Four years ago, "fake news" wasn’t a term you would routinely see used in headlines, nor was it something widely discussed by journalists and world leaders.

But today U.S. President Donald Trump routinely uses the phrase to knock down media reports he claims to be untrue and media outlets dedicate entire teams to disseminating falsehoods online. “Fake news” was even named 2017’s word of the year.

Defined by Collins dictionary as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting,” fake news is a part of our vocabulary for better or worse.

But as Canadians are faced with an increasing amount of disinformation online, it’s increasingly important to understand what exactly fake news is and how to spot it.

Fake news, disinformation, and misinformation—what’s the difference?

“Fake news” may be the most common way to refer to disinformation, but the term has become increasingly politicized, especially south of the border.

“It’s been used as a political defence,” Padraic Ryan, head of news intelligence with social media intelligence agency Storyful, explained to CTVNews.ca by phone.

“We would use terms like mis- and disinformation, because really what we’re talking about is the spread of incorrect information and that can take on a whole bunch of different forms.”

Ryan explains that disinformation, like the definition of so-called “fake news,” is the deliberate spread of false or misleading information.

This could include sensationalized content, false information being shared under the guise of news reporting, or articles that take portions of authentic, true news stories and spin them to include false information.

But this can also be applied to different forms of media: Pictures or videos that have been digitally altered to tell a different story.

For example, in 2018 an image of Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez ripping up a shooting range target was digitally altered to show the teenager ripping up the Constitution. The doctored image was shared nearly 70,000 times on social media, sparking outrage from National Rifle Association supporters.

Misinformation, on the other hand, happens when people unwittingly share incorrect information without the intention of causing harm or influencing opinions.

How prevalent is disinformation, really?

Disinformation reached a fever-pitch in the final three months of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In fact, a BuzzFeed analysis found that the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.

Canadians are far from immune. A recent global survey revealed almost nine in 10 Canadians have been fooled by fake news at least once, citing Facebook as the leading source of disinformation. 

Research from the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) released in February found that 70 per cent of Canadians surveyed were concerned that fake news could impact the outcome of the next election.The organization, which is responsible for managing “.ca” domain names, aims to develop policies to support a safer, more secure online experience for Canadians.

“The important thing to realize is that fake news isn’t really new. This issue has been around since the existence of print media, but [social media] platforms allow it to spread far and wide,” said Spencer Callaghan, communications manager at CIRA.

“Twenty years ago you either had a printing press or you didn’t… but the internet has democratized the media.”

The amount of fake news you are exposed to depends on which accounts you follow on social media and whether your friends share fake news articles. But disinformation campaigns exist all over the internet.

According to Ryan, partisan groups often start by sharing misleading memes or news reports in online forums. Many then use fake accounts to spread the information online through automated feeds, or by sharing the content with other partisan groups.

But spotting the difference between an inaccurate or false story doesn’t have to be left to the pros. Below we have outlined some tell-tale signs of fake news so you can take a more critical eye before clicking “share.”

HOW TO SPOT FAKE NEWS

Step one: Check your personal bias

According to Ryan, the most difficult part of combating fake news is overcoming confirmation bias—the tendency to believe something to be true because of your existing beliefs or prejudices.

“We’re more likely to be skeptical when something doesn’t align with our own views,” said Ryan, noting that part of the problem is that disinformation campaigns tend to target emotional issues, such as immigration, race, or religion.

“When we have an emotional attachment to a particular topic, we are more likely to get into disagreements online. Everyone is more tempted to share something without considering if those claims stand up.”

Step two: Be critical of the link you’re sharing

Not all websites are created equal. If you are suspicious of an article, take a look at the website’s domain name. According to Harvard University, unusual domains like “.com.co” are often used to mimic authentic news websites.

Take a look at the website’s “About Us” section for more information about the publisher, or a mission statement. If the website is meant to be satirical, for example, the “About Us” section should explain that.

If there is limited information about the author of the article, or the publication itself, proceed with caution, says Ryan.

Step three: Be critical of where you found the link

If you came across the article on social media, take a moment to look at the account that posted the link.

“Does it look like it’s a real person’s account, or does it look like a dummy account,” said Ryan.

Dummy accounts often have a lack of personal information, generic profile pictures, and share a disproportionate amount of links.

Step four: Check to see if the information is available on other sites

Let’s say the article quotes a political leader, or prominent figure. Research to see if you can find the same quote mentioned in any other news articles, especially mainstream media outlets. Be extra cautious if there is a lack of quotes, or attributed information in the article.

Also be sure to check the date the article was published—it’s becoming increasingly common for old news articles taken out of context to circulate on social media.

“There is a big responsibility on us as journalists and on everyone in general to take a more considerate approach,” said Ryan. “To just take a moment and ask ourselves does this stand up to examination?”

Bonus tip: If you come across an image on social media that you think might be doctored, or isn’t depicting what it claims to be, you can do a reverse image search to find the original photo. Simply right-click on the image and select “copy image URL,” then visit “images.google.com” and paste the URL into the search bar.

Contact us

See a story or post circulating on social media that you think may be disinformation or in need of fact-checking?

Let us know by sharing with us the link to the post or the source of the information.

Email us by clicking here or visit our Newsbreaker page.

Please include your full name, city and province.