Fake News

Clearly, to date, the most publicized set of examples of “fake news” deal with the multiple events that have occurred over a number of years; and, most recently, the events leading to and since the United States 2016 presidential election.

There should be an increasing focus on strategies to identify the intrusions that we might label fake news and the development of techniques to identify and thus defeat such practices. Corporations such as Facebook and Yahoo have been investing in research to address these problems.

However, because there is no clear set of methodologies that can be employed to eliminate this problem, we will try in this section to identify some partial approaches to determining the validity of news and to suggest certain measures in order to identify fake news.

A Fake News History

During the period of slavery in the United States, its supporters developed many fake news stories about African-Americans, purported slave rebellions, or stories of African-Americans spontaneously turning white, which brought fear to many whites (Theobald, 2006).

At the end of the nineteenth century, led by Joseph Pulitzer and other publishers and usually referred to as “yellow journalism,” writers pushed stories that led the United States into the Spanish-American War when the USS Maine exploded in the Havana harbor (Soil, 2016).

In 1938, the radio drama program “The Mercury Theater on the Air,” directed by Orson Welles, aired an episode called “War of the Worlds,” simulating news reports of an invasion of aliens in New Jersey. Before the program had begun, listeners were informed that this was just a dramatization. However, most listeners missed that part and therefore believed that the invasion was real. One concrete result was that the attack, supposedly in Grover Mill, New Jersey, resulted in residents attacking a water tower because the broadcaster identified it as alien (Chilton, 2016).

Fake News Resurgence, Acceleration, and Elections

Over the past decade, the use of fake news has been applied in a number of areas: for financial gain, for political purposes, for amusement, and for many other reasons.

There has now been a great deal written about the use of such fake news in order to influence not only the 2016 US presidential election but also elections in numerous other countries throughout the world. One especially egregious example was the result of the news story usually called the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory, which accused a certain pizzeria in Washington, DC, as hosting a pedophile ring run by the Democratic Party. In December 2016, an armed North Carolina man, Edgar Welch, traveled to Washington, DC, and opened fire at the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria identified in the Pizzagate fake news. Welch pleaded guilty to charges and was sentenced to 4years in prison (Kang, 2016).

What is Fake News?

There is nothing new about fake news. Most of us first encounter this phenomenon the first time we discover a lie. However, it can fairly be argued that the telling of a lie presented as part of the technology may seem so impressive as to convince us of the truthfulness of the message because of the elaborate wrapping.

It is really only in the Internet age that the toolset has become readily available to create a very (seemingly) realistic message that will fool many readers.

The very rapid expansion in the past few years of fake news sites can be attributed to many factors, for example, the use of composition software to produce websites with very sophisticated appearances provides the opportunity to create such sites.

The motivation for creating such sites is undoubtedly a reason for the rapid expansion. There is a financial incentive for many of these sites, either because their creators are being paid to produce them or because the site itself may provide a mechanism for readers to buy—whether a legitimate product or a scam.

And many sites may have as a greater purpose the advocacy of a political point of view, which may put forward completely false information.

Satire or Fake News?

A difficult challenge for the consumers of various information is that there may be substantial similarity between sites that might be considered fake news and those that are meant to be satirical. Certainly, satire is an important form of storytelling and criticism.

Indeed, it is well known that many nursery rhymes that we know from childhood are actually satire disguised as children’s tales to avoid retribution since the satirical meaning may actually constitute criticism of a powerful monarch. Consider (Fallon, 2014):

Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner

Sat in the corner,

Eating a Christmas pie;

He put in his thumb, And pulled out a plum,

And said, “What a good boy am I!”

One interpretation has “Little Jack” standing in for Thomas Horner, a steward who was deputized to deliver a large pie to Henry VIII concealing deeds to a number of manors, a bribe from a Catholic abbot to save his monastery from the king’s anti-Catholic crusade. It is believed by many that Horner reached into the pie and helped himself to a deed.

Yankee Doodle

Yankee Doodle went to town

Riding on a pony Stuck a feather in his cap And called it macaroni!

Yankee Doodle is a silly figure in this classic ditty, which dates back to the Revolutionary era. At the time, macaroni was the favored food of London dandies, and the word had come to refer to the height of fashion. British soldiers, who originally sang the verse, were insulting American colonists by implying they were such hicks they thought putting feathers in their hats made them as stylish as London socialites.

There is a major effort now from many quarters in trying to identify techniques to be able to classify websites for social media in terms of their “fakeness.” The major companies hosting social media, for example, Facebook and Yahoo, have initiatives to identify and disqualify fake news accounts.

