Crazy Aunt Cat’s Guide to the News

How to tell if the stories you share on social media are true

I wrote a draft of this just before the 2016 election as tongue-in-cheek advice to my millenial niece from her nutty, liberal, Generation X ex-reporter aunt because I was afraid she and her peers — raised in an era when traditional news outlets are considered passe — would have a difficult time fielding disinformation.

Before I could finish, better writers beat me to the punch. Factcheck.org’s Eugene Kiely and Lori Robertson published this excellent article on how to spot fake news, and NPR’s All Tech Considered did their verision with “Fake or Real: How to Self-Check the News and Get the Facts.”

Judging by what I see on social media, though, it appears we still need to talk about #fakenews. And it’s not the millenials, folks, it’s us. Baby boomers and Gen X, people who grew up with the likes of Walter Cronkite, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and, for those on the younger side, Christiane Amanpour. One would think we’d be better inured to Internet clickbait.

Alas, the contents of my Facebook feed say otherwise. I see ridiculously fake articles from all across the political spectrum. Shared by people of different genders, ages, and education levels.

So, without further ado, I present this handy guide. Here are basic clues to the veracity of what you are about to click “Like” on and share with 5,000 of your closest online friends — since we all apparently get our news from Facebook and Twitter now.

Five Ws and an H

Most people know — at least I thought they did — that a news article should answer these basic questions: who, what, where, when, why, and how. It’s interesting to me how many articles I see that lack several of these basic elements. They may have the what, but be vague on the who, where and when, or making lots of unsupported assumptions about the why.

If you find yourself reading a story about all these crazy things that happened “last week,” but there are no names mentioned and no details about when and where it all went down, chances are it’s just a hoax. Some of these can have quite a long lifespan.

Photo circulated online with a story about drug dealers selling a sweetly flavored and colored version of crystal meth, imaginatively titled “Strawberry Quick,” to children. The story has been circulating online for years, featuring lots of scary details but lacking any information about places this has happened, when the events occurred, or children it has happened to. Myth-busting website Snopes.com points out that police have seized meth over the years that has been made to look like candy, but none specifically called Strawberry Quick or sold to children. Photo credit: Snopes.com

Attribution — there should be some

Attribution is who or what is providing the basic facts stated in the article. Many fake news stories are long on allegations without any indication of how the writer or publication obtained this information. When you read articles, you should ask yourself, “Who is saying this and are they credible?”

Leaving aside concerns about anonymous sources (more on that, below), not all sources should be given equal weight. Facts gleaned from sources like the World Health Organization or Centers for Disease Control, carry more credibility than www.SketchyHealthSiteDaily.com.

Often in fake news articles, though, there’s no attribution at all. You have statement after statement of fact and not a “he said” or “she said” anywhere in the thing. There may or may not be a byline.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee publicly apologized for a “posting error” for linking to a conservative news site article claiming “Jewish liberals” were responsible for vandalizing a chapel at Northwestern University, further alleging that the attack was in response to Trump’s election. In reality, the vandalism occurred eight months before the election. The two students responsible were never publicly identified as having any religious or political affiliation. The link Huckabee shared stripped the details of the vandalism from a Chicago Tribune article and added the allegations about the teens’ motives and affiliation to create an entirely new “story,” absent any attribution. Image credit: Arkansas Times.

Memes are not news

Anyone can make a meme. I can. You can. Some mouth-breathing troll who never leaves his parents’ basement can. Just because you see a picture with words and really big letters does not make it true.

Memes are quickly becoming one of the fastest spreading sources of disinformation because they are easily shared and harder for website moderators to police. People also have a harder time detecting when an image has been digitally altered, and, as saying goes, “seeing is believing.”

Image credit: The Spectator

A word (OK, several words) about anonymous sources

Sometimes, anonymous sources are necessary to expose wrongdoing, particularly that which can endanger or defraud the public.

People may rightly be afraid for their livelihoods, and even their lives, if they reveal information using their names. This is why shield laws are so important.

In recent years, however, media outlets large and small have gotten a little too comfortable with using sources on background. You get stories about what kind of mood President Trump is in, how he eats his Big Macs, or who he yelled at yesterday, for example, attributed to “a source in the White House.” As this is not the stuff of Watergate — -or even Monica-gate — -I think the reporters should take a pass on this information. If Kellyanne or whoever isn’t willing to be quoted, then it’s just gossip.

(Pedantic, old-school reporter note: A quoted anonymous source is not “off the record.” Off the record, means exactly that: it’s not recorded or published. Something attributed to “a source close to the president,” for example, is what is known as a background source or someone speaking on background but unwilling to give his or her name.)

Ethical guidelines for reporters say they should verify the information a source gives them on background by finding at least one other source to corroborate that information, even if they do so off the record. The more explosive the information shared, the more sources of corroboration are necessary to back it up before going with the story. This is to make sure — to the best of one’s ability — that what you have been told is the truth and not just one person’s axe to grind.

So, when you see “a source close to Sen. Romney said,” it’s not as credible as if the person gave his or her name. But you can judge — -based on what you know about the reliability that news outlet and the importance of the information shared — -whether you believe it or not.

What can you do?

With so much crap flooding the Internet, how is anyone supposed to know what is true and what is not?

The answer is not to disregard anything you don’t like because “everything is fake” or “all media is biased,” but to become a careful and critical consumer of information.

When you read something online, take a minute and examine the information carefully — particularly if what you’ve read is upsetting or inflammatory. Do you know the source of the information and do you consider it reliable? Does the article, video or audio contain specific details that are independently verifiable?

Do a browser search to see if this topic or issue has been covered elsewhere. If only a single news site is reporting something, that is usually a sign that something’s fishy. Likewise, if it’s in multiple places, but they are all sites that are clearly devoted to propaganda about a particular topic — red flag city.

Build up a collection of multiple, reliable sources of news (spoiler alert: that are not Facebook). Even then, check the information they provide. There’s an old reporter’s saying that goes: “If your mama says she loves you, check it out.”

Check it out.