The smell test: 5 dos and don'ts for spotting fake news

Mount Allison media analysis professor Erin Steuter offers tips for honing your media spidey-senses in the post-truth age.

Don't believe everything you read on Facebook, kids

Big corporations pay lip service to concerns about fake news, but they have financial incentives not to do much about it.

Sorry, @realDonaldTrump: fake news isn't just news you don't agree with.

It's not even news that was initially wrong that has been corrected. It's also not satire.

Simply put, fake news is "news that's not true," said media analyst Erin Steuter of Mount Allison University. "It's news that's somebody wants you to think is true."

Fake news is also wildly profitable.

"Facebook is making a lot of money on your eyeballs lingering on these stories," Steuter said. And while giant corporations pay lip service to concerns about bogus news sites, and say they're changing algorithms to better weed them out, they "also have a real incentive to just let the system play out."

Here are five do's and don'ts to help you separate fact from fiction.

1: Do look at the URL

Double-check the site that you've navigated to once you click a news story on Facebook, Erin Steuter suggests. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images)

Part of the reason fake news is everywhere, Steuter said, is that "we're getting more of our news not from professional journalists, who have editors and legal departments and fact-checkers, but from Facebook."

When you click a Facebook link, take note of the name of the site you've then navigated to. Do a quick Google-fu to see if it's legit — especially before you share a story with everyone you know.

2. Don't trust appearances

A slick-looking site can contain bogus information elaborately masquerading as news. Don't be fooled.

One of the sneakiest things about fake news, according to Steuter, is that it's looking slicker than ever.

But the high production values can be deceiving.

"It has the same images and headlines and fonts as regular news," she said. "It doesn't really look that different from the New York Times or the Guardian."

Don't assume that just because a site looks good that the information is also reliable.

3. Don't blame the messenger

Don't blame Facebook or Twitter if you get duped — rather, start cultivating your own list of trusted news sources. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

Yes, it is "possible for Google or Facebook to change the algorithm and get more responsible sites moved up to the top," Steuter said. "But it's easy to game the system, and it's hard to stay on top of it."

In the age of fake news, "the responsibility belongs to people to think about where they're getting their news from and go to credible sources," Steuter said.

4. Do develop your spidey-senses

Media-spidey senses are key for the modern news consumer, Erin Steuter says. (David Donnelly/CBC)

In a media climate where the president of the United States is calling BS on reputable news organizations, "it takes greater media awareness and media spidey-senses on the part of the consumer," Steuter said.

Fortunately, she said, "there are more fact-checking organizations coming forward, and people are more aware and concerned."

5. Don't disengage

Yes, weeding out fake news is exhausting. It's also more important than ever to our democracy, says Steuter. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of fake news, Steuter said, is its impact on democracy.

"If people start to doubt all the news, then that's hurtful," she said. "People need to be informed in order to make choices. If people "say 'well, I'm disengaging because I don't know if anything is true,' then that can be a significant concern," Steuter said.  

The bottom line: "we can't take our critical thinking caps off and leave it to the algorithms," Steuter said. "We're going to have to stay alert — and maybe that's a good thing."

With files from Information Morning Saint John