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How To Identify Fake News on Social Media

Evaluate the motives behind online posts and learn to distinguish false content from real information.

When studying news sharing on social media in the UK, researchers Andrew Chadwick and Cristian Vaccari state that “in today’s media systems people may be more likely to encounter false and misleading information on a daily basis.” The difference between trustworthy and untrustworthy news on public forums has become a frequently discussed and occasionally volatile topic over the last few years.

Social media is an almost unavoidable part of our society now—can it be a trusted news source? Not always. Here are some ways to differentiate between misinformation and disinformation on social media, identify “fake news,” and stay accurately informed.

When looking at what constitutes “fake news” and how it gets shared on social media, there are two kinds of false information to be aware of—misinformation and disinformation. Researchers at Indiana University found these two types of information often go viral because “information overload and users' finite attention span limit the capacity of social media to discriminate information on the basis of quality.”

Because social media is a public platform, anyone—including news outlets—can post anything without being accountable for fact-checking. It’s left to users to distinguish misinformation vs. disinformation in their feeds.


What differentiates misinformation from disinformation is the intent of the person or outlet sharing it. In the previously cited study from Indiana University, misinformation is classified as “false or misleading content including hoaxes, conspiracy theories, fabricated reports, click-bait headlines, and even satire.” Misinformation is not deliberately intended to deceive. Instead, it aims to shape or change public opinion on a given topic.


Disinformation can be spread using many of the same tactics as misinformation—hoaxes, click-bait, fabricated reports. Disinformation is created to deceive. Chadwick and Vaccari’s study found that 24.8% of their respondents shared a news story they either thought was made up when they saw it or knew was exaggerated.

There are a variety of reasons that individuals’ social media accounts or even business accounts might spread disinformation. It could be to increase their social media marketing effectiveness, boost their online traffic, build more followers for their page or business, incite an emotional response, or create a distraction.

Disinformation can be dangerous on social media because, as previously mentioned, the sheer amount of information there and the length of readers’ attention spans can allow it to go unchecked.

If you want to become more media-savvy and be able to identify fake news, there are questions you can ask yourself. These questions will vary depending on what type of account you’re following.

Personal accounts

If you’re following a personal account and wondering about the reliability of news being shared, it’s important to ask questions and do research. Social media platform algorithms are designed for optimized user retention and engagement, and are not looking for misinformation or disinformation. A few questions that can help you identify fake news are:

  • Does the account that shared the post have emotional or professional stakes in these claims?
  • What is the content asking you to focus on?
  • Is this information reasonable?
  • Is it reputable, or does it cite reputable sources?
  • Why is it valuable to the account that shared it?

Business or professional accounts

With a business or professional account, the focus is audience-centered. Professional organizations’ social media pages should ideally be informative about the business’ goals and values. They should engage potential or current customers and be careful not to alienate them. In addition to the questions you’d ask of a personal account, you should also ask:

  • How am I serving my audience?
  • Will this alienate anyone in my core market?
  • How does this reflect on my business’s reputation or values?
  • Is this timely or relevant to my clientele?

Falling victim to misinformation or fake news with a professional or business account can have serious consequences, so being thorough and cautious before you post can go a long way.

Combating fake news on social media comes down to understanding the goals of fellow posters and of the platform itself. Social media platforms make money by selling user data to ad companies, which is why you’ll often see ads tailored to your interests or search history.

This is important to know for context. As an individual, being aware that the news you see on your feed is filtered based on previously collected data can help you be more conscious of your own inherent bias. If you represent a business using social media as a marketing platform, it’s important to keep your posts consistent with your brand, and share things on your timeline that build customer relationships, line up with your values, or showcase original content.

Fake news on social media may be unavoidable. But you can help stop the spread by thinking critically. Maintain a healthy level of curiosity for what you read on your feed, understand how social media platforms curate what you see, and use investigative practices often. Social media is a powerful tool, for both businesses and individuals, when approached with appropriate intent and consideration.

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