The Toronto Public Library is fighting back against fake news.
Following the lead of University of Toronto libraries and a number of universities stateside, including Harvard, TPL has published an online guide on how to spot fake news.
“The library has always been a place where people come for fact-based information,” says TPL spokesperson Mabel Ho. “The guide is a checklist to help readers [understand] if the article they’re reading is fabricated or not.”
Published last month, the guide has already received more than 10,000 hits on the TPL website, says Ho, and coverage from several English and non-English media sources from around the world.
It includes tips and questions, as well as visual cues that can help identify fake news articles and content online. It also provides a brief history of the origins of fake news and tricks used to pass off fake news as real.
The term “fake news” began to gain broader cultural recognition during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, when Republican candidate and eventual winner Donald Trump kept referring to mainstream news sources such as CNN as “fake news.”
However, the most widespread proliferation of fake news has occurred on social media like Twitter and Facebook, which is now trying to come up with in-house solutions to stemming the flow of fake news on its network.
Gavin Adamson, undergraduate program director at Ryerson’s school of journalism, says the TPL guide “is a good resource,” but that social media platforms like Facebook with their mass distribution networks have made the fake news phenomenon too widespread to stop.
“People are used to having a communal experience over reading or sharing a piece of content, regardless of whether it’s fake or real.”
Online social media platforms standardize the visual presentation of news articles so that most sources look identical, regardless of the outlet’s quality.
Adamson says the current “structure of the news article” is very easy to replicate. A fake news piece can thus present itself visually in a way that’s very similar to a report from a professional outlet, facilitating confusion. Some people who share fake news don’t care that it’s fake, he says.
Adamson emphasizes that deciphering real news from fake information shouldn’t require a Herculean effort. People who care about what they’re reading will take some time to vet the content.
The TPL’s guide is ultimately a reminder that the central tool with which to fight fake news is common sense.
How to spot fake news
5 questions to ask yourself
1. Who wrote it? Some fake news articles don’t include an author’s name – a dead giveaway. Google authors’ names when they appear to find other articles written by them.
2. Are the sources quoted in the article reliable? News articles should provide different points of view. If you’re seeing one side of the story, check their sources online.
3. When was the article published? Older articles shared online may not contain up-to-date facts. Check the date.
4. Does the web address look correct? Anyone can purchase a domain names (which commonly end in .ca or .com) and tweak them to closely resemble official websites of large news organizations. For example, abcnews.com.co was used to mimic abcnews.com last December to circulate a fake news story claiming that Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in U.S. schools. The story generated more than 2.2 million “likes,” shares and comments on Facebook.
5. Who benefits? Sometimes what looks like a news article is actually “sponsored content” that someone paid to get online. Above all, think critically. If you can’t verify the facts or sources offered, chances are it’s fake news.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @nowtoronto
Updated Wednesday, April 5, 10:33 am: An earlier version of this story stated that TPL plans to publish its fake news guide in several languages. The TPL now says those plans are on hold.