A few months ago, I got angry about something on Twitter. Somebody had tweeted a photo of a paper sign in an apartment building, informing tenants that using the elevator would soon cost $35 a month. It was surprising, but on a gut level, exactly the kind of behavior I’d expect from a greedy landlord — the kind of thing that’s easy to furiously retweet without thinking.
But a little digging showed that the photo was uploaded to Reddit back in 2013, and the post’s author said the signs were quickly taken down. The building manager denied writing them to both the author and a reporter, suggesting that this was either a prank or an immediately abandoned plan. Retweeting the photo would have just outraged people about something that had seemingly never happened.
This kind of viral half-truth is part of the fabric of today’s internet, and the kind of anger it inspired has been turned into a dangerous commodity. It’s cynically exploited by businesses for ad-supported “fake news,” by scammers raising money online, and by authoritarian governments to spread hate and fear.
I don’t want to blame people who fall for these tricks. A lot of the problems are exacerbated by companies, governments, and other factors that individuals can’t control. But the internet is full of grifters, tricksters, and outright liars who rely on people’s basic trust to amplify their message. It’s worth slowing down and carefully navigating their traps — to avoid spreading an alarming false rumor, getting angry at a group of people for something they didn’t do, or perpetuating an honest misunderstanding.
And as a person who does care deeply about putting true things online, I know I’ve personally misunderstood stories because I didn’t think to look more closely, and not always because somebody was deliberately fooling me. It took me years to really understand where all the information I saw online was coming from. So this isn’t just a guide to spotting when something is fake. It’s a system for slowing down and thinking about information — whether that information is true, false, or something in between.
It’s hard to be vigilant all the time, but there are a few red flags that indicate something might be misleading.
The first step is honing your sense of when a given piece of content is too good (or bad) to be true. Once you start looking, you’ll notice specific subtypes of this content — like ragebait designed to get traffic from people’s anger, hyperpartisan appeals that twist the facts, or outright scams. The techniques are relatively common across different types of story, and they’re not hard to recognize.
Outside these specific cases, the general technique is almost stupidly simple: if a story grabs your attention for any reason, slow down and look closer.
Good journalism should provoke feelings. But bad journalism — like tabloid sensationalism, hyperpartisan fear-mongering, and deliberate disinformation — exploits them. Its creators try to convince people that thinking and feeling are opposed to each other, so if you’re upset or happy about a story, you shouldn’t care about the details.
But being strongly moved by a story should make you want to know more, not less. If the news is accurate, you’ll end up learning important nuances about an issue you care about. And if it’s false or misleading, you can warn other people away from falling for it.
A story seems totally ridiculous — or perfectly confirms your beliefs
Genuinely counterintuitive news appears all the time, because the world is a strange place that none of us can fully understand. But if something seems completely bizarre or baffling, there’s often a more complicated story behind the headline. That’s especially true with science stories, where nuanced research can get summed up in misleading or exaggerated ways.
Conversely, if a story feels intuitively right, be careful. Disinformation operators, tabloids, and other bad actors twist real events to fit popular narratives, assuming (often correctly) that people will engage more with news they want to believe. Like the heartstring-tugging stories mentioned above, these stories might turn out to be accurate — but if they are, digging into them will teach you more about something you’re interested in, so it’s still worth the time.
You’re going to spend money because of it
Stories that deal with political fundraising or crowdfunding might fall into this category. So could stories about health issues, financial planning, or picking a college. Even if they don’t directly affect you, you should make sure you’re passing along good life advice and reliable deals to the people around you.
When you share a story with your friends or followers, or you engage by liking or commenting, you’re encouraging other people to look at that information and boosting the profile of the entire site or account that posted it. That raises the stakes if something is fake or misleading — so as you’re debating whether a story fits the categories above, err on the side of caution before you amplify it.
Once you’ve decided to look more deeply at a story online, it’s time to figure out where and when it comes from. Internet news can work like a game of telephone: every time somebody reposts or rewrites something, there’s a chance that important details will get lost.
The first step in that process is finding the date of the original story — which is one of the most helpful pieces of information you can get. If the story’s being shared in a Facebook post or a tweet, click on the post and find its date, otherwise known as the timestamp. You should also look for the source of the relevant information. Sometimes a news story will explicitly cite its sources, whether that’s by making clear that the author performed firsthand research and interviews, or by linking to a press release or another news outlet. If it’s the latter, just click through to see where the information is coming from, and make sure to check the timestamp on that as well.
Sometimes, though, it’s unclear where news originated — a story might print an inflammatory quote without saying where or when it’s from, or a Twitter account might share a photo with a description that might be wrong. In those cases, do a quick search for more coverage and original sourcing, generally using a search engine like Bing, DuckDuckGo, or Google.
