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4 simple steps to debunking fake news stories


The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

The four key elements of a successful fake news story.

  1. Emotional appeal
  2. Veneer of authority: Story traces itself back to a leak or statement or something that supposedly happened.
  3. Effective insertion point into the online space.
  4. An amplification network (like Twitter or Facebook)

A successful fake news story has these four traits, Ben Nimmo, information defense fellow at the international affairs think tank Atlantic Council, said Thursday.

Outlets that want to debunk fake news need to consider which of these four elements of a fake story is “the weak link in the chain” and attack from there, Nimmo said. “Is it a case where, for example, you see this story about the French election but that was posted online by an alt-right operative in the U.S.?”

Nimmo was speaking on a French election debriefing conference call hosted by the Factual Democracy Project and MisinfoCon. Also on the call was First Draft News’ Claire Wardle, who helped oversee a large-scale French fact-checking effort during the election. “We saw very little ‘fake news’ in the traditional sense of ‘100 percent fabricated text content,’” Wardle said. “We saw lots of images and manipulated visuals that I think, over time, had a drip, drip, drip effect. The anti-Macron, anti-immigrant examples that were easier to believe shifted into the mainstream relatively quickly.”

Some “really nasty” stuff, meanwhile, didn’t make it as far outside niche groups, suggesting that fake content that is too extreme will not spread. Wardle pointed to a recent BuzzFeed article on the “psychology of what works” with fake news.


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