Fake news. It's always been with us, but in the last year or so, the term's gone mainstream. Here's the thing though — While the rest of the world has honed in on the political implications, fake news is happening just as much in fandoms. As a writer in the Entertainment sector, I'm regularly having to double — and even triple-check news to ensure that it's not fake. So here are some of the top tips I've noticed that might help us all stop falling for fake news...
1. Consider Your Sources
On November 19th, 2015, the world was shaken to learn of the death of Miley Cyrus. According to the website Now8News, the singer — at the time just 23 years old — was found dead in a bathtub:
"Miley Cyrus’ lifeless body was found by her entourage in a bathtub at her Hollywood home on Wednesday, authorities revealed. Los Angeles investigators are trying to determine the cause of death. Officials refused to comment on reports that the famed actress/singer drowned from a prescription pill overdose. They have, however, made it clear that there were no signs of foul play."
Of course, that didn't happen. Now8News is a clickbait site that's set up to deliberately look like a local television news outlet, and it traffics in this kind of celebrity death hoax all the time.
That's the first thing you always have to do with anything you read on the Internet; consider the source. Is the site reputable? Does it have good industry contacts? Can you trust the writer in question?
Here's one test I've found particularly helpful; if the article isn't breaking the story, does it have a link to its sources? A lot of clickbait sites — and clickbait writers — will try to hide their sources. If you scroll down to the bottom of this page, you'll see that I tend to list external sources at the very bottom, with links, so that you can go straight through to them. (For the record, this Miley Cyrus example is lifted straight from Snopes, the popular fact-checking website.)
2. Beware Social Media
On May 5th, 2017, someone decided to set up a Facebook page purporting to belong to the actor David Schwimmer — better known to Friends fans as Ross Geller. They then uploaded an image teasing that Friends would return in 2018, with this caption:
"It has just been made official
All 6 cast members have signed on
we're back for ONE more season!!"
Unfortunately, Facebook's fake news reporting system doesn't work on images. It took the social media platform two days to take the page down, in which time the image had been shared 270,000 times and had accrued over 190,000 comments.
This was a relatively harmless one — nobody received money from adverts here, after all. However, this does raise a couple of crucial points. First, beware of images — particularly memes. There are a lot of 'superhero fact' memes going around, and they're almost all unsourced. Personally, I'd say probably about 60% of them are true.
In politics, some fake news sites are using images to their advantage. They share some cool memes, hoping you'll click 'like' on their page to get more of the same. They then start drip-feeding fake news into your newsfeed, and then you're just one unwary moment away from inadvertently sharing it. Just because something's in your newsfeed, doesn't mean it's true.
Secondly, though, always check the profile. Is it really associated with the actor / director / writer in question? Look for the blue check-mark of authenticity over on Facebook, do a quality-check and look for mis-spellings and an empty 'About' page. Do a quick search to see if they actually have another Facebook page (David Schwimmer does, and he's fairly active on it). Don't just believe it to be true.
Time for a confession: In October 2016, I fell for a news story that may not have been fake — but was certainly out of date. I follow several entertainment sites using their RSS feeds, but sometimes that goes wrong and an article that's a year old pops up as though it's fresh. In this case, I was excited to read that HBO was in discussion about a Watchmen TV series, and I wrote a thrilled article about it. My mistake was in not checking the date-stamp — the article was written in October 2015, and there'd been no news about this possible series for a year. When one reader rightly pointed out my mistake, I swiftly edited the piece to make this clear.
Always check how up-to-date the information is.
Another thing worth keeping an eye out for; April Fools Day. A lot of websites deliberately publish fake news stories on April 1st each year, and it's just a bit of fun. Unfortunately, of course, Google doesn't know these are April Fools jokes, and keeps bringing them up in search results even years later. I'm an admin on Facebook's largest MCU Facebook group, and you wouldn't believe how many fans are convinced we're getting a She-Hulk Netflix series. In reality, of course, that story came from an April Fools joke that's now two years old.
