I know you’ve been getting a lot of flak lately for fake news, but I just want you to know that I don’t hold you accountable for what people choose to classify as fact or fiction. I do not blame you for the results of last year’s election. I do not blame you for all the instances I believed my mom when she told me I would “get worms” if I ate raw cookie dough. And I certainly don’t blame you for that period of time during my childhood when I believed that it was entirely possible for Pecky (my brother’s pet pig) and Becky (my pet pig) to suddenly disappear from their pen for reasons unknown, only to find out years later that they’d been hauled to the local meatpacking plant and turned into bacon.
(Disclaimer: My parents are wonderful, loving people. Don’t let the pig and cookie dough stories of my youth negate that.)
No, my friend, you are not to blame for any of this. I’m sorry people let social media influence their political views, I’m sorry I (almost) let my mom ruin unbaked goodness for me, and I’m especially sorry I probably ate Pecky and/or Becky without realizing it.
Please, let me help you make the cyberworld a better place by sharing the following list of red flags to look for when identifying a disreputable news source. (You can thank me by telling that Zuckerberg kid to cough up the $4.5 million I was promised. I’m starting to get really sick of having to copy and paste those stupid status updates.)
Your friend and partner in crimefighting,
- “You write bogus news stories on the Internet? How admirable,” said no one ever.
Hypothetical question here: If you made your living weaving completely ridiculous stories about how Mariah Carey is an alien from Mars who was placed on Earth to warble like a dying washing machine until everyone starts bleeding from their ears, thus sending all of mankind into oblivion, you probably wouldn’t want anyone to know about it, would you?
No, you wouldn’t, you little fibber, you. (Now go out and get a legitimate job writing legitimate articles before your mother finds out.)
To avoid that sticky situation where you’re caught having to explain to your friends the real reason why you refuse to listen to “We Belong Together,” check the byline of any article that falls into your hands. If no author exists or a name is given but it doesn’t belong to a real person, hit the little “X” on your browser tab and move on. (Not sure who’s real and who’s faux? This article from FactCheck.org can help you decide. Read the whole article for additional tips on how to separate the bad guys from the good guys.)
Rule of thumb: If an article’s author is nowhere to be found, there’s an excellent chance that the same can be said of its validity.
- This website was designed by some ogre with Internet access.
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At one point the freeway marquees out here read, “Drinking and driving go together like peas and guacamole.” (It was a poke at this recipe, which is an insult to every avocado I’ve ever eaten, but I digress.)
That’s about how well trustworthy news and poorly designed websites go together.
In other words, the truth doesn’t often come from sources that look like they were created by a basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing teenager with his first MySpace account. If opening a Web page also opens a wormhole of shooting stars and Tigger bouncing around on his little tiger tail and text that is set entirely in Comic Sans – the bane of my existence – then run fast and run far. This is not peanut butter and jelly. This is peanut butter and mustard, and it is not what you want to find in your lunchbox come noon.
Rule of thumb: Shoddy design is often indicative of equally shoddy reporting.
- You get a typo! And you get a typo! AND EVERYONE GETS A TYPO!
In much the same way I don’t trust any man who eats less than I do, I also don’t trust any writer who posts his or her articles without proofreading first – or proofreads a billion times yet still doesn’t know the difference between there, their and they’re. (Which is equally criminal, if you ask me.)
Sloppiness and complete ignorance are never indicators of professionalism, so see yourself out at the first sign of either.
Rule of thumb: If it’s spelled funny, it probably smells funny too.
- Seeing is (not always sufficient for) believing.
Facebook users, this one’s for you.
Picture it: You’re scrolling through your feed, and amid the baby pictures, bathroom mirror selfies and gym check-ins, there’s a picture of Bradley Cooper with a text blurb superimposed over his dreamy face. You read it and your eyes light up, you get little flitter-flutters in your stomach and you utter the only syllable that doesn’t evade you at the moment.
Now, before you get click-happy and start sprinkling that image across the Interweb, remember that anyone can slap words on a picture in Photoshop and claim it’s a bona fide quote from Mr. Cooper or the president of Nicaragua or whomever.
Just because it’s a photo of someone you trust, like or admire doesn’t mean it’s immune to lying liars who lie.
Check where that image originated. Plug the quote into Google and see if it actually is attributed to the person in the picture.
If not, Facebook has a reaction for that.
You know what to do with it.
Rule of thumb: A picture is worth a thousand words, not all of them necessarily true.
- What happens when you leave your attributions at the door?
You end up with an article that has zero credibility, that’s what.
News doesn’t just appear. There’s no stork that flies by and drops a bundle of words and pictures onto your front lawn. There are no elves – Keebler or otherwise – with honed breaking and entering skills who sneak into your home at night and turn your Web browser into a cesspool of dishonesty.
That stuff has to come from somewhere.
Reading requires some stretching of your Sherlock sleuthing skills. Snoop around for the sources of information in an article and then snoop around some more to see if they’re legit. Any unnamed sources – or sources identified as “close” to a subject (I’m looking at you, trashy tabloid magazines) – should register on your baloney radar.
And don’t forget about photos either.
Honest journalism will not lead you to believe that they are the magical product of fairies and pixie dust. Look for tiny print underneath a picture or an HTML link that directs you to another (hopefully dependable) website to find out who or where it came from.
Rule of thumb: Individuals who lack the moral compass to report the whole truth and nothing but the truth are also highly unlikely to give credit where credit is due.
And remember, it isn’t Facebook or Twitter or your great uncle Jedidiah’s fault if your news sources are fake.
Like the wise always say, “Fact-check yo’self before you wreck yo’self.”
Or something like that.