For more specific search tips, here are some of the strategies I use.
As more announcements get made through social media, it’s becoming easier to pull off hoaxes by impersonating a public figure on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, or Facebook. A tweet from @WhiteHouse is an official statement from the government, for example — but somebody could call an account something like “@WhiteH0us,” set its display name and profile picture to match the White House’s, and tweet something that’s almost identical at a glance.
Major social media platforms generally grant verification badges to big businesses, celebrities, government agencies, and other high-profile accounts. (On Twitter, it’s a blue check mark.)
Unverified accounts can still be authentic, but you should do more research. Do the account’s other posts match its supposed identity? Does a business or organization link to it from their website?
It’s also easy to fake screenshots of a tweet or Facebook post. If you see one of these screenshots, look up the person’s feed to find the actual post. If it’s not there, evaluate how credible the person who posted the screenshot is. The post might have been deleted — or it might have never existed at all.
Look for names and keywords
Google can be a great tool for finding other coverage of a particular event, but searching for a story’s general topic or its most famous subject often brings up a lot of generic, unhelpful search results. It’s better to look for unique keywords like the name of an unfamous person who’s quoted in the story, a specific bill being introduced in Congress, or anything else that’s unlikely to show up in other articles. If somebody is suing a huge corporation, for example, just typing in “Apple lawsuit” or “Facebook lawsuit” will bring up countless results. Adding the name of the person bringing the lawsuit will narrow those down substantially.
Find survey and infographic sources
A good chart or infographic will cite where its data comes from, so you can make sure that place exists and learn more about its research. Take this graph of where Americans are getting news, for example:
The graph cites the well-known Pew Research Center, along with the date the information was gathered. You can find the original source by typing the header “Television dominates as a news source for older Americans” into a search engine, then finding a result from pewresearch.org. In this case, Google returns a page dedicated to the chart, as well as a full blog post explaining the survey in more detail.
A bad infographic, meanwhile, might cite an easily manipulated online survey or a government agency that doesn’t exist. And a really bad one won’t even mention where the data comes from. If you really want to delve into what makes an infographic reliable, Forbes published a guide in 2014 that’s still relevant today.
Search for quotes
If a story includes a direct quote, see if it’s part of a larger statement. It’s easy for news outlets to take people’s words out of context, and sometimes, satirical quotes get accidentally passed along as real ones.
A good news story will make it easy to figure out a quote’s source. If it doesn’t, you can copy a section of the statement and paste it into a search engine, enclosing the text in quotation marks to search for that exact phrasing. If only a few small outlets have printed a tantalizing quote from a famous person, it’s possible they’ve made the quote up.
Quotes are relatively easy to verify, but they’re fertile ground for bad actors, because they’re perfect for playing into people’s biases. Disinformation artists just have to pick a public figure who’s widely loved or hated, then spread a fake or misleading quote that confirms a stereotype about them — like a fake tweet where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) supposedly tells people to use electric cars during power outages, or a fake People magazine quote where Trump calls Republicans “the dumbest group of voters in the country.”
It’s not just current events, either — lots of historical quotes are misattributed or made up, too.
If the news is based on a photograph, run a reverse image search to find other places that the picture was posted. This is helpful for figuring out if an image is older than it seems, as well as checking whether it’s actually related to the story. Videos can be more difficult to check, but searching their titles on YouTube can sometimes turn up older versions.
And if a famous person seems to be doing something really inflammatory in an older video, search for a quote fragment or a description of the event to see if it’s gotten coverage — or if it’s potentially faked or out-of-context footage. Whatever their political leanings, mainstream media outlets will typically cover a credible video of a politician or celebrity doing something highly newsworthy.
A post about an escaped criminal or an approaching storm is extremely time-sensitive — it’s important while the threat is active, but once the suspect is arrested or the storm is over, it’s likely to be misleading and irrelevant. To a lesser extent, many stories about natural disasters, big product launches, or a public official saying something controversial can become less relevant as they age.
A lot of old time-sensitive stories get posted as innocent mistakes, but bad actors can also exploit the false sense of urgency they create, recycling them for an easy disinformation campaign. In mid-2019, an online threat-monitoring company called Recorded Future outlined an operation it dubbed “Fishwrap.” Fishwrap used a web of social media accounts to spread reports of fake terrorist attacks. It did this by taking accurate stories of real attacks from several years ago, then posting them as if they were new — hoping that readers wouldn’t notice the timestamps.
Photos can be stripped of context in an even trickier way, whether intentionally or accidentally. In one major case, The New York Times chronicled a rash of celebrities who posted what were supposedly pictures of this year’s Amazon rainforest fires, when the photos were actually years or even decades old.
