By David Jenkin

Many South Africans woke to a distressing story in mid-September, alleging that Archbishop Desmond Tutu had died in hospital. A great many fell for it because of how believable it was, considering that Tutu was in hospital and had recently undergone surgery. Mainstream media outlets had to act quickly to confirm that he was in fact still alive and quell the Twitter storm that had erupted. Illustrating the global nature of the hoax problem, just days earlier the American actress Betty White was also falsely reported to have died.

As media update has reported previously, the reason for creating fake news is usually commercial interest, to generate traffic through advertising space. There are, however, sometimes darker political forces at work, but all hoax sites tend to operate in much the same way and have the same ultimate effect – sowing confusion and mistrust.

Fighting fake news

First Draft News is a UK-based resource for journalists who source and report stories from social media. On Tuesday, 13 September, they announced a partnership with 30 major news and technology organisations including Facebook and Twitter in an effort to combat the fake news scourge. The non-profit initiative serves to share knowledge, develop policies and devise training for journalists in using the social web as a resource.

First Draft’s managing editor, Alastair Reid, says journalists should be the ones on the front line fighting the spread of misinformation. “It’s difficult to cover every hoax story that’s out there but if something gets particularly popular and gets spread a long way by a lot of people, it’s really the journalists and news organisations that should be the ones to step up and say this is what the facts really are.”

He says that normal readers can also do their part by assessing the sites where these stories originate and determining whether or not they seem trustworthy. Readers need to exercise a “healthy scepticism”, he says, “especially around websites and sources that you’re not familiar with, and to see if there’s any other information out there to back it up. If it’s a true story then there should be.”

Verification tips

One of the biggest clues for identifying a hoax site, Reid says, is the images. A reverse image search on the pictures the site is using is a relatively simple process that can be done with a Google Chrome plugin called RevEye, which checks images against a massive database. “If you’re reading a story and it says one thing, and it’s a crazy story, and you do a reverse image search and the picture shows up with something different, then that’s a big red flag,” he says.

Another big clue is the sources quoted in the story, he says, such as a local law enforcement spokesman. If a Google search finds that individual’s name in only that one story, it would be cause for suspicion.

Writing for the urban legend and hoax debunking site,, content manager Kim LaCapria points out that the date of a story warrants attention as sometimes old stories are recycled and the issues raised have long since been resolved. She further advises readers to look at other stories featured on the site in question. “If their body of work consists entirely of shocking, outrageous, and too-good-to-be-true stories, they’re probably making it all up,” she writes.

Geography can be another clue, she adds. Hoaxers often assign stories to locales in countries where news reports are difficult to verify. “Language barriers and perceived cultural differences make it easier to fabricate tales about foreign countries,” she writes, adding that China and Russia are popular choices.

In addition to investigating individual rumours and reports gaining attention, Snopes features a page dedicated to listing the worst fake news offenders in the US online market, a list which is regularly updated.

Reid says that since it has become so much easier to fabricate news and publish it online, it is necessary for the public to acquire some basic media literacy. For example, no legitimate news story should feature only one source. “If you only have one source telling you something then that in itself is suspicious and it needs to be checked out and thoroughly investigated,” he says.

Fooling the pros

Sometimes even legitimate media is duped and fake news stories are picked up and reported as truth. Reid says; “Unfortunately, sometimes at some organisations, it doesn’t get checked because they’re like well f**k it let’s just run it anyway, we’ll get the clicks, we’ll get the shares and then we’ll check it out later. With news organisations doing that, it damages trust between the audience and the organisation.”

A story that recently made headlines in a number of mostly British tabloids was about a newborn gorilla at a zoo in China that, following an online vote, had been given the name Harambe McHarambeface. Journalists at BBC News were suspicious and investigated further, discovering that the Jinhua Zoo, in fact, had no gorillas at all. The source of the report was a site called The Boston Leader, a fake news site with the strapline “Bringing you Boston’s best news since 1932.”

BBC News reports; “While the site strives to look like a proper news website - with headlines for real local, national and international news - look a little closer and things get a little hazy. Click on a headline and you tend to get an error message rather than a story.” In addition, the site contains no contact details and although their headlines seemed largely plausible, mention of any actual current events was conspicuously absent.

BBC weren’t able to track down the site’s owners as they had taken measures to hide their identity, but they did turn up the tweet which likely inspired them – a user suggesting the name Harambe McHarambeface for a baby gorilla born at the Philadelphia Zoo.

Have you noticed the rise of fake news online? Tell us in the comments below.