How can you tell true information from fake news?

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For many of us, the Internet has become our main source of information – but unfortunately also of false information, created by dishonest commentators and Internet trolls who hide behind fake accounts. How can we avoid getting lost in all of this, and can we learn to distinguish fake news from real information?

Fake news is simply false, untrue information that misleads its audience. In the information business, honesty counts for less and less; instead, it’s about displaying ads and who reaches viewers, listeners and readers first with the news. Unfortunately, that’s often news that’s unchecked, divorced from reality and not infrequently simply made up. Sometimes fake news is created by people who are paid for it, for whom it’s easy to deliberately circulate erroneous, shocking, controversial information.

Forms of fake news

Manipulated news, meant to convince its audience that it’s about real events, is taking on increasingly advanced forms, which is why it’s so important to be able to spot fake news, usually just completely made-up nonsense, amid the information overload.

The authors of the telephone survey Fake news z perspektywy polskich dziennikarzy (Fake news from the perspective of Polish journalists), carried out by the Public Dialog agency in April 2017 among Polish journalists and the editors-in-chief of several dozen nationwide and local publications, identified the basic types of fake news:

  • completely untrue – false, contradictory, intentionally fabricated information is provided
  • disputed information – the recipient is misled by the context the facts are placed in, or their selective presentation
  • manipulated quotes – the skillful placement of a quote in a certain context, cutting out sentences, resulting in a change in the meaning of the comment and support for a certain thesis.

The survey respondents identified social media and the Internet as a fundamental source of fake news. They also noted that public figures and politicians have a role in spreading false information. In turn, the main reasons why it’s created are seen as:

  • tabloidization of the media
  • competition, the need to be first
  • lack of time to verify information

photo: Sara Kurfeß (Unsplash)

Examples of fake news

Fake news can take the form of:

  • impersonating well-known people (but not for purposes of humor, satire or entertainment)
  • content published on fictitious profiles
  • an online meme
  • deep fakes, or techniques for processing images and sound by combining images that show people’s faces, using artificial intelligence to manipulate the message and create a false reality
  • clickbait headlines, or creating headlines, titles and article summaries that arouse people’s interest, provoke emotions and draw attention; news headlines are often exaggerated or sensationalist, contradict the content of the article or are only loosely related to it. The purpose of these actions is to generate profits from online ads: the more people click through to an article, the greater the number of views, and thus the greater the profits.

There are groups of people whose goal is to present lies in such a way that they’ll reach the largest possible group of people ready to believe and spread them. The intent is to influence others’ views and achieve the writer’s own goals – political, economic or social.

Fake news often address current, narrow subjects: recently there has been a lot of untrue, unconfirmed and unreliable information about the coronavirus pandemic, COVID-19 vaccinations and the newest cell-phone standard, 5G. Additionally, fake news very often concerns comments by politicians and people engaged in political activity.

How to spot fake news: 8 steps, run by the non-profit Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania published eight rules that can help you recognize fake news:

  • check the information sources

Make sure the website is credible. Check whether it includes contact information or addresses, and look at the exact URL: changing even one letter can make a big difference.

  • read the entire article

Titles and headlines are designed to be sensational and grab people’s attention. Unfortunately, they’re very often misleading and don’t have a lot to do with the rest of the text, which is why it’s important to read the entire piece, not just the introduction.

  • check out the author

It’s worth looking at who’s the author of a sensational piece of news: check whether this is their first article, whether they show up in search engines, what kind of content they’ve published before – if anything. An honest author will present a subject from various points of view, cite credible sources and make sure content is properly written.

  • check the date of the publication

Look to see whether the article is current and not from a few weeks, months or even years ago. The context of the information it contains may differ significantly depending on the time the material you’re reading was created.

  • make sure it’s not a joke or satire

Sometimes information that seems incredible is neither true nor fake news, but simply a joke or satire. A good example of a website that plays with the conventions of news is, which usually publishes funny stories about made-up news or comments on current social and political events.

  • look at other sources

If a piece of news that looks unlikely appears in one medium, look for it in other sources, too: press, radio, television. The more media are reporting a fact, the higher the chance that it’s true (though unfortunately this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule).

  • consider your own views

Our convictions and views can also affect how we receive information, so think about whether you’re biased, and your view of an issue is subjective.

  • ask the experts

If you have doubts about the authenticity of a piece of news, reach out to specialists in the subject and try to gather the data you need to confirm or debunk it.

How to teach kids to identify fake news

Every day we receive a huge amount of information – and this is particularly true of children, who are by nature curious about the world, and soak up knowledge like a sponge. You can’t completely protect them against false information, whose main carriers are the Internet and social media, but it’s still worth making them aware of the existence of fake news.

In addition to the rules cited above, what else can parents do? First of all, talk with your kids, and:

  • teach them critical thinking and reflection, and build their awareness that not everything they read online is true
  • make them aware of the difference between information and advertising, and facts and opinion
  • teach your offspring that if they have doubts about the truth of a piece of information, they can always share their fears and ask for help in looking for confirmation from other sources

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main photo: Markus Winkler (Unsplash)


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