to be fakes designed to trick people. In this case, people are excited for the announcement of the new console, so they’ll jump on anything that seems to be legitimate. This is even more typical with crisis news.
— All3DP (@All3DP) March 29, 2016
It’s not always negative, though; there are plenty of times the Internet has been a force for good, too.
Beware Social Media, and Watch Yourself
Social media has made it easier for the fakers discussed above to get their nonsense distributed. With hashtags and direct lines to news outlets on the likes of Facebook and Twitter, someone can jump on a hot hashtag and get their false images, videos, or stories in front of millions of people with just a few clicks.
The problem with social media and breaking news is that people want instant updates on what’s happening, so they’ll latch onto any bits of new info they see. Since retweeting on Twitter is so easy to do, a normal person could tweet a speculation on the issue as fact and have it soar to thousands of retweets, further spreading false info. People blindly retweeting anything they see leads to the spread of myths that just won’t die, among other problems.
Be careful that you don’t fall for viral falsehoods. It’s easy to see something on a breaking issue and think that you should share it so everyone gets the update, but it’s wise to think first. Don’t retweet anything you see related to the situation — use the above tips to see if it’s legitimate first before contributing to the problem.
How to Combat Fake News
Reading all this, you might wonder if there’s any way to combat the inevitable incorrect news during a crisis. Thankfully, even though the internet causes lots of problems in the spreading of falsehoods, it can also do a lot of good in helping you to dispel them.
Here are five tools and tips that help you to give in to the sceptic inside you and check the accuracy of statements you hear.
1. Do a Quick Reverse Image Search
You can utilize Google Image Search in an interesting way and try reverse-searching on any images you think might be fake. In Chrome, you can right-click on any image and click Search Google for image, or visit the image search page and click the camera button to upload an image in other browsers, to find other uses of the image.
Y'all know you can reverse image search, right? Click on camera icon, put in url or upload photo. Excellent hoax debunker #ACES2016
— James Harbeck (@sesquiotic) March 31, 2016
If you perform this search on a “breaking image” and see that it was uploaded somewhere else five years ago, that’s a sure sign the image was faked or recycled.
2. Find The Truth Behind Fake Videos
Amnesty’s YouTube DataViewer is like reverse image search for videos. Enter any YouTube URL into the page, and it will analyze it to try to find the original upload. Fake videos are often older clips simply downloaded and re-uploaded by someone new to pretend like it’s a new development.
YouTube doesn’t let you find out if a video is the original or not; this tool will and you’ll know if a video is truly new footage or not.
3. Catch The “Photoshoppers”
To find out if an image has been edited in Photoshop, try uploading it to FotoForensics, which will analyze it for spots that suggest an alteration might have occurred. Since it can be really hard to tell if something was edited in Photoshop these days (except in the case of hilarious blunders), this is a great tool to combat hoaxes.
FotoForensics has a detailed tutorials section and a blog that takes you behind some of the “fake” catches.
4. Dig Into False Political Stories
When it comes to politics, PolitiFact is the source to visit for any possible falsehoods. It allows you to review the statements of various political figures and see if they’re complete hogwash or actually true. Their Pants on Fire section contains the biggest recent lies; if you see your supposed news bit here, you know it’s not true.
Another similar resource is FactCheck.org, allowing you to view the truth about various stories.
5. Verify Weather Facts
Finally, you can try using WolframAlpha to verify weather facts. WolframAlpha can tell you what the weather was in an area on a given day, giving you something to combat that story about wild weather. Typing “weather in Orlando on April 16th, 2016 at 10 AM” will give you a report; if it doesn’t match up with some story about a crazy hurricane, you have reason to be skeptical.
WolframAlpha uses multiple sources (you can spot the list by scrolling down to the Sources link), so it’s a quick way to find the accuracy of a weather report.
Getting to the Truth
Clearly there are a lot of issues that the ever-connectivity of the Internet brings to reliable news. With a few tips and being intentional about what you share, you can cut down on the spread of bad information and see through any lies in the wake of a crisis. It’s great to stay current and know what’s happening, but being vigilant goes a long way, too.
How do you combat false news in the wake of a crisis? Share your advice below!