How to spot fake news

In times of crisis, figuring out which news you can trust – and which you should not – is vitally important.

Picture of people accessing information on their smart devices

During a major crisis like a global pandemic, access to reliable information is critically important, as it can give us ways to effectively respond, act and avoid panic.

But when looking for information and advice online, it can be hard to know what’s real and what’s fake – a problem researchers say can be influenced by our own biases and stereotypes.

By developing artificial intelligence systems and collecting a range of online data over several years, UQ researchers have shown how bias and stereotypes affect the way we trust information. 

Data scientist Associate Professor Gianluca Demartini says the research shows that our background can determine how vulnerable we are to fake news. 

“We’ve observed a strong impact of people’s background on what they believe is true,” Dr Demartini says.

“In the political domain, participants who have a certain political idea are more likely to believe fake news (as assessed by experts) if it’s aligned with their political thinking.

“That is, if a US participant voted Republican at the last election, then they’re more likely to believe Republican fake news than the average reader. The same is true for the Democratic party.” 

How to spot fake news during the
COVID-19 crisis

According to Dr Demartini, people should be particularly alert to fake news during the current COVID-19 crisis, as some people and businesses will try to take advantage of the situation.

“Crises generally result in instability, but also create business opportunities due to panic buying behaviours and the willingness of people to invest their resources to safeguard their wellbeing,” he explains.

“Thus, spreading misinformation can generate demand for certain products, which will result in larger profits for someone.”

Dr Demartini says when assessing the credibility of information online, it’s important to look at the source.

"We need to separate facts from fear," he says.

“To be sure we can trust information and advice we find online, it’s best to only rely on and double-check the validity of information with trustworthy sources.

“For example, the World Health Organization and the Australian Government’s Department of Health website are good places to get accurate, up-to-date information.”

While Dr Demartini and his team have developed artificial intelligence systems that can detect fake news, he says the aim is to help people detect fake news for themselves.

"The goal of our research is to increase transparency on information sources so that social media users can assess the reliability of online information by themselves,” he says.

“In my opinion, this is key for the future of news on social media.”

Top 5 things to look for when accessing information online:

  1. What's the source of the information (is it a reliable institution)?
  2. Are there any conflicts of interest (who is the author working for)?
  3. What's the purpose of the information (is it trying to sell you products or services)?
  4. If the information is someone's comment or opinion, is there evidence from a reliable source to back it up?
  5. Do you have any particular beliefs (e.g. political preferences) that could be affecting your judgement?

Image credit: krisanapong detraphiphat/Getty Images

Picture of man reading on his smartphone

Contact details

Associate Professor Gianluca Demartini, School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering
Phone: +61 7 3365 8325

This article was last updated on 17 March 2020.

Opening image credit: VioletaStoimenova/Getty Images

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Dr Gianluca Demartini

Dr Gianluca Demartini

Dr Gianluca Demartini