Bigfoot wasn't found dead on a beach. Great white sharks aren't swimming in the Mississippi River. Taco Bell is not closing. Yet, again and again, many otherwise discerning readers are fooled into believing these stories were true after users of so-called prank web sites share what convincingly appear to be links to real news articles on Facebook.
Prank web sites allow people to generate their own fake news stories to share on social media. While clicking the links leads to a page that clearly says the news is fake (and makes fun of readers for believing it), many people don't click through before commenting and sharing.
Although many of these web sites attempt to distance themselves from "fake news" web sites with disclaimers, they essentially accomplish the same thing — trick the reader into believing, and potentially sharing, misinformation:
A hoax story is on the left; a real news story is on the right. The two blurbs both look authoritative. Both items contain an interesting image, a descriptive title, and a brief summary of the article. The only major difference between these two items is the URL listed at the bottom of the post.
How is it created?
Unlike hoax news web sites that employ staff writers in an effort to make their stories go viral (whether in a good-faith attempt to entertain or in an effort to mislead and deceive) prank news can be written by anyone with an internet connection. Web sites such as these provide a template and some simple instructions, the user fills in the blanks, and voila: a viral story is potentially born.
A typical set of instructions can be found on the site Channel22News:
Tips: You must be creative but keep in mind to make it fun.
Fake Title: Choose a catchy title for your joke. Make your friends curious.
Description: Be creative and make your friends curious.
Image: Upload one or search one via google images.
These instructions are usually listed side-by-side with a prank news template:
We created a fake news story for the purpose of this article. Here's how it looked in the template and as a Facebook-shareable link:
There is not much that differentiates one prank news site from another. They all use similar tactics, publish similar stories, and create nearly identical links. We have built the following running list of prank news web sites that we've encountered:
How to Spot It
One reason that prank news stories manage to fool readers and gain traction on social media is that they closely resemble genuine news articles. In fact, on social media, the only visible difference between a genuine news item and a prank news item is the subject matter (Bigfoot's body, for example) and the web address listed at the bottom of the post.
Here are a few steps you should take yourself when you encounter a questionable link on Facebook.
- Question the source. Take a minute to look at the URL at the bottom of a Facebook post. What is React365? What is Feednewz? If you've never seen the web site before, there's good reason to be skeptical about its contents.
- Click the link. Internet users should certainly be cautious about clicking strange links. However, a 2016 study found that the majority of Facebook users share links without actually reading them. If you actually do clink on one of these "prank" links, you'll most likely be redirected to web site informing you that you've been pranked:
- Check for other reports. Most prank news stories can be checked in a matter of seconds. Simply copy the title of the post and enter it into a search engine. What comes up? If it's a genuine news story you'll most likely find several reputable sources reporting on it.
Real world consequences
Much of the content generated by these prank news web sites is fun and relatively harmless. Some of the most popular posts, for instance, deal with various wild animals being spotted in unlikely places. However, these posts do have real-world consequences. The owner of Karri Twist, an Indian restaurant in London, lost business after a "prank" claimed that the restaurant was selling human meat. As of this writing, the fourth result when you Google "Karri Twist" is a Daily Mail piece about the incident with a headline that does not make it clear that the story was a prank:
Many of these web sites also encourage those who were fooled to re-share the story, ensuring that it reaches a larger audience. Of course, prank news web sites aren't the only ones out there peddling misinformation. You can read our growing list of fake news web sites here and check out the following tips on how to spot fake news.