Snopes Fact-Checker on how to tell if online news is fake
- With the consumption of information online, context is everything, especially in times of crisis.
- There were tons of viral hoaxes during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including old pictures and fake stories.
- Here’s a toolkit for telling fact from fiction, from viral news stories to doctored videos.
When it comes to information consumption on the internet, especially in times of crisis, context is everything. As a reporter for fact-checking website Snopes, my job is to check viral stories, social media posts, and memes to determine their legitimacy. Rarely do we see a purely “true” or “false” message, and more often than not we encounter claims or rumors that lack important nuance.
Creators of online misinformation spread rumors that substantiate existing feelings or beliefs, sometimes intentionally and sometimes accidentally, writes my colleague Snopes and fellow journalist Jessica Lee. In times of controversy, it’s human nature to want answers and explanations. Bad actors take advantage of this to spread lies online, inciting emotion and further polarizing groups of opposing ideologies.
At Snopes, we’ve covered a wide range of rumors about Russia’s attack on Ukraine, from outdated but circulating images to an edited cover of “Time” magazine that compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Nazi leader. German Adolf Hitler. Our team uncovered reports without context, a million dollar bounty on Putin’s head, claims allegedly made by world leaders, a former beauty pageant contestant who allegedly took up arms during the conflict, and “Ukrainian army cats” trained to spot snipers. lasers. Suffice it to say, no area of the news cycle is immune to misinformation.
Here’s how my press team determines what’s genuine and what’s fake using our Snopes-ing 101: The Fact Checker Toolkit.
How to Spot Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior
Coordinated inauthentic behavior refers to the use of multiple social media accounts or pages that conceal the true identities of those responsible for misleading or influencing people, often for political or financial gain. As Reporter Snopes Jordan Liles written, it can be pretty easy to see, if you know where to look.
Every Facebook Page has a section called “Page Transparency,” which allows users to view information about the management of the Page, such as the country it operates from and its past name changes. In the Page Transparency section is the date the page was created, which can also be used to determine legitimacy. Newly created, highly political pages or groups focused on US politics, but operating outside the country, can be indicators of bad actors.
Posts that end with a “like and share” call to action are also often associated with networks of coordinated inauthentic behavior.
How to avoid “copypasta”
Put the Parmesan cheese down – copypasta are anything but appetizing. A portmanteau for “copy and paste,” copypasta is the 21st century equivalent of chain mail, and it refers to text that is copied, pasted, and shared online. It is a means by which Internet users unwittingly or knowingly perpetuate false information by copying and pasting unverified statements and passing them on to others.
As I’ve reported before: “Copypasta is often identified by vague content surrounding unsubstantiated claims that have no specific source, and can take the form of a chilling account of the (alleged) personal experience of ‘an anonymous individual.’ We’ve seen many examples of copypasta circulating online during the COVID-19 pandemic and have checked social media posts following the Russian invasion, such as this “Why Ukraine Matters” Facebook post (which contained some claims which were true and others false or misleading.).
Examples of evergreen and effective copypasta verified by Snopes years ago continue to appear in our inbox daily. Some telltale signs of copypasta include:
Be on the lookout for “troll bait”
The concept of the Internet troll dates back to, well, the launch of the World Wide Web. Simply put, a troll is an online user who posts inflammatory, insincere, digressive, alien, or emotionally evocative content in order to incite discourse on social media.
Trolls intentionally start arguments or engage in hostile discourse online to further fuel controversial digital fires. Troll bait is their fuel.
Troll bait refers to posts, images, or graphics intended to elicit a strong, almost always negative, reaction to drive traffic to their site by tricking people into sharing the original content in support or opposition. At Snopes, we’ve seen our fair share of troll bait since the start of the Ukrainian invasion, when a viral hoax falsely claimed that “American journalists” had been killed on the first day of the conflict. Another showed a doctored image of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy holding a swastika sports jersey.
In fact, Zelenskyy was even accused of trolling Putin during a video message.
“Entire careers and publications are built on content that drives you crazy,” writes Brandon Echter, digital content strategist and former Snopes engagement editor. “The only way to win is not to play.”
Pro Tip: Don’t take the digital bait.
Fact-checking is not for the faint-hearted
In the aftermath of a contentious presidential election, the COVID-19 pandemic, and now the Russian-Ukrainian war, fact-checkers around the world have been dragged through digital mire. Bad actors and nefarious parties often downplay the amount of work, precision, and training this form of journalism requires, while others falsely claim to have “done their own research.” In times of uncertainty and crisis, it is important to practice good media literacy etiquette.
If in doubt, don’t share it.