Anyone who has spent significant time online has probably seen a friend post a link to a news article, only to find out that little if anything in it is actually true. The practice of crafting fake news has become increasingly common, making filtering those stories from real ones a sometimes frustrating task, and leading some people to wonder why some websites exist primarily to circulate misinformation. The short answer is simple — money. Every time someone clicks on a fake news link, the site it came from benefits, because page hits are how they generate income from advertising. Almost every commercial website makes money that way, and there's nothing wrong with it as a practice, but this has led to the proliferation of fake news stories online. The practice is simple but clever — create a sensational but plausible (If only barely) story, run an equally lurid headline, and somewhere inconspicuous on the page, bury a disclaimer about the site's content being satire and for entertainment purposes only. A lot of the time, readers won't see the disclaimer, and even if they do, the site has already benefited from the page hit. The following are a few of the debunked articles that have recently been widely shared online.
6. Rapper Mike Jones Arrested on Human Trafficking Charges.
An article claiming that Houston-based rapper Mike Jones was arrested on 34 counts of human trafficking gained traction on social networking sites. The original story came from a source that has "TMZ" in its name even though it has no affiliation with the popular celebrity news media group. That site also had plenty of other dubious-sounding "news" stories, such as one reporting Will Smith had fallen to his death, and its stories are as fake as fake can be.
5. McDonald's Parasitic Worm Outbreak Linked Back to Ground 'Worm Filler' in Patties.
In a clever (depending on how you look at it) throwback to a debunked urban legend from the 1970s, multiple fake news sites reported that a "parasitic roundworm disease" outbreak was linked to the use by McDonald's of worm meat as a filler in the chain's hamburgers. The story spread quickly earlier this month, despite the fact that it was entirely false, earning fake news sites lots of page hits and more than likely spoiling a few appetites.
4. Donald Trump Threatens to Deport All Nigerians If He's Elected.
Several fake news sites ran with a story claiming that Donald Trump had recently been quoted at a political rally in Kansas as saying:
"To make America great again, we need to get rid of the Muslims, Mexicans and the Africans, especially the Nigerians. They take all our jobs, jobs meant for honest, hardworking Americans, and when we don’t give them the jobs, the Muslims blow us up.”
Let's face it, it's not completely implausible that a man like Donald Trump could say something like that at a rally for his candidacy. In any case, lots of people believed the stories running that fake quote, and it made the rounds, proving Trump is a godsend to sites that make up the news.
3. Texas "Booty Tickler" Bandit Arrested.
In December, a story that a notorious criminal known as "The Booty Tickler" had been arrested here in the Lone Star State got widely shared on Facebook. I saw this story passed around a whole bunch of times myself; it was no doubt helped along by the perverse subject matter. According to a fake news site, a creep would break into homes and "tickle the buttholes" of sleeping residents. Fortunately for people in Dallas, where he was supposedly active, this story is BS through and through.
2. A Rapist Uses a Clown Costume to Hide in Child's Room.
Late last year, a particularly awful story of a child rapist dressing in a clown costume so he could hide in his victim's room was released by a trashy fake news source. According to the story, which borrowed liberally from old urban legends, a pedophile dressed as a clown hid in a young girl's room, fooling her babysitter into thinking he was just part of the decor. Combining fears of horrific crimes targeting children and a common revulsion toward clowns, the story added "authenticity" by using a real mugshot to illustrate its lurid tale. The fact that the guy in that photo had been arrested for carjacking and not molestation isn't mentioned anywhere in the story.
1. A Charlie Brown Christmas Airs With "Christian Content" Trigger Warning.
A conservative website shared a story claiming that the holiday classic A Charlie Brown Christmas had been shackled with a warning stating that it contained "Strong Christian messages and may be offensive to some viewers." The predictable outrage that followed also scored the fake news site responsible for the original (and false) story lots of page shares, making it a success for that site.
While some fake news stories are easy to spot, some of the sites creating them are sophisticated enough to fool a lot of people. One might wonder how it's even legal to spread fake news, but all it takes is one of the disclaimers saying the site is "satire" that was mentioned earlier, even though satire is supposed to be funny, and fake news often is not. Unfortunately, as long as invented news articles are legal and profitable to write, there will be someone willing to spread them. However, there are a few things a person can do to see if a story is real or not before he shares it to his friends. Here are a few easy ways to check on the validity of a news item.
3. Is It Unusually Outrageous in Nature?
The world is a pretty strange place, and celebrities, criminals and politicians say weird and extreme things from time to time, but if a story appears that seems particularly outlandish, it's probably a good idea to fact-check it thoroughly. Do any of the people or organizations quoted seem less than legit? Does the story seem written in a slightly humorous manner, or does it seem like it's intended primarily to upset its readers?
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2. Check to See If Any Trusted News Outlets Are Also Reporting the Story.
One of the better ways to check the validity of a questionable news story is to see if any known and trusted media outlets are covering it. If a story is being shared only from a source that's not readily known for accuracy or if the source sounds like a strange variation on a real media group, then chances are it's not legit — sorry, "huggingtonpost.co," but I wasn't born yesterday. Most of the time, real sites will cover a story with any merit, and if Donald Trump really had said he was going to deport certain ethnic or religious groups, you can bet that it would be all over the news. This is one of the simplest ways to tell if a story is real or not, but it's not foolproof, since even the media giants occasionally get tricked and share information from one of the fake sources.
1. Has Snopes or Other Fact-Checking Sites Already Debunked The Story?
Snopes and other watchdog sites tend to respond to fake news items quickly, and there's a good chance they've already debunked many of the false stories being spread on any given day. Snopes has a good database of fake stories, and it's a good idea to check it, because sometimes these things reappear after lying dormant for a while. Snopes also has its own helpful guide on how to tell if a story is probably fake, as well as a growing list of known fake news sites. If a story originates from one of them, it's almost guaranteed to be untrue. It's worth checking those resources before hitting "share" on Facebook, annoying your friends who already know that there's no worm meat in their burger, and spreading misinformation to those who don't.