4. Don't Just Read The Headlines
Sensationalized headlines are a part and parcel of journalism nowadays, and that's why it's important you always read beyond them. Look for the evidence supporting the claim. And keep asking — so what?
Take, for example, a popular story that's doing the rounds right now. Dave Bautista, who plays Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, has made a comment about how he's convinced Marvel will buy back the rights to Spider-Man from Sony. That's being treated like breaking news — but, really, the question is: So what?
Why would Dave Bautista be in the loop about highly sensitive negotiations between Marvel and Sony? He doesn't even have anything to do with the Spider-Man franchise. Despite seeing this headline appear on a number of sites, the reality is that this is just another opinion, aired by someone who actually has nothing to do with the events in question. Bautista was just chatting freely, so it really wasn't worth all the excitement.
Question everything. Don't just read the headlines; engage with the content, and ask why you should care.
5. Spin And Opinion
Every writer has their own opinion, their own slant. I tend to write with an element of first-person, wearing my personality and opinion on my sleeve as much as possible. Sometimes, though, the slant is less obvious, and the biases are more nuanced.
In April 2017, Marvel Comics — struggling with poor sales - held their first Retailer Summit of the millennium, engaging directly with comic book distributors. One quote from a key figure at Marvel, David Gabriel, went viral:
"What we heard was that people didn't want any more diversity. [...] We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against. That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked."
Marvel, we were told, was blaming diversity for poor sales. Some sites were smug and self-satisfied, declaring that they'd been right all along and Marvel should never have tried to embrace diversity across their range. Others were furious, insisting that diversity was right and good, and that Marvel shouldn't be blaming diversity like this. Everybody believed the story because, in the words of Stephen Colbert, it possessed an innate 'truthiness' — it sounded believable.
In reality, the quote was pulled out of context. If you read the full notes from the Retailer Summit, you'd see comments from retailers — and from Marvel — insisting that they were still excited about their new, fresh, diverse ideas. David Gabriel was talking about a sales slump in October 2016, and was simply conveying what retailers — and fans — were saying at the time. Gabriel went on to question that assumption, and to put it in context. The problem was, everybody latched on to this one paragraph and it was then spun beyond Marvel's control.
6. Just Because You Don't Like It, Doesn't Mean It's Fake
Here's the catch, though; just because you don't like the news, doesn't mean it is fake. For months, rumors circulated that Ben Affleck was considering stepping down as writer and director of The Batman. Although both Affleck and Warner Bros. continually denied this, the rumors still spread like wildfire — until, finally, he did just that.
When you read a rumor like that, the first thing you should ask is — does this site have a good reputation? If a rumor's being broken by a top-quality entertainment site, and they claim sources from inside the company, odds are they won't be willing to damage their reputation by making things up. Someone really has said something to them, and of course they're going to report it.
But don't just believe it, even then. After all, you have no idea who their source was, how in-the-loop they are, or whether their source has an agenda. Look for corroborating evidence — particularly, for other sites breaking the same rumors independently. In the case of those Ben Affleck Batman rumors, they were independently shared by eight different sites, all of whom claimed sources inside Warner Bros.. The rumors had a high chance of being accurate and the studio's constant dismissal of them didn't really mean anything — of course the studio would deny something like this.
As fans, we want the things we love to be successful, so we instinctively defend them. But that love can actually blind us to real problems, and lead us to regard real, genuine news as nothing more than fake. Fans of the DCEU, in particular, are understandably feeling defensive right now — and that means they're dismissing actual news stories because it's simply not what they want to hear.
One final tip in regard to fake news; be humble. Every one of us will fall for fake news sooner or later — there's too much of it out there. Follow these top tips, but all the time be willing to be corrected by someone else. For me, as a writer, I can only make the same commitment; I will test everything, but if I come up short, I'll be grateful to my readers for pointing it out.