Some news outlets are trying to fix this problem. The Guardian has begun adding prominent date markers to older articles, including one that appears on social media posts. But for most articles and videos on the internet, readers will have to proactively check the dates.
Stories about scientific and technological breakthroughs can be relevant for years. But they can also be full of facts that have been either questioned or discredited.
Food scientist Brian Wansink, for example, was a master at running “viral” experiments that would explode online — like this story claiming that higher-priced buffet food tastes better. Then critics charged that he’d gotten these results through sketchy science, and many of the papers were corrected or retracted, including the buffet report. An old news story might not include that important detail.
Or take the Cicret bracelet, which claims to project your smartwatch onto your wrist as a touchscreen. The Cicret was catnip for social media, but its impressive video demo turned out to be a mock-up, and the team never showed a functioning product. Despite this, the video was reposted for years by other users who didn’t acknowledge this fact.
News outlets will try to correct stories that were inaccurate, like you’ll see on this 2015 article about Wansink. But they won’t catch every old article. And in less extreme cases, the information wasn’t wrong at the time, it was just later disproven by other research.
Some online disinformation is blatantly fake or misleading. But other stories are more subtly wrong. They might omit important details, blow small controversies out of proportion, or use legitimate news to attract people before feeding them bad information.
The key here is looking for gaps in a story, or mismatches between a story’s claims and its actual source material. These might be honest mistakes — like accounts sharing satirical news without realizing it. Or they might be a deliberate attempt to fool people.
There’s no step-by-step guide for understanding a story’s full context. But there are a few principles you can keep in mind.
This is a basic step, but an easy one to miss, especially on social media where articles from different outlets look more or less the same. The Onion’s articles are frequently mistaken for real news — not just by ordinary readers, but by major news outlets and politicians. It’s also easy to get temporarily fooled by sites like ClickHole (an Onion spinoff), The Babylon Bee, or Reductress.
All the outlets above are known for absurdist stories that clearly comment on social issues, and their articles are frequently shared as deliberate jokes. Unfortunately, there’s also a lesser-known ecosystem of “satire” sites that are closer to hoax-filled tabloids. The hoax-spotting site Snopes maintains a long list of them.
Also — if the date is April 1st, assume all headlines are fake until you’ve read the full story.
Who’s providing the information?
If you’re looking at an infographic, chart, or survey, does the source explain how they got the data? As Claire McNear at The Ringer has written, there’s a whole genre of quirky labeled maps — like one claiming to show America’s favorite Halloween candy by state — that use bizarre and useless methodologies to get controversial results.
If there’s a nonprofit organization or an activist group, check out its website or social media pages to see what else it’s posting. Search for the name to see if news reports have linked it to an astroturfing campaign — a process where a company, government propaganda operation, or other group artificially builds a campaign that looks like a grassroots movement. Alternately, it might have been identified as a false flag — in other words, an account that’s designed to make somebody’s enemies look bad by caricaturing them.
Biased sources can still post real news, but weigh the evidence they’re offering carefully, and if possible, see if other reporting backs it up. And think twice about sharing posts from social media accounts that seem untrustworthy, even if that one post is true. It can boost their overall profile and signal that platforms like Facebook should push more of their content in general.
What’s the scale of the story?
Be careful of stories that suggest there’s a huge cultural movement or political uproar based completely around people saying things on the internet. If there’s a “petition” or a “boycott,” for example, is there evidence that many real people, organizations, or companies have signed on? If a story cites tweets or Instagram posts to prove something is popular, are they from accounts with lots of followers and engagement, or just obscure tweets from little-known users — who might actually be bots or trolls?
It’s not just about how many people are involved, either. If somebody files a “$2 billion lawsuit” against a company, for example, that could just mean that they asked for a huge amount of money — not that the lawsuit is credible or that the company would ever pay that much.
And in many crime stories, the maximum possible sentence — i.e., when a convicted criminal “faces up to 100 years in prison” for a dozen different charges — is wildly different from how long they’ll probably serve. The more plausible number is based on a set of sentencing guidelines, and it’s usually much shorter. If you’re interested in learning more, legal blogger Ken White lays it all out here.
If there’s an “outrage,” are people actually upset?
Lots of stories cover some group furiously responding to a perceived offense — either to support the group or to make fun of them. As we discussed above, though, there’s often a huge scale problem: scour the entire internet for a few angry people, and you’ll probably find some.
Even beyond that, the “outrage” might just be mild annoyance or even a deliberate hoax. If a story hinges on public outcry against something, see what quotes or actions the story is citing. Are there protests, boycotts, or calls for apologies? Or are there just some snarky tweets about the topic?
