Fake News

If fish could fly…(on fake news, again)

During a call-in to TRT World with anchor Ayça Aydoğdu, I mentioned an example of fake news which still baffles me as to how it duped anyone.

There was no time to go into detail or show the offending image on live on air, so let’s take a look at it now.

Back in June, an unlikely story was published on some newspaper/tabloid websites: a freak storm in China had caused waterspouts which apparently sent sea creatures hurtling through the sky and onto people’s cars.

Now, a few of the photos included in the article look genuine and realistic. A rainy scene, a wet windshield and small sea creatures. I can accept that, lightly, because the creatures are small enough to be transported by high winds and the wet conditions on the car seem to match the reported stormy conditions. The veracity of time and location of the photos is being taken for granted in this case and are as yet unverified.

BUT, none of that matters because the hero image of the article is this masterpiece of deceit / failure of image manipulation:


The caption reads This octopus was sent flying through the sky thanks to the storm (Picture: AsiaWire).

I’m amazed, nay, flabbergasted that this caught out so many people.

Let’s take 60 seconds to evaluate it, it’s all you need.

The story is about a storm, so we expect to see rain. Checks out. It’s raining on the windshield, which is causing distortion to everything beyond the windshield. But, my oh my, the octopus appears as an unblemished, perfect silhouette (alarm bell #1, really the only one you need in this case).

Even the colour of the octopus is just so uniform. Few things in life are like this, especially in a storm (alarm bell #2, bonus alarm bell). It almost, ALMOST (totally) looks like an illustration.

So, hey, how about we do a quick search for “octopus silhouette”?

BLAHM, here is the octopus falling from the sky:


When something is too incredible and dumbfounding to be true, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t, but just pause for 60 seconds and take in what you’re looking at.

You don’t have to be a Photoshop user to realise when an image has been altered (case in point, the Paris Hilton t-shirt example I discussed in my TEDx talk).

We can’t stop people from willfully creating images and stories for the sole purpose of deceiving people, but we can stop those “creations” from spreading.

Think of it as a nasty cold.

Viruses exist, but hey, if you cover your mouth when you sneeze, you’ll stop the spread (although seriously you should sneeze into your elbow if you REALLY don’t want to stop the spread).

Fake news fighting tools:

  • Google reverse image search: upload an image and let Google find where else it has been used (to verify context, time, etc).
  • Snopes.com: it will debunk all kinds of stuff, from politicians’ claims to news stories and Twitter posts.
  • FactCheck by Channel 4 News: similar to above, created by the well-respected Channel 4 News team in the UK.
  • Full Fact: UK version of Snopes.

There are so many more, guys. No excuses.

Stop the virus. Stop the spread. Take 60 seconds. (This metaphor/motto needs work.)

(This article was also published on Medium.)

Fake news is everyone’s problem

It’s heartwarming that everyone is paying attention to fake news at last. The brutal result of the election has jolted people into awareness, suddenly noticing a host of awful things around us which were really always there.

But fake news is nothing new. Remember the National Enquirer? It’s still going strong (internationally), showing its face at your local supermarket, ready to give you a compelling story about a boy who has a tree growing out of his mouth (not kidding, an actual example from the early 90s, I still remember the accompanying photo).

In the last week, all the news outlets have been talking about fake news simultaneously (BBCVoxBuzzfeedLA Times, Huffington Post). And that’s half the problem. Social media dictates that when one provider has a story, all others must follow. Like beacons on top of mountain peaks…once the first one has been lit, the others must follow quickly. And sometimes there is such a rush to light that beacon, that nobody’s looking what they’re setting fire to.

A year ago I gave a TEDx talk on the importance of verifying Facebook and Twitter posts before sharing. After the talk I was approached by many people who expressed their frustration at constantly seeing fabricated information online. This gave me hope, it made me think people were waking up to it and taking responsibility for their sharing.

But I was wrong. Things are getting worst. And while Facebook and Twitter can take some of the blame, the ultimate responsibility lies in the reader/sharer.

Responsible sharing is easy. Follow two simple rules:

  1. Is the source familiar to you or reputable? If not, verify (more on this below).

  2. If in doubt of a story’s veracity, don’t share. Stop the misinformation in its tracks.

We all have to be a lot more sceptical of what we read online. Use the “too good to be true” notion. Is the story too salacious (Denzel Washington chooses to vote for Trump)? Is it too perfect (Donald Trump’s “dumbest group of voters” quote)? Question timings and motivations.

Stop and take a moment

Have you ever shared an article without reading it? I hate to admit I have. Terrible habit, but it’s so easy to do when even reputable sources are using click-bait headlines. You share the article because you assume the content will reflect the headline, but most of the time you will find that although the title is technically correct, it is a deep extrapolation of the article’s actual content. This is terrible practice by news outlets, but we can also help this by reading the article we are about to share to our followers.

What is the source?

Before opening a shared link, you can easily see the URL of the source. Have you heard of it before? Do some keywords give it away as being extreme (freepatriotpost, americanpoliticnews, usanewsworld, donaltrumpnews, supremepatriot — all real examples)? It is likely these sites will not be run by professional journalists, but by people with extreme opinions and little regard for truth or balance. Verify or move on.

How can I verify?

This depends on the story. Denzel Washington voting for Trump is an interesting one. I came across this story after it was debunked, but hypothetically I would have checked if he has a blog (he doesn’t) or official twitter account (nope) on which he would have either declared his new allegiance or denied the reports. I would have then tried his agents, both website and Twitter, as they would be keen to also deny reports, perhaps releasing a statement (they didn’t). Ultimately, this is hard to verify and one that must be judged on a balance of probabilities and therefore best not shared.

Trump’s quote to People Magazine isn’t an easy one to verify, either. People Magazine does not have its archive online, although you can buy back issuesup to 2006. The next step would be to search for the image (reverse image search in Google) or the text and see when it starts existing online. Does it coincide with heated periods of the election? Is the timing a little too perfect? Moot point, however, as this was debunked by Snopes (an excellent resource) as far back as May, 2015.


Debunking and verifying can be time-consuming, but also fun. Sometimes it can take a minute or two, but if you’re going around in circles trying to verify something or you haven’t got time, check to see if any of these sources have done the work already:

According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, who has recently published a book on this topic, the incidence of misinformation and false news is so high because people have “hard time letting go of past beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming evidence or scientific proof”.

Gossip, lies and fake news have existed since mankind could communicate, so don’t expect any of it to go away any time soon. The power to stop misinformation is in your hands. If everyone does their duty to share facts, then social media will become a risk-free source of information.

Apparently, the top performing fake news stories on Facebook were more successful that the top stories from major news outlets during the US election. We can’t let this happen again.

Go forth and verify.

UPDATE: just this morning (November 18, 2016) I embarrassingly fell victim to fake news. It was reported that at demonstration in front Trump Tower in NYC, a protester held a sign that read “Rape Melania”. Thankfully, for so many reasons, this was later debunked by Snopes. It did not, however, stop #RapeMelania from trending.

(Article also published on Medium.)