Distinguishing Satire from Fake News

In the next section, we will identify a number of tests that can be applied to assist in determining the status of a questionable website or Facebook message we might encounter. There has been an explosion in the number of fake news sites, but we will analyze a few examples to try to determine their validity. What follows are set of examples of either “fake news” or some we might designate “not fake news.”


DailyBuzzLive is an online magazine that specializes in sensational articles. The flavor can be ascertained from some of the sections of the zine indicated by the menu selections: “Controversial,” “Viral Videos,” "Weird,” “Criminal,” “Bad Breeds.”

One immediate clue as to its validity is that there is no obvious way of determining the publisher. The topics vary widely, but a few sample headlines include the following:

“USDA Allows US to be Overrun With Contaminated Chicken from China”

“Human Meat Found In McDonald’s Meat Factory”

“People Call for Father Christmas to be Renamed ‘Person Christmas’”

With respect to the last article regarding Christmas, there is no author indicated, nor any date on the article. Furthermore, the headline, beginning with “People Call for ...” never refers to anyone actually making that “call.”


This website ABCnews.com.co is no longer in existence. If you enter that URL, you will find the statement that is common to nonexistent sites that begin with “Related Links.” This one is easy to detect: the URL, although appearing to be the website for ABC News (ABCnews.com), actually ends with the Internet country code “.co” for Colombia.


On first glance, one might consider The Onion fake news. Although not doing so on the masthead, The Onion identifies itself as satire, and it follows a lengthy tradition in this genre, with a political impact. The Onion is unlike the Daily Buzz example above, which does not so identify itself. Several of the Onion articles, clearly satirical, are as follows:

“Nation Not Sure How Many Ex-Trump Staffers It Can Safely Absorb”

“New Ted Cruz Attack Ad Declares Beto O’Rourke Too Good for Texas”

“Elizabeth Warren Disappointed After DNA Test Shows Zero Trace of Presidential Material”

The Onion on its website indicates satirically the supposed history of its publication:

The Onion is the world’s leading news publication, offering highly acclaimed, universally revered coverage of breaking national, international, and local news events. Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1756, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.


This site is closely affiliated with Alex Jones, who has long been identified as a conspiracy theorist, ranging from such conspiracies as the “birther conspiracy” about former President Obama to the argument that school shootings such as Sandy Hook and Lakeland were faked, to the “Pizzagate” story cited earlier in this chapter.

However, beyond that connection, the other giveaway is the headline photograph of what is entitled “Invasion Begins! Migrant Caravan Arrives At US/Mexico Border” showing immigrants scaling a wall, presumably to enter the United States (https://www.infowars.com/ invasion-begins-migrant-caravan-arrives-at-us-mexico-border/). When one checks other media sources, at the time this article was published (November 15, 2018), many reports from other sources indicated that the “caravan” of refugees (so designated by Donald Trump during the 2018 election campaign) was hundreds of miles from the US border.

New Yorker

Andy Borowitz has written a series of satirical articles for several years in the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/ andy-borowitz). He makes it very clear in the headline over his articles that they are “Satire from the Borowitz Report”; in addition, also above his articles is a line indicating they are “Not the News.” Borowitz created the Borowitz Report in 2001


In one alarming story, the person indicated in the headline, Jerry Richards, is alleged to have murdered over 700 people in Naples, Florida. In this case, since allegedly the murderer has been arrested, there should be court records as well as other news articles about this event. There are not.

At least, in an “About” section, Empire News indicates that “it is intended for entertainment purposes only.”


The November 12,2018, article “Operation Torch California” (https:// beforeitsnews.com/v3/terrorism/2018/2461448.html) regarding the devastating forest fire both in Northern and Southern California raised a number of questions. The first warning sign occurred with the quote in the opening: “Operation Torch California is a very real ongoing black operation being conducted by the U.S. Intelligence Community ... first and foremost a highly sophisticated psyop.” The quote was attributed to an unnamed “Intelligence Analyst & Former

U.S. Military Officer.” Next, there are references to the acronym DEWs, which is never defined.

From that point on, the article bounces from one wild statement to another, linking this story with Hurricane Michael in Florida, to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, to aluminum oxide from coal fly ash. Among other wild statements, it is alleged that “To name the most devastating fire in California history Camp Fire represents the profound cynicism associated with this well-planned pyro-psyop. How easy it is to now blame that geoengineered wildfire on a simple ‘camp fire’.”

Centers for Disease Control


This is perhaps the most perplexing of all the examples, since it appears on the website of an agency of the US government, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) based in Atlanta (Figure 17.1).

