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Evaluating Media in the Age of Fake News: Evaluating Social Media and News

A guide to figuring out the reliability of news and media content

Social Media

puppet iconSocial media such as YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook make it easy to share and transmit false information.  Some entities take advantage of this to manipulate readers, sow social discord, or engage in "like-farming" for profit.

A study of stories shared on Twitter, described in Science in 2018, found that:  "Falsehood diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and the effects were more pronounced for false political news than for false news about terrorism, natural disasters, science, urban legends, or financial information.  We found that false news was more novel than true news, which suggests that people were more likely to share novel information.  Whereas false stories inspired fear, disgust, and surprise in replies, true stories inspired anticipation, sadness, joy, and trust."

Vosoughi, S, D Roy, and S Aral. "The Spread of True and False News Online." Science. 359.6380, 9 March 2018: 1146-1151.

Beware the Bubble

Beware the bubble: Social media often feeds you ONLY items that are similar to things you have already shown interest in.  This can prevent yoububble icon from ever seeing more than one side to a story.  It can lead to intensification, where the outlet feeds you stories or videos that become more extreme over time in an effort to keep you watching.  YouTube is only just starting to try to address this problem, and Tiktok encourages it.  Many entities depend upon it to keep their numbers high.

Fact Check

fact check iconFact check: Check the story with watchdog sites like,, and  These are outfits that strive to make sure that the information from news sources is accurate. checks news, rumors, and urban legends.

Dig in: Does the article quote sources or cite studies?  Trace them back to their sources.  Read the actual study (studies are often distorted or misquoted).  Put quotations in context; reasonable statements are often twisted by being taken out of context or cut short.

An out-of-context quotation from Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin:

"Tyrion was never much use."

Look up the context (on p. 133) and you'll find it says: “Tyrion was never much use in making a camp or breaking one.”

Misattributed Quotations

Quotations float around the internet and become attached to famous names, especially Einstein, Aristotle, Lincoln, and C. S. Lewis.

False integrity quotation

C. S. Lewis never said this, but the entire internet thinks he did.  These inspirational images are pretty, but difficult to research and verify.  Misattributed quotations proliferate across the internet and are collected on sites that do not verify them, so it's not always helpful to just google the phrase.  A good quotation can be traced back to its source: the original book or speech, complete with page number.   If you can't find it in a print source or in an authoritative collection like Bartlett's Quotations, be skeptical.

Quote Investigator is a good online source for researching quotations, but it is limited.

Keep an Open Mind

Be open-minded:  All humans have a tendency to believe reports that confirm what they already believe, and to doubt stories that contradict their open mind iconbeliefs.  Social media magnifies this effect many times, making it difficult not to live in an echo chamber.  Ask questions about the stories you see.  If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.  If you read an item and find yourself discounting it because you don’t agree with it, take another look.

Check the Source

Identify the author: many fake stories are anonymous.  Real journalists will have many credible stories to their names, and you will be able to find them with a simple search.  If you can’t find out who wrote a story, be wary.

Check URL spelling: does the website URL have a funky spelling or long name that imitates a real news outlet (like  Any odd suffixes or substitutions (like putting a 1 instead of an l)?

Check the news source:  Make sure the story can be found on a well-known, reliable news source that decision iconyou have heard of.  Keep your knowledge current; for example, Newsweek has been bought and sold a few times and has bounced from reliable to terrible to somewhere in between.

Consult multiple sources: Are other news outlets reporting the same story, or something similar?  If it’s a big story, many outlets will be reporting on it.  What do ‘opposing’ sources say about the story?  What facts are being reported, and do they match across sources?

Beware Altered Photos

In 2017, this photo went viral, claiming to show Seahawks football players gleefully burning an American flag. 

Altered photo of flag burning

Look carefully and you can see that it's obviously Photoshopped; it doesn't look right, and besides, if you set a fire in a locker room the sprinklers would go off and your fire wouldn't last long.  In fact, the team was doing their traditional locker room victory dance:

Victory dance

Be Skeptical

Be skeptical: does the headline sound unlikely?  Don’t take headlines at face value.  Use your common sense.

Compare: Look at the headline, the picture, and the article content.  Do they all match up or are they meant to mislead you?  In general, beware of pictures or videos that make odd claims; they have often been repurposed. 

This video went viral in May 2018 with the caption "This man carried his horse 3 miles after he was bitten by a snake. Fortunately the horse was saved."  A moment's thought will show that the story is obviously not true.  It would take many hours to carry a horse three miles at the rate this man is going; why wouldn't he just run the distance and bring help?  Why would an observer stand there and film instead of helping?  No, this man is in fact a Ukrainian strongman who carries horses for short distances as a party trick.


Scammers engage in like-farming by posting pictures or statements to manipulate your emotions.  For example:

  • Let this sick child know you care!
  • This random person did something outrageous.  Share to let people know!
  • Will you dare to share this to show your faith?
  • Free giveaway of [unlikely expensive Apple product]!
  • Anything featuring money or luck.

Once the account has gotten enough likes or shares, the content is then changed to lead to malware, scam products, or other malicious content.  Find out more about like-farming at the Better Business Bureau.

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