How To Unmask Fake News

The web is full of fake videos, propaganda articles and private posts. With these twelve tricks you can distinguish serious news from false information.

Whether climate change, Corona or now the war in Ukraine - there is masses of dubious information circulating about all of this. They are shared on Telegram or WhatsApp or posted on Facebook and Twitter, much of which looks like official newspaper articles and TV media or live reports from the crisis area. It is difficult to see who and what is behind it. Twelve tricks you can use to check information for authenticity and veracity.

1) Is the information plausible?

Are you scrolling through the web and come across amazing news, an exciting video from the war in Ukraine , or tips on how to deal with Corona? Pause for a moment and consider whether the information you are reading is plausible. Sounds like someone uncovered something sensational? 

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What can be seen on the video contradicts everything that has been reported so far? As a rule of thumb, remember the crazier something seems, the more likely it is untrue. However, the reverse conclusion that everything that seems plausible is also plausible does not apply. If you think there might be something to it: Ask a few simple questions to check how credible and how serious the information is. 

2) Who posted or sent the info to you?

The sender of a message is a first indication of how serious the information is. Did he or she take the photo sent himself, experienced what was described, or is content that has been shared a lot but not verified being passed on here? Ask where they got the information from. Sometimes a short, active googling helps to notice that something is being replicated here that cannot be checked.

Or you can find more serious information on the same topic right away. Look at who the person is, what else they typically post, and what qualifies them to consider this information important or relevant. Sometimes further research is already done at this point. Sometimes people will forward or post something to you because it supports their opinion. But that doesn't make them experts. They rarely check what they share beforehand.

3) What is the original source?

If you trust whoever is sending or posting something, the next question is: What is the original source of the information? Check whether the posting has an indication of the source and author, from which newspaper, which TV station, which institute it should come from and check their homepage: Does this medium, this institute exist? What does the imprint say there? 

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Is it an independent newspaper? Or a company website? Who is the publisher? Who finances it? Is there perhaps a logo of a large company somewhere? Or is this newspaper or this organization not to be found on the internet? If the original source cannot be verified, the posting is very likely a fake or at least irrelevant.

4) What is the interest of the authors?

What you find on the web can be true - and still one-sided or colored by self-interest. Even those who do good in your eyes are not independent when they report about it. Check who is behind a medium or a website, who runs a TV station and whether it is a public press, a company, an NGO or a political foundation.

Because it makes a difference whether someone is pursuing a campaign, wants to sell something or collect donations or reports completely independently. An example: There are medical websites that provide serious information about diseases. But watch out: Some are sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.

5) Are there other sources that say the same thing?

A video shows unbelievable things from the border in Poland, which no major medium reports – Someone sends you an article citing an incredible Corona study that nobody seems to be writing about, not even the New York Times, Scientific Spectrum or the Guardian? That should make you very skeptical. It is very likely that the information is either not verifiable or the study does not meet scientific standards - and was therefore not picked up by journalists and reporters.

6) When was a photo or video taken?

Often years old photos and videos circulate that supposedly show something current. Or the opposite is claimed to devalue evidence of current events. A very simple way to verify images: reverse search from Google or other tools like TinEye. 

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If you upload photos there, the search engine compares them with other images on the web. If an image has already been published, it spits out the URL, often with the date. But since this only works well with the identical photo: Google the event itself in the image search and see whether similar photos and videos from the same day confirm the events. Can you see vegetation that gives clues to the season or climate zone? You can find out what the weather was like using tools such as Meteostatfind out. A reverse search offered by Amnesty International reveals whether a YouTube video has already been online.

7) Where was it made?

Images are sometimes shown on television or news sites that editors cannot be sure where they were taken. Simply adding "Source: Internet" reveals that they want to shirk responsibility here. Be skeptical of such images. Take a close look: Can you see the names of cafes, street names or distinctive features such as a church? Check them using digital map services like Google Maps or open source offerings. Many organizations and media have collected tools that can be used to compare location, date, time and much more information about images and videos.

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You can find them under the keyword OSINT- the abbreviation for Open Signals Intelligence. If someone sent you a photo or video directly, the file may contain information about when, where, and with which camera it was taken. You can read this metadata with digital tools. Although geodata and timestamps can be changed, they always provide a first clue.

8) What is the context?

A quote can be slightly altered or taken out of context to make a whole new meaning. A popular TV presenter suddenly seems like a child hater or a leftist like an AfD sympathizer. Or a survey shows a supposed trend for which far too few people were surveyed for percentages to be meaningful. And a picture detail does not show the whole truth. So check the original source: Did the person really say that? Is the survey trend based on a representative survey? Can you really see the whole picture? This is how you can tell if something has been taken out of context and presented in a distorted way.

9) Is the writer qualified?

During their training, journalists learn to check sources for credibility. They have documents shown to them, question the other side if allegations are made, check numbers, dates or names. In science, too, it is a matter of course to weight and substantiate information. 

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Academic titles, illustrious institute names or high ratings - none of this is a guarantee that everything that experts spread is correct. Assessing people's competence is not easy. Employers or clients are clues. And you can look at the working method: does someone specialize in the topic, does the person cite different sources, correct mistakes, admit mistakes and point out what he or she doesn't know? These are good signs.

10) How biased are you yourself?

Do you want peace in Ukraine? That the pandemic will soon be over? With climate change everything not going to be so bad? As you educate yourself, it is important to be aware of these hopes and desires. Because we perceive information selectively. And tend to choose what fits our worldview. This can make us more vulnerable to fake news. Always ask yourself whether you are currently getting comprehensive information. Consciously change your perspective and read opinions that do not correspond to your own.

11) Is that all still true?

Sometimes you share something and have to realize later: It was taken out of context or is now outdated. This often happens in a crisis situation such as a war or a pandemic. It is important that you correct mistakes or make them transparent when something is no longer valid . It's best to delete the original post and post a new one explaining what was wrong or changed. Whether your post was a few hours or weeks ago. In this way you contribute to the fact that wrong and outdated things are not reproduced again and again and get stuck in people's minds. The more people are vigilant and uncover fake news and propaganda, the less damage they can do - as is currently the case in the Ukraine war.

12) Don't just let yourself be showered

Actively inform yourself: find some reputable media that you read, listen to or watch. Not just consuming the media that is very close to your own attitude helps to open your eyes and look out of the filter bubble. Before you forward or like something yourself: read it and check the source and date.

In this way you can help prevent false information from spreading. Set limits on how long and how much you consume news. Everything that reaches you passively via social media or chats should be well filtered. You don't have to read everything just because someone sends it to you. And if it sounds so sensational that you simply have to click on it: please go back to step one.

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