Learning the news: Tips for spotting clickbait

Clickbait and ‘news’ riddled with falsehoods isn’t always easy to spot, but there are a few common sense steps to consider before you share — and end up embarrassing yourself, writes Roger Plothow.

An old friend of mine with whom I re-established contact through Facebook recently posted a “story” about an alleged news event from last November in which millions of Muslims had allegedly protested again ISIS, but the “mainstream media” had ignored the story.

It was, of course, entirely false – millions of Shia Muslims had, indeed, gathered in Arbaeen, something they do every year, and not for the purposes of protesting against ISIS. Plus, the event had been widely covered by journalists from around the world.

My friend is highly intelligent, college educated and politically active, but he’d fallen for the fake news post. I mention it because the incident highlights two important issues: First, if a story says the “mainstream media” have ignored it, it’s probably not a story. Second, many fake new stories are so cleverly disguised that they fool a lot of people.

Now that we’re all aware of the fake news phenomenon, there’s no dearth on tips for identifying it, usually in the form of a list. That’s what we do nowadays – “Ten ways to tell if you’re going to die young,” or, “Four tips to avoid going bald.”

Every once in awhile I wander through these various tips lists to see if there’s a good one that’s emerged, and recently I found a list of six from Scientific American that are as good as any others I’ve seen. Since they don’t come from journalists, but rather from a science magazine, the insights are a little different and represent more common sense than anything, For example, the first three are:

1. Check the source behind the headline.

2. Look for clearly false information elsewhere in the article.

3. Spend a little time background checking the information.

Like I said – basic common sense, but how many of us actually do these things?

The final three:

4. Look for source citations—and check them!

5. Check that any graphs or plots make numerical sense.

6. Keep an eye out for these fake news red flags.

On that latter item, the website Mashable found that fake news stories often have a number of things in common, writes the Scientific American author, Sabrina Stierwalt, Ph.D.:

“Among them were bad grammar, poorly constructed or outdated-looking websites, and hyperbolic headlines.

“The use of unflattering photos also is a possible indicator that the author is more motivated by earning your click rather than providing you with trustworthy information. Another likely warning sign of a dubious source: promoted content that is blatantly sexist or racist. Consider whether you are willing to trust information from a site that also suggests you might like to click on an article promoting clearly offensive content.”

Here’s another tip: “If the headline claims you’ll never believe the article’s epic content, well, then perhaps you shouldn’t.”


Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a year-long weekly series on media literacy.


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