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The Computer Corner: A Quick Guide to Spotting Internet Fake News Articles

COMPUTERS

By Charles Miller

The ubiquity of smartphones, always-on Internet, and social media has brought about a dramatic change in the way in which some people are exposed to the news today.

Last year a good friend of mine here in México phoned me to ask if I had seen the news reporting of a serial killer on the loose near my hometown in East Texas. Naturally, I headed over to the Internet to access some of the trusted news sources I use, but initially found nothing about any serial killer.

Digging a little deeper, I found the news my friend was telling me about. On the website of the Longview News-Journal, there was an article with the headline “Not Real News: a Look at What Didn’t Happen This Week in Longview.” Here it was reliably reported that the Longview, Texas, Police Department had issued a statement that it was not investigating a string of homicides attributed to an alleged serial killer. The source of the fake news was attributed to Facebook.

The editors of the Longview News-Journal listed things everyone should look for in news reporting in order to spot fake news. In listing their policies, the Longview News-Journal provides all of us with a valuable guide for evaluating the news we read online:

To start with, the fake article quoted an unnamed officer. Credible news outlets identify sources used in their articles. Nor did the fake article identify the victims. Victims’ names may be withheld for a period of time, but they would eventually be released and reported.

In addition, the fake Longview story said officials were appealing to the public for information, yet did not give a phone number for anyone to call in to report something. The Longview News-Journal’s policy is to include contact information for law enforcement in cases in which those agencies are requesting information from the public.

Also, there were no specific locations reported in the fake story. The Longview News-Journal includes block numbers and street names when reporting on crimes. The fake article also said that officials had held a press conference on the crimes. Credible news sources would have reported when and where the press conference happened, along with the names of the officials who spoke on the record.

Meanwhile, in somewhat of an ironic twist, the Longview Police Department took to Facebook to refute the fake news on Facebook. The police department’s post read, “There was a post that has been brought to our attention through social media that indicates Longview has had three homicides in the last week. There is no truth or validity that our sources can find that the author or if the supposed news affiliate exists.”

It is unfortunate that the freedom and openness of the Internet provides a vehicle for any idiot with a modem to fabricate falsehoods and widely disseminate them to large audiences. Even more unfortunate is that the automated algorithms at Facebook republish fake news in its news feeds with little or no fact-checking. And most unfortunate of all is that many people today trust social media as a news source.

Charles Miller is a freelance computer consultant, a frequent visitor to San Miguel since 1981, and now practically a full-time resident. He may be contacted at 044 415 101-8528 or email FAQ8 (at) SMAguru.com.

 

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