Fake news, scams, and phishing are the plague of our times. It’s getting increasingly difficult to determine which websites are presenting truthful information. I’m not just talking about political views; people can disagree about those, and while you may not like what you read on certain sites, that doesn’t mean, as some like to say, “it’s fake news.”
A Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college found that some 82 percent of them cannot distinguish between an ad labeled “sponsored content” and a real news story on a website. These findings present a real risk when visiting websites you’re not familiar with; and, not just for students, for everyone. How can you know if what you’re reading online is telling the truth or trying to scam you either directly—such as by trying to sell you something, or get your personal information—or indirectly, by spreading lies, or by sowing doubt?
In this article, we offer a few tips to help you sort the wheat from the chaff on the Internet. These tips will help you determine if an online article is real, fake or a scam.
Do you recognize the publication name?
There are publication names you may recognize, and that you can trust — they may be the major news organizations, such as the New York Times, Forbes or The Wall Street Journal, or even familiar household brands that you know.
However, there may be some websites that try to suggest that they belong to a brand. For example, apple-hot-deals.com (this site does not exist, right now) might try to pretend that it’s an Apple website, but it’s most likely not. Most brands don’t use compound domain names in this way, which anyone can register; instead, they use URLs such as apple.com/hotdeals (this also doesn’t exist).
Here at The Mac Security Blog, we use the intego.com domain, and the blog is hosted at www.intego.com/mac-security-blog/, proving that it belongs to Intego’s domain.
You can check a domain using a command called whois. If you go to the top level of your Mac’s disk, then /System/Library/CoreServices/Applications, you’ll find a tool called Network Utility. Launch that, then, in the Whois tab, enter a domain, such as intego.com:
You’ll see that the domain has been registered since 1997, which is proof that the company has been around for a long time. This isn’t a guarantee that a site hasn’t been hacked, but it is a first step.
Is the information from a secure domain?
Most websites should be secure these days. Look in the address bar of your browser, and you’ll see a padlock. This means that the connection to the intego.com website is secure, using HTTPS. The intego.com domain has an SSL certificate, which ensures that when you type intego.com, your browser connects to the correct site.
This said, anyone can purchase an SSL certificate, but the lack of one is something to be wary of. (RELATED: 6 Cyber Security Tips to Ensure a Website is Secure.)
Are you able to contact the site owner or company?
All websites should have a Contact section or link with an email address or a form to get in touch with the company. Most business sites should also have one or more addresses of offices, and a phone number. Again, this isn’t hard and fast proof, but if you try to contact the company and find real people who reply, this helps you confirm its existence.
Businesses in the United States may show up on the Better Business Bureau website. You won’t find every business there, but you will find reviews for some businesses.
Did you run a search on it?
You can check most search engines to find information on just about anything, and you might want to try searching for a company or publication that runs the site you’re curious about. You should see their domain at the top of the list, but one way to see how much of a footprint a company has is to search for links to a company from other sites.
For example, if you search for link:intego.com on Google, you’ll get more than 400,000 results of links to pages on the Intego website. This shows that not only does the Intego website have a lot of pages, but that plenty of other sites link to the Intego website. Go through the results and you’ll see, for instance, reviews of Intego software on other sites, articles about Intego products, and more. This shows that Intego is a real, authoritative company with a long history.
Have you checked the spelling within the article?
Yes, anyone can make miskates and end up with tyops on a wesbite, and anyone can run a spell checker, but scam sites are often set up by people whose native language is not English (or the language of the site you’re visiting), and poor language can be a clue that something is amiss.
Did you fact-check the story?
You can generally trust the more authoritative websites to be honest and accurate, especially if they routinely offer corrections to address errors when they find them. The established newspapers, the well-known magazines, and the TV networks that have been around for a long time are all generally trustworthy. That said, don’t assume everything you read, even from known sites, is truthful information: Fact-check it first.
Fact checking a story isn’t always easy, but some topics can be checked on sites like Snopes. This independent fact-checking website roots out bogus ideas and gives clear evidence for its findings. These days, Snopes covers a lot of politics and policy, but one recent article asks, Is This a Picture of a Snake Found in a Milk Jug? (Spoiler: it’s Photoshopped.) This is a good way to find out if those memes that spread on social media are true or not.
