Fact or Fiction? How to Spot Fake News

| Planning for Myself or a Loved One

Hand holding phone with online news site


Have you seen the video about the dangers of infrared thermometers, the ones that health workers point at people’s foreheads? It says that these devices expose the brain to harmful radiation. The video, along with social media posts making similar claims, went viral earlier this year – even though they’re completely untrue. (Infrared thermometers do not emit radiation. They simply sense heat.)

This story is just one example of the misinformation that’s been circulating online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other stories involve bogus treatments, conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus, and misconceptions about testing. Misleading health claims on the Internet are nothing new, of course. They’re a type of fake news – stories created with the intention of deceiving readers. Often, the goal is to generate profit by enticing people to click a link and visit a certain webpage, or by influencing people to buy something. Sometimes, fake news is designed to discredit facts or to advance political or ideological agendas, including extreme ones.

These days, anyone can publish content online, and this is both a gift and a curse. Increasingly, we must consider news sources critically and figure out which ones we can trust. Traditional media outlets – including newspapers and network newscasts – follow rigorous journalistic standards, and the public can be reasonably sure that they report the facts accurately. However, many of us now get our news from Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, plus well-meaning friends and family who share things they’ve read or seen online. More than ever, it’s important to be aware of misinformation and how to identify it.

Types of fake news

Fake news comes in many forms, and sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between real stories and deceitful ones. Here are common types to watch for:

Clickbait: Sensational, shocking or suspenseful headlines that entice readers to click. Sometimes, they misrepresent the content of the article.

Biased news: Content that displays bias (for example, political or ideological). Bias may be present in a media outlet’s selection of stories, selection of sources, content placement, word choices, omission of facts, or spin (favouring one interpretation of a story over others).

Advertising in disguise: Sponsored content and advertorials are types of content created by brands to sell products or services. They may resemble media content but are really advertising.

Satire or parody: Humorous content that spoofs or jokes about a topic or person. Sometimes people misinterpret satire and parody as being true.

Propaganda: False or exaggerated information that promotes a political agenda or point of view in order to influence public opinion.

Fabricated stories: This content is partly or completely made up. It may include fake stories and people, invented quotes from non-existent experts, or references to fake or disproven scientific studies or journal articles. Even reputable major news outlets sometimes fall prey to fabricated stories.

Tips to identify misinformation

You can fight back against fake news. Here are things to consider when you look at content:

Who created the content? Consider the website and the author. Do they seem credible? Does the website have a certain mission or bias? (Check its “About Us” section.) What are the author’s qualifications? Be especially careful with news from blogs and websites run by individuals or groups – remember, anyone can publish online, whether or not they have reporting skills.

What does the content say? Is it news or opinion? What is its purpose – to inform, persuade, entertain or sell? Is it balanced with viewpoints from different sides? Are the people quoted reputable sources? Is the content well edited or full of spelling and grammar mistakes? Do the links work?

When was the content created? Stories can become outdated. Sometimes old content is reposted and mistaken for fresh news.

What are your own biases? We all carry beliefs that influence how we see the world. Could your biases be affecting how you interpret news content?

As you can see, it takes some effort and time to assess the quality of content we consume, but try not to feel overwhelmed. With the tips above, you’re already better equipped to separate fact from fiction – and asking these questions will soon become second nature. For more helpful guidance, check out the websites and videos below.

Additional resources

This is the oldest and largest fact-checking website. It regularly tackles fake news, hoaxes and urban legends.

How to Spot Fake News (Factcheck.org)
A very short video about how to identify fake news.

How to Spot Fake News (Toronto Public Library)
Straightforward tips for distinguishing real news from fake news.

How to Spot Fake News (and Teach Kids to Be Media-Savvy) (Common Sense Media)
Questions and tips to help kids (and parents!) become more critical media consumers.

How Fake News Grows in a Post-Fact World (TEDx Talks)
In this video, Canadian journalist Ali Veshi discusses the effects of fake news and how to identify it.

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