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How To Identify #FakeNews

This morning an article ran across my feed that was pretty attention-getting, to say the least. It purported to "prove" that during the Presidential campaign, the Clinton camp had paid some high-profile Republicans off to trash Donald Trump.

Two variations of the headline are out there:


The content repeats on a variety of alternative news websites.

"Alternative": Because this adjective is such a hot-button for many people, and is frequently equated with "fake news," let's clarify a few things now:
  1. The word "alternative" means "independent of the mainstream media." It is not synonymous with fake news, which is generated by the mainstream media and the alternative media. 
  2. Fake news is generated both overtly and covertly, by making stuff up; omitting facts; presenting quotes out of context; or going out of one's way to create sympathy for a subject.
  3. Fake news is also generated by sources who supply the media ("echo chamber") with "information" that is then repeated over and over again as valid. Repetition of the information, with believable quotes, creates the impression that it is true.
  4. There are multiple motivations for creating fake news, including the desire to manipulate people into thinking a certain way and the desire to make a profit through "clickbait," meaning dramatic headlines that pique curiosity.
  5. Values-based reporting can be legitimate if those values are disclosed, but frequently journalists blur the line between "fact" and "opinion" such that it is almost unrecognizable and they do not disclose the implicit values that accompany their reporting. 
Back to this article, and the quest to find out if it was true. It sure sounded important:
  1. The storyline fit into the "Clinton corruption" narrative and the "Republican corruption" narrative, as well as the "they're in it together, drain the swamp" narrative.
  2. It included details that sounded like they could be true, mentioning the sender and receiver (John Podesta, Huma Abedin) and the purported document number (1078645).
  3. It had mysterious-sounding quotes that sounded like the type of thing a secretive political official would write: “He is on board, will retract the invitation to speak. Eyes only.”
  4. It had historical-sounding details that alluded to financial corruption: "FEC reports shows that two large donations from PACS and private sources ln early October went to John McCain right after he attacked Trump publicly criticized Trump (typo is in original article - DB).That happened shortly after a slew of emails concerning moving money to support one candidate and move support from another."
  5. It named names, specifying who precisely in the Republican camp had "sold out" and what they supposedly got for it.
But the fact that the accusations were so explosive made it all the more important to try and verify the information as much as possible.

Upon doing so, I learned that there is no evidence such an email exists.

Here are the steps I took to determine whether this headline and article content were accurate or not.
  • Googled the headline to see who else is reporting the same thing. Not too many, except for some alternative news sites and message boards citing the headline.
  • Looked for the supposed source of this information by seeking out links in the articles. One link took me only to Wikileaks.org, not the document itself, which was unusual. 
  • Since we are clearly not talking about classified government information (which federal employees are forbidden to search for on Wikileaks), I searched for the phrases quoted, in whole and in part. No results.
  • Searched for the timeframe noted (July 2016) within "Podesta emails" (since the article said the email came from John Podesta) and again, nothing.
  • Googled the quotes to see if they were reported independently anywhere else, with a link to the source. (In other cases where the information was real, there is a snapshot of the document itself, sometimes with the verifying code on top, and the specific text quoted is highlighted.)
Of course, these measures are not foolproof. And sometimes you just don't know if a story is true or not, but it is so important that you feel it must be shared. But taking the extra step to find out the facts helps to bolster your credibility as a sharer of information. 

More importantly, it helps you to be more sophisticated about the people and groups who are trying to own your mind.

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All opinions my own.


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All opinions my own. Originally posted to Quora. Public domain photo by hbieser via Pixabay.