I’ve taken money to write click bait. Although I prefer to produce thoughtful, valuable content, I have written click bait for entertainment purposes. (Isn’t that what we all say?)
My skeeziest assignment discussed which celebrities had a fascination with the occult. Nancy Reagan was the obvious headliner (i.e. Joan Quigly’s book What Does Joan Say? My Seven Years as White House Astrologer to Nancy and Ronald Reagan (1990)) and I verified each claim with at least one legitimate printed publication or mainstream news source.
I only write this content occasionally. Frankly, I tend to choose the ones that are outlandish or funny.
They’re stories I want to research anyways.
Sometimes, the assignments are merely calls to write several punchy headlines and summaries for an otherwise bland story (i.e. “You won’t believe what is in your lunch today!”)
However, I have noted an uptick in requests to rewrite and reword (obviously for cross-posting and SEO) stories that are patently false.
This increase began a few years ago, between 2015 and 2016. More and more of these are moonlighting as news stories and people (especially those over the age of 50, see stats to the right) struggle to differentiate between parody, media bias, and definitively false stories created with malicious intent.
NOTE: This post is focused on fake news, not media bias. If you are interested in coverage on agenda-setting theory, ethics in journalism, or media bias, I have put some additional resources at the bottom of the article.
The Hot (Poop) Scoop
In 2018, one of the top fake news stories featured a fictional lottery winner. The headline boasted, “A lottery winner was arrested after he spent $200,000 to dump manure on his ex-boss’s lawn.”
The first source of the story was in the World News Daily Report website on May 14, 2018. The fake news article was tantalizing.
A man from Illinois was arrested for getting $224,000 worth of manure dumped on his former employer’s property, only two weeks after he won $125 million at the lottery and quit his job.
54-year old Brian Morris, from the small town of Clarendon Hills in Dupage County, bought over 20,000 tons of manure and asked for it to be dumped on his former boss’ property, pretending it was his residence … Brian Morris had attracted a lot of media attention two weeks ago after winning $125 million at Powerball Multi-state lottery.
When asked by organizers what he would do with the money, he had simply answered: “Just read the news, you’ll see.”
Alongside the story, they ran an image of someone’s mugshot. That photo was the first clue that the story was fake. It’s actually from a real news story about a DUI in Chicago. It predates the World News Daily Report story by about 4 years.
More notably, the website is actually satire, according to their own footer.
World News Daily Report assumes all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website – even those based on real people – are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any person, living, dead or undead, is purely a miracle.
Tips for Spotting Fake News on Social Media
Although the lottery winner’s story is fairly benign in both origin and impact, there are far more malicious stories that are still spreading (despite the meager efforts of social media giants.) In response to the situation, Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of media studies at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, created a solid list for identifying fake news. Much like how fake news spreads, this document has gone powerfully viral simply by users reposting the information.
The helpful Google Doc, named “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and Satirical ‘News’ Sources” lists:
- Avoid websites that end in “lo” ex: Newslo. These sites specialize in taking a piece of accurate information and then packaging that information with other false or misleading “facts.”
- Watch out for websites that end in “.com.co” as they are often fake versions of real news sources.
- Watch out if known/reputable news sites are not also reporting on the story. Sometimes lack of coverage is the result of corporate media bias and other factors, but there should typically be more than one source reporting on a topic or event.
- Odd domain names generally equal odd and rarely truthful news.
- Lack of author attribution may, but not always, signify that the news story is suspect and requires verification.
- Some news organizations are also letting bloggers post under the banner of particular news brands; however, many of these posts do not always go through the same editing process (ex: BuzzFeed Community Posts, Kinja blogs, Forbes blogs).
- Check the “About Us” tab on websites or look up the website on Snopes or Wikipedia for more information about the source.
- If the story makes you REALLY ANGRY it’s probably a good idea to keep reading about the topic via other sources to make sure the story you read wasn’t purposefully trying to make you angry (with potentially misleading or false information) in order to generate shares and ad revenue.
- It’s always best to read multiple sources of information to get a variety of viewpoints and media frames. Some sources not specifically included in this list (although their practices at times may qualify them for addition), such as The Daily Kos, The Huffington Post, and Fox News, vacillate between providing legitimate, problematic, and/or hyperbolic news coverage, requiring readers and viewers to verify and contextualize information with other sources.
Also, the post details a list of websites that peddle stories in the following categories:
- Fake news
- Extreme Bias
- Rumor Mill
- State News
- Junk Science
- Hate News
- Click Bait
That part of the document is not kept up to date anymore, as these shady websites move frequently. However, many of them frequently appear in my newsfeed (i.e. americanfreepress.net, buzzfeedusa.com (not the real BuzzFeed), and conservativedailypost.com).
Before you repost an article, especially with an inflammatory, conspiratorial or emotional headline, try reading it through and checking the sources. If you can’t find an original, reliable source for the information, try waiting until the information is confirmed. Also, familiarize yourself with watchdog websites that not only evaluate sources but carefully link to information debunking the stories.
Watchdog websites include:
Note: I have left fake news websites unlinked intentionally to avoid sending them traffic, as well as, getting my own site connected through backlinks.
For Additional Reading:
- Younger Americans are better than older Americans at telling factual news statements from opinions from Pew Research Center
- Q&A: Telling the difference between factual and opinion statements in the news from Pew Research Center
- Media Bias Chart from All Sides
- Political Polarization & Media Habits from Journalism.org
- Many Americans Say Made-Up News Is a Critical Problem That Needs To Be Fixed from Journalism.org
- Digital News Fact Sheet from Journalism.org
- State of the News Media from Journalism.org