Red Flags: How to Identify Suspicious Rumors

For International Fact-Checking Day, we look at common techniques used to identify dubious stories online.

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On International Fact Checking Day on April 2, 2022, it is more important than ever to keep an eye out for false information online, particularly in a time when major events can have global consequences. Whether it is COVID-19, or stories pertaining to the war in Ukraine, misinformation and disinformation is rampant. (For more about the differences between the two, check out our story).

Below, we’ve collected a list of red flags to identify whether a story is reliable.

Dubious or Unclear Sources

If a meme, an article, or a video doesn’t explicitly state where the information is coming from, that’s a major red flag. A quote from a prominent personality, for example, should be published on a reliable news outlet, and referenced in the post through an external link to that news source. Scientific data should be backed up by an actual academic study or research institution. Most reputable news outlets will cite multiple sources for a story. If the story relies on anonymous sources, then it might be because the news outlet was given exclusive or classified information, or the outlet has to protect the identity of their source — most news outlets do not reveal the name of a victim of sexual assault or rape without consent, for example. Or “the anonymous” sourcing could be lazy reporting. If a claim originated from a tweet, or Facebook post, or any other social media outlet without any actual news site reporting on it, then it should be double-checked by a journalist or news outlet. 

Most internationally renowned news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, the BBC, and many others can be considered reliable.

Spelling and Punctuation Errors

Many memes and quotations have very basic errors in spelling and punctuation, sometimes because they are churned out in large numbers and fairly quickly alongside breaking news stories in order to get clicks and shares. This is a big reason to treat them with suspicion.

Satire Masquerading as ‘News’

This is more common than you think! Some headlines are just so unusual, such as “CEO of Disney arrested for human trafficking,” one should first check if they originated from a satirical website. We have an entire category of fact-checks dedicated to this, which you can read about here. Go to the “About” page of websites that have absurd stories and claims to check whether they are “joke-” or “satire-focused” outlets. If a claim is so outlandish that it hasn’t been picked up by reputable news outlets, it may be fictional or satirical. 

Watch Out for Partisanship

Oftentimes, a quote, an event, or key facts are misrepresented to deliberately reflect the political leanings of a website. For example, we often see an uptick in claims that negatively target the victims of police violence soon after a Black person is injured or killed in a police encounter. Right-wing commentators are among the first to spread such claims, like in the case of George Floyd’s killing. Read more on how we fact-check racial propaganda here

Some sites host personalities who are themselves responsible for spreading false information, calling the website’s credibility into question. Far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones — who called the Sandy Hook school massacre a hoax and claimed 9/11 was an inside job — appeared on conservative website The Blaze twice and was heavily used in promotional material to increase subscriptions. 

Sites like Allsides.com and mediabiasfactcheck.com offer a pretty reliable review of various news websites’ political leanings. 

Beware of Second-Hand Claims

If someone reports hearing a rumor from a “friend” or a “friend of a friend,” always be wary. If you read a social media post that claims to know the original source, but isn’t the source, then take it with a grain of salt. We noticed this increasingly when it came to COVID-19 “facts” when Facebook posts claimed that a doctor or medical professional supposedly wrote or said something dubious, but the post didn’t link to actual scientific articles or videos or news sources. Read more here

Videos That Lack Context and/or Are Edited 

Videos shared online can be accompanied by chatter that purports to explain what is going on in the video, but sometimes that language removes context, or the video itself has undergone undisclosed editing. During the crisis in Ukraine, a barrage of fake videos were circulating online. We’ve been fact-checking those here

Check if the video is being posted by verified news outlets, and watch for abrupt cuts or awkward transitions in the video. For more, check out this Washington Post explainer on fake videos. You can also screenshot a video, or an image, and do a reverse-image search on Google to see where else the material has cropped up. Check out this Snopes guide on reverse-image searches

False News Website URLs

False news sites are more common than you think. Around the 2016 U.S. presidential election, stories from made-up news sites often went viral. CBS News reported on sites like Abcnews.com.com that used a similar logo and URL to the real abcnews.go.com. We also covered some of these sites back in 2016.

Most sites use “.com” or “.org,” but not all of them are legitimate news sites. Infowars.com is one such conspiracy theorist site, run by Jones. 

Dramatic ‘Clickbait’ Headlines 

Most headlines are intended to grab your attention and get you to click on them, thereby increasing ad-supported pageviews. As a result, they often use outlandish language with big claims that require readers to read the whole article to get the full picture. Ultimately, if you see a strange claim in a headline, always make sure to read the whole article. These headlines often use language like “You Won’t Believe X Happened.”  

This is particularly common in ad arbitrage clickbait, an issue we’ve covered before:

Advertising arbitrage is defined as a way to make a profit after placing an internet ad by leading readers from the ad to a multi-page article or slideshow. The main goal is to create a story that is broken up into many pages, placing ads on them and making money from the ads that appear on the many pages.

Think of it as a carnival: The carnival might place an ad in the newspaper if it’s visiting your town. Their goal is to get people to come to the carnival (clicking on the ad) and visit all of the attractions (pages) so that they end up making a profit from putting an ad in the newspaper. Carnival visitors might be disappointed that the rides aren’t as thrilling as they sounded in the newspaper ad, just as readers might not think the story lived up to the hype of the internet ad.

Numerous ways abound to catch such red flags and ensure you are relying on legitimate news sources, and we have many resources to help you. Check out more of our work below:

This page is part of an ongoing effort by the Snopes newsroom to teach the public the ins and outs of online fact-checking and, as a result, strengthen people’s media literacy skillsMisinformation is everyone’s problem. The more we can all get involved, the better job we can do combating it. Have a question about how we do what we do? Let us know.

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