This story was first published on July 24, 2015
Many fake-news websites have appeared online in recent years. And more seem to be springing up all the time. Between them, they manage to churn out a seemingly endless stream of drivelling nonsense, at least some of which gets shared far and wide via social media.
Fake-news sites are successful because many people believe and therefore share their false reports. The more such stories are seen and shared, the more visitors the sites will get and the more money they generate for their owners.
So how do such sites trick people into believing and sharing their nonsensical stories?
Here are several techniques they use to achieve this:
1: They use URL’s That Look Like Legitimate News Site Web Addresses
Many of the sites use web addresses that appear to belong to genuine and well-known news sites. For example, one site that is responsible for a number of reports that falsely claim that various celebrities have died calls itself ‘msmbc’ and includes the letters ‘msmbc’ in its web address. Visitors who just glance at the name and web address may be tricked into thinking the site belongs to the television news network ‘msnbc’, which is owned by US news giant NBC. Many people will not notice that ‘m’ is swapped for ‘n’ in the fake site’s name and URL.
Other fake news sites take the deception a step further by using a web address that is identical to the targeted news site except that ‘.co’ is added at the end. For example, another fake-news site has the web address ‘nbc.com.co’. Many visitors will glance at the familiar ‘nbc.com’ part of the address and will not even realise that the added “.co” means that they are not on a real NBC website at all. There are more and more of these deceptive “.co” websites appearing.
Keep in mind that it is very easy for unscrupulous people to register a domain name that appears to be associated with a high profile news site and build a fake website that capitalises on this false association.
2: They present fake stories in news format
The fictional reports on fake-news sites are usually designed to look like genuine news reports. They use news style headlines, and are written in a way that emulates the journalistic style of popular news outlets. Like real news reports, the fake stories often include quotes from a relevant expert or official spokesperson to support their claims. However, the expert or spokesperson is imaginary and the quotes are simply made up.
Sometimes, the fake reports even link to other websites that seemingly back up their bogus claims. But, the linked website will itself be fake and may have even been created by the same people.
3: They hide their disclaimer or don’t even have one:
Some fake-news sites do have a disclaimer explaining that their content is fictional or satirical. That would be fine if the disclaimer was displayed where people who read the fake reports might actually see it. But, the disclaimer is often buried in an ‘About’ or ‘Terms of Service’ page that many people will not visit.
Or, the disclaimer might be included in the footer of the site’s pages. Again, many people will not see this disclaimer because they are unlikely to scroll down far enough.
And, alas, some fake-news sites don’t have any meaningful disclaimer at all.
4: They mix true stories with fictional reports
An emerging trend on such sites is to mix true stories with fictional content. If people visit other pages on the site they may encounter stories that they know are factual because they have seen them on legitimate news outlets. So, they may then be much more likely to believe the site’s fictional stories as well.
The sites generally make no effort to let readers know which stories are true and which are made up nonsense.
So, don’t get caught out by these tricks. If you come across a news report that sounds a little suss, take a close look at the site’s URL. Does it belong to a genuine news site or is it just designed to make you THINK it does? Have a hunt around. Does the site have a disclaimer somewhere that admits that its material is nonsense?
And, always verify any strange or unusual ‘news’ stories that come your way before you share them on your networks. A quick search via a news aggregator such as Google News will usually reveal if a circulating story is true.