How to spot fact from online fiction

This story is part of a series on fact checking by WikiTribune reporter Harry Ridgewell: others are on the rise of fact checking in response to the “fake news” debate, an interview with The New Yorker’s legendary fact checker, plus how to spot fake images and newsPlease add to or TALK about them.

Whether it’s satire, propaganda or mischief, there are a few simple ways to check the veracity of a story online. WikiTribune spoke to some of the world’s fact-checking experts, and here’s a summary of their best advice.

1 Who wrote it?

Most news sites have a short profile on each journalist or contributor. This can tell you about their experience and previous writing. You can also do a brief background check on Google (it’s hard to fake a good Google history) and check the writer’s social media profiles; a blue tick near their name on Facebook or Twitter denotes an account of public interest that has been verified. Make sure the journalist is both real and trustworthy. Anonymous sources can’t be trusted as much – and if the writer is following good journalistic practices why wouldn’t they want their name on it?

2 Does the headline match the article?

Fake news sites know that many users share articles without reading them properly, so check whether the headline matches the article. Beware of overly sensational headlines.

3 What’s the web address?

Look carefully at the URL as fake news sites can try to imitate major news networks by using a similar address and similar branding. Sometimes they may copy a site ending in “.com” and use “.co” instead. You can use the internet registry or to see when and where the website was registered. If a site focuses on UK politics, for example, but is registered in another country, be suspicious. If the site publishes a shocking story and has only just been registered be skeptical.

4 Is it satire?

If a story seems truly ridiculous, it might just be satire. Check the “about” page on the site, which should list any political affiliations or let you in on the joke. Even The New York Times has fallen for a satirical story by The Daily Currant on the subject of Kim Kardashian’s derrière. (The New York Times)

5 How widely reported is it?

If you haven’t seen the story anywhere else, it probably means it’s not credible. “Shocking discoveries” with little or no evidence – and only published on one website – are unlikely to be true.

6 What’s the source?

Does the article say what its sources are and do those sources back up the story? Revelatory claims without proof, outside comment or links to related stories are often not credible. If you’re not sure, go one step further and contact the site to ask what their sources are. If they refuse, ask a relevant expert, perhaps through Twitter, to assess their claims.

7 Is it a scientific claim?

Stories sometimes cite a scientific reference or a research paper, in which case you can use the research aggregation tool Scimago to check that these are published in reputable journals.

Unless it’s a brand-new development, research papers about specific findings are not usually unique. Most of the time there are hundreds of research papers on the same subject. So if the story you are reading is true, there should be other papers that show similar results, or at least related research. Always keep in mind that extraordinary claims should have extraordinary evidence.

Research groups usually have their own page in the main website of their institution. Google the research team and check that the names of the researchers and their research topic (provided on the official page) match the story you are reading. Contact information for members of the group is also usually available. Do not hesitate in writing them an email or giving them a call.

8 What do the fact checkers have to say?

The true heroes of the fight against fake news are fact checkers. Snopes researches many of the most widely shared media stories and will tell you whether it appears to be credible or not. If it’s a political story, there’s a good chance one of the members of the International Fact-Checking Network (ICFN) has evaluated it. If the claim hasn’t been covered yet, most fact-checking organizations will respond to suggestions from readers, so let them know.

Find your fact checker

By subject:

• Climate Change: Climate Feedback

• Media: Snopes

By region:

• Africa: Africa Check

• Australia: The Conversation FactCheck, RMIT ABC Fact Check

• Argentina: Chequeado

• Bosnia & Herzegovina: Istinomjer

• Brazil: Agência Lupa, Agência Pública – TrucoAos Fatos, UOL Confere

• Colombia: Colombiacheck

• Czech Republic: Demagog

• France: France 24 Les Observateurs, Le Monde Décodeurs, Libération Désintox, Libération CheckNews

• Georgia: FactCheck Georgia

• Germany: Correct!v

• Italy: Pagella Politica, Climi Alteranti, BUTAC

• Philippines: Vera Files

• Portugal: Observador Fact Check

• Republic of Ireland: The Journal Fact Check

• Serbia: Istinomer (Serbian version)

• South Asia: South Asia Check

• Spain: El Objetivo

• Sweden: Viralgranskaren

• Turkey: Dogruluk Payi,

• UK: Full Fact, FactCheck Northern Ireland

• US: AP Fact, PolitiFact, The Washington Post Fact Checker

These guidelines were compiled from advice given to WikiTribune through interviews with ICFN members and the Poynter Institute, a non-profit organization that teaches journalism ethics and practices.

Let us know your suggestions for fact checking or spotting misinformation so that we can expand this guide.


This story is part of a series on fact checking by WikiTribune reporter Harry Ridgewell: others are on the rise of fact checking in response to the “fake news” debate, an interview with The New Yorker’s legendary fact checker, plus how to spot fake images and newsPlease add to or TALK about them.

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