How to Tell When You're Reading Fake News (and What to Do About It)

Fake news has been around for years. "Hillary Clinton Adopts Alien Baby" and "World's Smartest Ape Goes to College" are actual headlines that once appeared on the front cover of the Weekly World News.

However, fake news has evolved over the years. It's no longer neither outlandish nor avoidable. The web -- and specifically social media -- has made it difficult to escape. There are websites out there dedicated to drafting stories that sound like they could be true—but they're not. Instead, they're misleading and misinforming the public. Even worse, they're trying to make you a crucial part of the delivery system.

Thanks to social media, people are quick to share, forward, and quote stories, graphs, and memes, with very little thought. In fact, a 2016 study by Columbia University and the French National Institute stated that 59 percent of stories shared on social media have never actually been clicked. So if you're not reading it, how do you know it's worth sharing?

Even with fake news running rampant on social media, a study by ReportLinker says that 32 percent of Americans still get the bulk of their news from Facebook. Are you in that group? Then you should know how to detect, avoid, and debunk fake news and other online myths/hoaxes. Here are five ways to tell if you're reading fake news—and what to do about it.

1. Read the Headlines

If a story sounds incredibly boring, you probably aren't going to read it. As a general rule, publishers try to create eye-catching headlines to generate reader interest. Of course, there's a fine line between interesting and outlandish.

"Alien Bible Found! They Worship Oprah!" is an actual headline from a May 2005 issue of Weekly World News. Sorry to keep going back to that magazine, but they really do generate some of the craziest, best fake news around. If it sounds insane, that's your first sign that it's probably not true. The problem, of course, is when something is plausible. Then you have to take other things into consideration.

Start by looking at other headlines on the same site. If the story you're interested in comes from a site that also features stories that seem outlandish, the main feature is probably fake.

2. Consider the Source

The Onion is a satirical website with headlines like "Poll: Majority Of Americans Approve Of Sending Congress To Syria." That may be easy to identify as fake news, but what's not so funny is when sites try to pass it off fake news as actual news. If the website or magazine is not reputable, chances are the stories are fake—or at least embellished. Snopes has a whole list of fake news sites to avoid.

Of course, there are also different types of fake news. Outlets are no longer limiting themselves to alien babies and Bigfoot sightings. There are a slew of sites out there, looking to divide the country with stories that are slanted towards a particular political viewpoint. Patent attorney Vanessa Otero recently shared a chart that breaks down several well-known sources, by reliability. While many may question some of Otero's findings, there's little doubt that the BBC, The Economist, Reuters, and the AP are typically considered to be pretty trustworthy on both sides of the political spectrum.

3. Check the Web URL

Many fake news sites have domain names that look familiar, but are slightly off. For instance, ABCnews.com.co, washingtonpost.com.co, and DrudgeReport.com.co are all actual websites—just not the ones you think they are. Instead, they are fake news sites, created by fake news kingpin Jestin Coler. Each of these websites were designed to look exactly like the site you're expecting, but note the extra ".co" at the end of the web URL.

If you visit these sites, you could easily walk away thinking that ABC has an article documenting the fact that Obama signed an Executive Order banning the Pledge of Allegiance.

Other sites rely on your bad typing skills to mislead you. One typo can actually take you to a website with fake news!

4. Fact-Check Your Sources

Although you probably don't have time or energy to check out every story you read, you should definitely consider doing some digging before sharing something on social media. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and Snopes are all reliable sources for fact-checking stories.

Image Credit: Screenshot by Rachel Cericola

Even a quick Google search could save you from spreading misinformation. If the story isn't featured on another recognizable site, such as the BBC, Reuters, The New York Times, or CNN, it's most likely untrue.

5. Install a Fake News-Sniffing Plug-In

There are several ways to debunk fake news without actually having to do a lot of research. We found a few simple software plug-ins that can spot fake news while you search the web.

Slate created This Is Fake, a plug-in for Facebook that identifies fake news stories and allows users to flag stories for moderators. FiB works in a similar manner, but B.S. Detector works with Chrome and Firefox, flagging actual websites as potential faux sources.

And remember to share with caution. If something is worth posting on your personal Facebook page, Twitter account, blog, or even in a comments section on another website, it's worth taking five seconds to do a little research. Stop fake news before it spreads!