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Feature

Don’t fall for fake news

Fact or fake: Learn how to spot the telltale signs
by Derek Rodriguez

The concept of fake news is not a novel one. But in the age of social media, it spreads through the Internet at warp speed with a few clicks or taps.

In Singapore, many of us encounter fake news every day, says Prof Rich Ling, an expert on the social consequences of mobile communication at NTU. “Facebook and Twitter are perhaps the most common platforms. However, messaging apps like WhatsApp are powerful fake news mediums as well.”

Another reason hoaxes see the light of day, says NTU communications expert Prof Ang Peng Hwa, is because it’s often nearly impossible to police fake news.

“It’s difficult to pin down and for the authorities to stop the rumours because most conversations are in closed groups like private messages and posts that only friends in your network can see,” says the former President of the International Communication Association.

In a survey conducted by NTU’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication & Information, more than 90% of respondents stated that they have been victims of fake news, with 6% admitting it happened often. Scary thing is, these figures might actually be higher since it is possible that some didn’t realise they had been duped.

On the positive side, there are steps you can take to discern if a piece of news is fake.

Check the source

“Look at the source. Look at the content. Look at the framing. Ask yourself – does it look legit?” advises Prof Ling.

Is the source just another unreliable website, especially one with a name that closely resembles that of an authentic news site? Don’t believe it so quickly.

Compare with credible channels

Try to find similar content from a trustworthy source and compare them, since it’s easy to attribute false quotes to real people or take genuine content out of context.

Quek Zhe Yu, a business and computing student in his final year, says: “The amount of fake news these days has made me sceptical about what I read. First, I’d check who posted it because that says a lot about its authenticity. I might also find supporting arguments from other credible sources.”

Adds Muhammad Zulhilmi, a fourth-year student from the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering: “If it came from a friend, I’d see if he normally circulates legit news. If he doesn’t, it’s probably fake. If he claims it’s real, I’ll do a cross check online with reputable news agencies like The Straits Times or Berita Harian.”

Look for telltale signs

Pay attention to the language used. Ambiguous or loaded words are yellow flags. So are exaggerated statements, badly doctored photos and poor grammar or typos.

In the case of personal messages, Prof Ang suggests looking out for key words.

“A nearly foolproof guide is to see if the message ends with ‘pass it on’. If it does, it is almost always a hoax,” he says. “I must have received a few hundred of such messages over the year, but only two and a half weren’t untrue. Twice they turned out to be true and one time it couldn’t be verified.”

Adds second-year School of Computer Science & Engineering student Cherilynn Ang: “Sometimes, the way it’s written is already a telltale sign. Is it in proper English? Are short forms and grammatical errors present? Or is it too unbelievable to be true? If I smell a rat, I’ll do a quick 10-second Google search to verify the facts or check if other more reliable websites are broadcasting that particular piece of news.”

Get it checked

These days, fact-checking organisations can help suss out the authenticity of an article.

FactCheck.org, started at an American university, and PolitiFact aim to reduce the level of deception and confusion in US politics. Meanwhile, Snopes is a myth-busting website that nips both urban legends and ongoing misconceptions in the bud. In Singapore, the government has a website aptly named Factually (www.gov.sg/factually).

Finally, when you spot fake news, don’t be afraid to stand up and point it out. Just be tactful and remember that the aim is to help prevent misinformation from spreading.