On the Lookout for Fake News

On the Lookout for Fake News

Did you hear that taurine can reverse the effects of tinnitus? Or that a man named Tom Ogle invented a carburetor that runs entirely on fuel vapors? Maybe you did, but hopefully you didn’t believe those stories – because they’re not true.

Fake news is legion these days. According to Merrimack College professor Melissa Zimdars, fake news comes in one of four categories:

1 – Completely false news, with no factual basis

2 – News that is misleading or inaccurate

3 – News stories with attention grabbing headlines that may not have anything to do with their article’s content

4 – Satirical sites, whose content is meant to invoke humor

And it’s not always easy to tell fake news from real news. A recent Stanford University study concluded that many middle school, high school and college students cannot distinguish the two from one another. In a series of 56 exercises, the study’s lead researchers concluded that information literacy needs to be added to classroom curricula at all levels of education. Students were unable to tell the difference between ads and real news articles, nor were they always able to detect bias.

In order to understand how students may get confused, it would help to examine a fake news claim. Let’s take a look at an article on premature greying hair from mercola.com, one of the nation’s most shared sources for alternative health information. You will note immediately that the site links to products sold by Dr. Mercola, and that these links are located in various places throughout the website. You may also note that it claims to be the “the World’s #1 Natural Health Website”, a distinction based on the number of page views the site has received. Neither sales nor popularity make for credibility, however, and we will need to examine this article further to determine whether or not it’s reliable. While the article links to its sources, all of those sources are either links to other blog posts found on the same site (circular reasoning), links to articles found in popular non-scientific magazines or other alternative health sites which don’t verify their claims at all. Only one claim was backed by a link to a scientific study, one which was published in 2012 with a small number of subjects. In short, this particular article would not be considered reliable at all, and a quick look at the author, Dr. Joseph Mercola, reveals that he has been ordered to pay out $5.3 million in damages to people who bought tanning beds from his site under the pretense that they did not cause cancer. The Food and Drug Administration has ordered him to stop claiming that his thermal imaging cameras can diagnose diseases. While Dr. Mercola is indeed a board-certified physician, his website clearly demonstrates his lack of scientific analysis in his claims and a willingness to make false claims regarding products he sells.

In order to pick out fake news, there’s a few tricks you’ll want to keep in mind.

  1. Look up the author. Many professionals have profiles on LinkedIn, an employment-related networking site. Others may have profiles on their workplace websites. Does the author have the credentials to back their claims? Do they represent an organization with a vested interest in their claims?
  2. Check the claims. Open a tab in your browser next to the article you’re reading and go back and forth between windows. Verify all the claims, even those without links, and weigh the validity of the source. Links to scientific studies, government statistical sites, articles (with sources) in academic publications and similar sources are more reliable than sites that do not cite their sources, links to personal blogs or alternative news sites.
  3. Check yourself. How does the article want you to feel? Inflammatory language is a hallmark of fake news, especially if the article incites anger or fear.

Fortunately, the IU East Campus Library has other tools for you as well. The IU East Fake News LibGuide, which has been viewed and shared over 15,000 times since its creation on November 29, 2016, has become an invaluable tool for librarians, researchers and students in identifying fake news. If you’re looking for high quality information sources, you will definitely want to check out our academic databases such as Academic Search Premier, ProQuest, JSTOR, Opposing Viewpoints and others. Librarians at IU East can also help you navigate through the morass that is fake news to help you tell truth from fiction. If you have any questions, always feel free to ask us! iueref@iue.edu

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