How to detect fake news and other deceptions on social networks

 Today I want to confess, like Pantoja, that I am somewhat tired of many people asking me if a source of content or a publication they see on social networks is reliable or not when it comes to retweeting, disseminating or sharing, especially from professional profiles. or company pages. So I greased the stiff joints in my fingers and got down to writing The Ultimate Guide to Spotting Fake News with which I hope to finally get my own entry on Wikipedia, it’s about time. And a hard-boiled egg, already there.

Given the bombardment of news that we receive every day through social networks (Whatsapp included), how the hell do we distinguish what is true from what is false?

So before the inability to know what is real and what isn’t plunges us into an existential crisis that would leave Hamlet looking very self-assured, let’s see if we can separate the wheat from the chaff without waiting for that the super-tenders come to take our chestnuts out of the fire (sorry for the millennials who will have to look up the reference to the super-tenders in Wikipedia)

We are going to distinguish two sections: the fake news itself, designed to cause a change of opinion in society or a current of sympathy or antipathy towards a company, a government, an institution or a person , and the almond tricks designed to try to fool the algorithms (mainly Facebook’s).

Fake news: When things are not what they seem

The great difficulty with fake news is that it has the appearance of truth. They can come from a media controlled by dark interests or they can arise “spontaneously” and spread virally. Normally they have very specific themes, which we can group into blocks:

  • Political: Related to the private life of political figures, with supposed public statements that a politician has made (sometimes accompanied by photos or videos out of context).
  • International: Reveal alleged confidential or secret documents about foreign governments related to illegal behavior, espionage, or use photos of other countries or situations to illustrate alleged events that are occurring and that are not true or are being intentionally exaggerated.
  • Government: They reveal supposedly confidential information about government plans to create supposed new taxes, or cut rights or social benefits, or about illegal actions.
  • Related to companies or products: They reveal supposed hidden information about the danger or lack of guarantees of certain food, pharmaceutical, cosmetic, etc., generally widely consumed products.
  • Personal: Smear campaigns against relevant figures in the public sphere, from actors to athletes or in any other field, not necessarily national (there is also local fake news).

Thus, the first alarm signal is the fact of receiving supposedly relevant news that is NOT in the media. Think about one thing: information professionals are just that, professionals. What makes you believe that they were going to silence a ‘bomb news’ that could be true?

 In addition to these specific topics, fake news has a series of characteristics that distinguish it:

1. It is very difficult to discern the origin

The person who forwards it to us or shares it has received it in the same way. They are the typical news on Facebook that have been shared hundreds or thousands of times.

2. They are usually accompanied by comments that come from fake profiles

Fake profiles are usually open, do not have any personal information and either do not have face photos or have photos of models, in addition to other characteristics that we will analyze in detail in another post.

These comments confirm the validity of the information without citing any source (“it happened to me”) or feed a negative spiral (I will not buy this brand again / I will not go to this store again / I just threw away my razor shaving).

3. The information is not verifiable

No sources are cited, in many cases they are not dated either and a Google search will lead us to many strange or unknown websites that are disseminating that information, none of them citing sources or with a minimum of credibility. Other times mention is made of studies carried out by universities that do not exist or that have never published such a study.

4. They have a clear negative intentionality

We have rarely seen positive fake news.

They can serve to support political ideas or spread false theories (for example, that most state aid goes to immigrants, or that the Government already has a plan prepared to make all highways toll) or they can try to damage the reputation of a product or a brand; For example, the olive oil from supermarket X is sold as Spanish but comes from Morocco, or the typical photoshopped photos showing a discounted product that, when lifting the label with the discount, shows a cheaper price than the discounted one, that yes that brand looks good.

Or one of my favorites, the complaint that “the oranges in supermarket X come from South Africa”… in the month of July.

They generally urge you to perform some kind of act, or even easier, to stop doing it . Fake political news does not so much pretend that you vote for one party or another as that you stay at home and do not vote. Businesses do not ask you to buy a product, but rather to stop buying a product or a brand.

The other trick: Fooling the algorithm

Another type that typically circulates on Facebook: posts that try to gain circulation by fooling Facebook’s algorithm. There are many types of these, but the ones that circulate the most are of two specific types:

1. Posts shared by friends that ask you to “copy and paste this on your wall if you are for/against” (always noble causes) or do it if you are thinking of your friends or if you want to honor your parents.

With additions that challenge you with phrases like “I know that 95% of my friends will not copy this on their wall.” Why do they ask to copy and paste and not share? Well, very simple: asking you to share is very cheeky and copying and pasting is a way to fool the Facebook algorithm .

Like Google, Facebook “reads” what you post and prioritizes original content. A verbatim copy that is repeated thousands of times makes Facebook identify the original source and give it more relevance, which allows that account to carry out advertising actions later, guaranteeing an audience. Or so they think, because the people of Facebook are not stupid enough to not detect it, let’s not forget that advertising is what they live on.

2. Posts with misleading headlines that entice you to click

Another unorthodox way to advertise for free. I mean headlines like “This girl was going to cross the street and you can’t imagine what happened to her” , with an image that pretends to be a video that takes us to a page full of advertising where (if we are able to see the video in question) the girl just stumbles. Things that you would not see, but that encourage you to see with a headline that does not reflect reality. Another very widespread modality: «What the government does not want you to know».

 There are many other forms of fake news, but the best thing we can do when we see some supposedly surprising news is to try to verify the information . We can copy the photo and do a photo search on Google to see if the photo matches the text. We can look for that news in reliable sources (something especially relevant in the case of news related to health) or, simply, we can read the comments or responses, since it is more than possible that someone has detected the hoax before us. Anything but contributing to increase noise and mistrust.