How to spot fake news as the coronavirus spreads

Reporters with various forms of "fake news" from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Image: Reporters with various forms of “fake news” from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper. (Public Domain)


COVID-19 (coronavirus) information and guidelines are changing at a rapid rate. As the public watches store shelves empty and learn of new restrictions on public gatherings, fear and uncertainty have been the breeding ground for fake news. 

The recent problem is so significant that, in a rare move, social media companies are banding together to combat fake news about the coronavirus on their platforms.

Politico’s recent story on falsehoods spreading on WhatsApp highlights that the problem is more than organized bad actors with fake websites; it can also be as simple as a fake audio recording or screenshots, which circulate false information through messaging services. As people look to find the latest news on the coronavirus, they can easily fall prey and spread that information further on their social media accounts. 

RELATED: In times of crisis, we need journalists giving us facts and guiding us to resources that will help us cope

If you’re wondering if something you saw on social media is real, check out Buzzfeednews.com’s running list of hoaxes spreading about the coronavirus. Also, take a look at the eight tips to spotting fake news compiled by the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust.

  1. Look past your personal biases. This is crucial in sorting out news content. We often believe the worst about people or politicians we despise. Those biases can blind us to what we are sharing on social media, even if there are red flags that suggest the stories may not be factual.
  2.  Do you recognize the source of the news item? Be skeptical if it comes from a source that you’ve never heard of. That doesn’t mean it’s false, and it could come from an obscure but legitimate news outlet. But take extra time to confirm the facts on sites you may not recognize.
  3. Use search engines to see if anyone else is reporting this particular story. If it is as big a story as being promoted in the headline or share text on a social media site, surely other news outlets will have a version of the story.
  4. Check the link in your browser. Many fake news sites try to mimic actual news sites. The link might have a slight variation from the legitimate news site. If the link looks odd, that’s another red flag.
  5. Look at other stories on the website. Does the content pass the “smell test?” Check out the writing style. Do the stories on the site have excessive capital letters, exclamation points, obvious grammatical errors, or other oddities that suggest the content may not be reliable?
  6. Read the “Contact Us” and “About Us” links. Are they working, and do they give information that is helpful? Can you email the story’s author?
  7. Go to fact-checking sites. Use them to see what they say about the news story before you post it on social media. Try factcheck.org, snopes.com, politifact.com, or other fact-checking sites. And if you have questions about the quality of a particular fact-checking site, use multiple fact-checking sites to verify the information.
  8. Be skeptical. It will help make you a smart news consumer.

Jim Boren and the Fresno State Institute for Media and Public Trust contributed to this story.

Posted by

Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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