This morning after a long week away in Cape Town I sat down at my desk, switched on my PC and began trawling through my social media timelines looking for the news that broke while I slept.

Among the talk of minimum wages and satellites watching the weather I spotted this gem.

Corned beef, now withh extra human, apparently.
Corned beef, now with extra human, apparently.

The image that I’ve blurred out is of several body parts, presumably meant to shock the reader into clicking the link, which once you do, takes you to a story which I can quote in it’s entirety below:

“It has been discovered in china that they produce corned beef with their dead bodies and they send this produced corned beef to we Africans to eat. It is advised for every body in Africa to stay away from corned beef for now. The below picture shows the shop in china that sells human bodies as meat. PLEASE SHARE For Others To Be AWARE!!”

The article is followed by images of meat and a gelatinous looking humanoid superimposed below the meat. That is it; no references to studies, no quotes from notable nutritionists, not a speck of reliable information to be found. And yet when I called the person who ruined my breakfast out for sharing fake news I was met with this response:

“I read posts and share what I find interesting, I don’t know sources, it’s not my industry, but it’s yours…. In future I will be sharing all my articles I find interesting with you, so you can Vet and share. Want to shit on me for something, I just read! For F*ck sakes I don’t write the articles.” (sic)

This rant comes after Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said the social network will be tackling the problem of fake news. While I agree that something needs to be done on Facebook’s side, I think my friends need to be smarter.

This “corned beef” saga is just one fake news story that pollutes my timeline and before the day has closed there will be another. I’m sure of that.

As my friend who shared this story with me pointed out, perhaps folks don’t know how to spot a fake news story, so let me share how a cynical person such as myself approaches posts like the one above.

The URL

The first point of call for any news story for me is the URL. Facebook includes a snapshot of the URL the story is hosted at which should point to whether the story can be trusted or not. My rule is to check the URL, if its not a news source I’m familiar with I head to the Google machine and search for the keywords.

As is often the case the only instance of that “news” story is from the outlet that it’s being shared through via Facebook. If that happens to be the case I tell the person that they aren’t sharing something reputable, this usually results in a barrage of hate which I’ve grown accustomed to but hey, rather let others know they might be clicking on fake news right?

While I’ve spoken about little blogs until now, there are of course reputable news outlets and talking heads that spew fake news onto the internet with a catchy title beneath which lies a story with twisted and distorted the facts. In circumstances such as that, particularly if the post makes you angry, stop, open a new tab in your browser and research whether the story is true or a distortion of facts.

Click, read, click, read, click, read

Had my friend clicked that link and seen the website the story was hosted on and the abhorrent lack of content they would have known immediately that the story was fake.

Definitely legitimate right?
Definitely legitimate right?

I’m not saying that all notable news sites quote other sources, but the really good ones do. This is because it gives a story gravitas, it shows that there is conversation happening and that the story is real rather than the whispers of one person on their corner of the internet.

If you don’t trust that news source, fine, check other reputable news houses but avoid the mutterings and ravings of one person who happens to appeal to your sensitivities. Sometimes you are wrong and others are right, learning this and making peace with it is called growing up.

It is your problem

Let’s use the corned beef example for this point. I know a few people that eat corned beef because they can afford it.

My friend sharing this on their timeline might instill fear in those people and they might try to start living beyond their means so they can eat meat that isn’t tainted with human flesh. Is that extreme? Perhaps, but it’s a possibility that we have to understand. Saying “oh, people are smarter than that” is not an excuse here.

If well educated people can share this story as though it were fact, I shudder to think how uneducated people react to that news.

Perhaps people think that sharing something on Facebook is harmless and because you aren’t the one that wrote the story it’s not your responsibility to check the facts. To that I say, sharing a story that isn’t true on Facebook is potentially as damaging as starting a rumour about a person (that you know to be untrue) within their peer-group. Best case scenario: nothing comes of it. Worst case scenario: friendships are irrevocably damaged. As Mark Twain said, a lie can get half way round the world before the truth laces up its shoes.

Sharing false information puts people at risk most notably yourself because you proclaim to the world that you would prefer sharing fake news rather than do your homework and verify the integrity of the information.

“But journalists must educate their peers”

Stop right there. People seem to think that journalists all subscribe to one Slack channel where we pitch each other stories. We don’t.

I am beholden unto my editor who I answer to when something is not factual. The one-person operation running excitingbreakingnews.blogspot.com does not need to answer to anybody. Sure, I can try to reel them in by popping them an email but if we can’t get a company to respond to something with other than “no comment” how are we to convince an unknown to start being ethical?

The best way to stop giving these people space on your timeline is to stop clicking those kinds of links. Stop vising sites which generate advertising revenue based on clicks and you stem the tide of fake news. If everybody did that, I wouldn’t be ranting right now.

When in doubt look somewhere else

My friends hate reading. I make this statement because from all the news stories I’ve seen shared on my timeline I can tell that after clicking the content the person never read the body of the story.

That isn’t always the case however, sometimes a fake news story can be extremely convincing. For that reason I encourage people to check multiple sources. Four students recently used this as a basis for a fact-checking algorithm. By checking the credibility of a news story and cross referencing the story against other sources these students have created an algorithm that labels stories as fake. These students created this in just a day and a half, and you can’t be arsed to type something into Google.

kim-jong-meme

Before I’m burned at the stake let me make something absolutely clear, not every little blog is out to share false news. Making a sweeping statement such as that is irresponsible and potentially damaging.

What I am saying however is that we the people that populate the timelines of Facebook and Twitter have a responsibility to fact check what we are sharing. If that doesn’t sit well with you because “I’m too busy to fact check” or “That’s not my job” then perhaps it’s time you deactivate your social profiles.

If spreading misinformation and inciting fear for a “like” is more important to you than being correct rather leave, we don’t need you on the internet.

Now I’m off to buy some corned beef and post pictures of my dinner to Facebook.

[Image – CC BY 2.0 sinisterbluebox]
Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.