While fact-checking a story sounds simple enough, a Rasmussen poll found that an astonishing 62 percent of American voters believe fact checkers are biased. James Taranto, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, actually tweeted that fact-checking “is opinion journalism pretending to be some sort of heightened objectivity.”
"Fact checking" is opinion journalism pretending to some sort of heightened objectivity. Very bad for journalism. https://t.co/LqojbRrN8Z
— James Taranto (@jamestaranto) September 25, 2016
So how do you know who to trust? Can you believe everything you read from just one site? Few publications are wholly balanced, and bear in mind that the opinion and editorial sections of websites and publications are not meant to be such; instead, they are meant to present the individual opinions of columnists and authors.
The best way to spot fake news is to read widely, and not just in a silo of websites or publications that echo your beliefs. Of course, it’s important to find the right sources for your reading. If you’re a liberal, find conservative websites that aren’t virulent or sensationalist, and if you’re a conservative, do the same for liberal-leaning publications.
A few sites related to the whole “fact checking” genre include:
TWS Fact Check: A fact-checker associated with The Weekly Standard, owned by the Clarity Media Group. In 2017, TWS Fact Check joined Facebook’s network of fact-checkers and is signatory of the International Fact Checking Network, which Media Bias Fact Check uses to determine factual reporting for outsource reviews.
Fact Check Review: RealClearPolitics (RCP) is a Chicago-based media group of experienced journalists who aim to deliver better, more insightful analysis of the most important news and policy issues of the day. Each week in its Fact Check Review, RCP “watches the watchdog” and offers a review of fact-checking outlets that Facebook uses for guidance. This project reviews only those fact checks bearing on civic and public concern.
AP Fact Check: The Associated Press (AP) is a nonprofit news cooperative headquartered in New York City, and owned by its contributing newspapers, radio and television stations in the United States. “Getting the facts right” has been a core mission of the AP since its founding in 1846.
Check Your Fact: A very well sourced fact-checking news site produced by the journalists of the Daily Caller, with a non-partisan mission to fact check statements by influencers, as well as reporting by other news outlets.
FactCheck.org: A nonprofit website, funded by the Annenberg Foundation, that identifies as a non-partisan “consumer advocate for voters.” Its mission is to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.
PolitiFact: Acquired by the Poynter Institute in 2018, PolitiFact utilizes reporters and editors from the Tampa Bay Times and affiliated media outlets to “fact check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups.” They publish original statements and their evaluations on its website, and assign each a “Truth-O-Meter” rating.
WaPo Fact Checker: The Washington Post is a news media organization headquartered in Washington DC, purchased by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in 2013. Its editorial team publishes a “weekly review of what’s true, false or in-between in politics, from The Post’s famous fact-checking team.” Its goal is to present the truth behind the rhetoric.
Media Research Center: A research and education organization, and product of NewsBusters, that identifies as a premier media watchdog with a mission to “expose bias in the news media and popular culture.” It recently launched a project to fact check the myriad of fact-checking organizations that are relied on by news organizations and social media companies to verify factual claims in news stories.
Full Fact: An independent fact-checking organization based in the United Kingdom, launched in 2009, which aims to “promote accuracy in public debate.” Full Fact is widely considered as a well regulated, strongly sourced, thorough fact-checker.
If you’re looking up information about health or medical conditions, this is particularly sensitive, and the best way to verify claims is to check PubMed, a website run by the National Institutes of Health that publishes medical research articles. You may find some of these articles difficult to read, but you can use them to fact-check claims you see on other wellness and health blogs.
Much of the content on PubMed is only available to subscribers, but there are many articles that you can access in their entirety, and that aren’t written for people only in the medical industry. Bonus tip: you generally only need to read the Abstract section of an article on PubMed, which presents the question it addresses and conclusions.
Always remember there are not necessarily “two sides to every story,” and that false equivalence—presenting dissenting opinions about an issue just to pretend to be balanced—doesn’t guarantee balance. On the contrary, often false equivalence is used to bolster ideas that are false or manipulative.
Ultimately the best way to verify information is to do your own research, seek advice from those you trust, and then make up your own mind. What you do with it is your own business.
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