If you do see a group that’s outraged about something you find ridiculous, calling them out online often makes things worse. Mentioning an offensive or stupid Twitter hashtag, for example, can make it trend on the site — creating the impression that people actually support the hashtag’s cause.
For a closer look at how internet news can create misleading outrage cycles, check out Parker Molloy’s 2015 guide — which she wrote after accidentally sparking one.
How do different news outlets present the story?
If a story is based on publicly available material like a police report or a press release, how do different videos and articles describe what happened? Do some offer new details or context that casts the story in a different light? If you’re reading explicitly partisan news — whether that’s fringe sites like Occupy Democrats and Breitbart, or more moderate sites with a clear political leaning — then finding the same story across different outlets can give you multiple perspectives.
The most popular narrative around a story isn’t always the right one, and partisan sites aren’t necessarily wrong. But if a huge-sounding story only appears on unknown or hyperpartisan sites and accounts, the story could have major flaws that simply stopped other outlets from covering it. This is one small example of something called a “data void” — which is formed when a search topic doesn’t turn up many reliable results, creating space for false information to run rampant.
At this point, you probably understand the story you started with pretty well. You’re ready for the last, most subjective step of the process: deciding what it means. If you’ve been momentarily fooled by an Onion link or some other fake story — and seriously, it’s happened to all of us — this isn’t a tough step. If it’s a real piece of news, things get a lot harder.
You obviously don’t want to believe everything you see or read. But uncritically disbelieving everything is just as bad. Some news sources really are more consistently accurate than others. Some expert opinions are more trustworthy than your own amateur research. If you only believe things that you’ve checked with your own eyes, you’ll have an incredibly blinkered view of the world.
So the goal here isn’t to identify why a story is wrong. It’s to identify how the story works — which parts are complicated and subjective, which parts are probably accurate, and how much it should change your opinions or behavior.
Everyone draws this line differently — what you consider a vital detail in an article, another reader might believe is barely worth mentioning. So it’s your call whether a story is just emphasizing and interpreting facts in a way you disagree with, or whether it’s using the outright manipulative strategies we’ve discussed above.
Among other things, if the story makes a major factual claim about a person or group, does it state where that claim is coming from? Does it offer interviews with people who were directly involved? If you can’t figure out how the author of an article or social media post knows something, there could be some important context getting left out.
What’s the larger narrative?
Does a story suggest that one assault or robbery is part of a huge crime wave, or that a business going bankrupt is part of an entire industry in trouble? These narratives might ultimately be correct, but they’re worth identifying and examining on their own, to see if there’s more evidence to back up a pattern — or if this individual story is an outlier.
What happens if you’re wrong?
Weigh the consequences of believing or ignoring a news story against the likelihood that it’s true. Buying into a scam could be financially ruinous, for example, so you’d want some very strong (and probably nonexistent) evidence that a get-rich-quick scheme works. Conversely, ignoring a real wildfire or disease epidemic warning could be deadly — if you don’t find strong evidence that it’s a hoax or a mistake, it’s worth taking seriously.
Crucially, though, this doesn’t mean believing any scary story “just in case.” Could a terrifying bird-woman sculpture be driving kids to suicide? I mean, that would be bad. But are there any confirmed accounts of this happening? Not as far as we know. Warning people about it amounts to crying wolf online.
Why share this story?
All the advice above goes double when sharing a story, because you’re basically acting as a news publisher for your friends and followers. Will sharing a story tell them something meaningful and probably true about the world, whether that involves a natural disaster or a cool animal fact? If you’re not sure, can you explain that ambiguity, or are you just likely to confuse them? And if you’re sharing a post because it makes you angry, is there something you want your friends and followers to do with that information?
Solving misinformation and disinformation isn’t as simple as following a checklist. Getting too invested in the checklist can even backfire. Researcher dana boyd has described a dark side of media literacy education in schools — where asking students to think critically can cement a blanket assumption that news outlets are lying. And I don’t want to put all the responsibility for solving misinformation on individuals.
But here’s the thing: I think all this stuff is fun. Tracing the path of information online is one of my favorite activities, like solving a puzzle or directing an archaeological dig. I want to share that process with other people — and to make a case for why getting things right is more interesting and valuable than just confirming your beliefs or scoring points online.
And above all, I want to argue for treating investigation like a shovel, not a knife. Critical thinking shouldn’t just be a synonym for doubting or debunking something, and the point of research isn’t simply to poke holes in a story. It’s to understand the story better, or — if somebody is telling that story maliciously or incompetently — to get deep enough to find the truth.