The CDC has as its charge the battle against infectious diseases, and it usually is at the forefront when there are outbreaks such as the Zika virus, Ebola virus, or the coronavirus. However, to advise people about how to deal with a “Zombie Apocalypse” seems to be unusual, to say the least. Will readers actually believe that it is necessary to prepare for such an event? Or will everyone realize that

CDC "Zombie Apocalypse."

Figure 17.1 CDC "Zombie Apocalypse."

this is merely satire intended to heighten concern generally about how infectious disease can spread? Unfortunately, the CDC, for whatever reason, does not choose to identify the site as satire.

Assessing Fake (or Not-Fake) News

It may be instructive to see what can be learned from human intervention. We will look at a number of these sites to see what “tells” or techniques we can use to identify them as fake.

Fake News

Detecting Technique

Author bibliography


See what you can find out about any author indicated. Does that person exist? If so, what are his or her credentials or bibliography?


Be suspicious if an article appears and no author is credited.

Comment section

If the website has a comment section, see if you can determine the credibility and nature of the comments.

Emotional reaction

How do you feel about the story? Or perhaps, “does it pass the smell test?" Your reaction might depend upon the content.

Expert testimony

If any experts are quoted, search to see if they really exist; or, if they do, what are their qualifications.

Fact checkers

There are a number of fact-checking organizations that can be consulted to see if the news item is legitimate. A list of these fact checkers will follow.


Look for spelling and punctuation errors. It may help to copy the text into Word and run the spellchecker there.

Included Ads

Examine the nature of the ads that might be featured on the suspected site. If the ad indicates you can purchase something online, it may be a scam.

News outlet

If a news outlet is indicated, and you have not heard of it, search online for more information.

Other articles

See if there are other articles on the same topic. If you cannot find any, the chances are the story is fake.


Fake News

Detecting Technique


Other sources

Do a search to see If the story at hand is also covered by other media. If it does not appear in the same time frame in a reputable medium, it may very well be bogus

Publisher “About Us”

In the “About Us” section of the website, see what you can determine about the organization sponsoring the site.

Purpose of the story

Try to determine the purpose of the story. Is it possible that it is to satisfy an agenda of the publisher, for political or financial reasons?


If the quote is given, search for the source of the quote. See also if you can determine if the person being quoted actually exists or has actual credentials.

Reverse image search

If you right-click on an image, you will find an option to search for the image. Then you should be able to see other websites that have used it and if they are relevant.

Seek other experts

If someone in an article is cited as an expert, see how that person is considered by other experts in the same field.

Source check

See if the publisher meets academic citation standards.


Can you verify If the article is recent or perhaps is a copy of something written years before?


When you access the site, examine the URL carefully. On occasion, fake sites have acquired URLs In unlikely countries.

Visual assessment

Just consider the overall appearance of the site. Once again, you may be able to apply a “smell test.”

When seeking fact-checking organizations, you may try these:

FactCheck.org (http://www.factcheck.org)

Politifact (http://www.politifact.org)

The International Fact-Checking Network (https://www.poynter.

org/chan nels/fact-check i ng)

Snopes.com (http://snopes.com)


  • 1. Find sources (necessarily an octogenarian+) with a personal recollection of the “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938. Summarize their recollections.
  • 2. Find any recent (post-2016) reference to “Pizzagate.”
  • 3. We have provided eight examples of fake news (or not-fake-news) above. Submit each to the battery of 20 tests indicated in “Fake News Detecting Techniques.” What metric would you use to make a final determination of fake news versus not-fake-news? For example, you might say it is fake news if it meets >n of the 20 tests.


Fallon, C. 2014. “The Shocking, Twisted Stories behind Your Favorite Nursery Rhymes,” Huffington Post, November 20. https://www. huffingtonpost.com/2014/ll/20/nursery-rhymes-real-stories.

Kang, C. 2016. “Fake News Onslaught Targets Pizzeria as Nest of Child-Trafficking,” The New York Times. November 21. https:// www.nytimes.com/2016/11/21/technology/fact-check-this-pizzeria-is-not-a-child-trafficking-site.html.

Soli. J. 2016. “The Long and Brutal History of Fake News,” POLITICO Magazine, December 18. http://www.politico.com/magazine/ story/2016/12/fake-news-h istory-long-violent-214535.

Theobald, M. M. 2006. Slave conspiracies in Colonial Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg Journal. http://www.history.org/foundation/ journal/winter05-06/conspiracy.cfm. http://www.history.org.

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