Fake News, Explained



The intersection of lie and truth

Maybe you saw a headline on your Facebook feed that was so shocking you had to share it. Or perhaps you saw a picture with a quote or caption that made you chuckle, or shake your head with dismay. You have probably heard the term “fake news” being bandied about more and more over the last several months, and with the storm of controversy swirling through the media, it’s tempting to throw your hands up and walk away, rather than try and sort out the truth from the tripe.

Don’t give up yet! We’ve put together a simple 5 step test to determine when you can believe your eyes--or when you need to close the tab. 

What “Fake News” Is and What It’s Not

The term “fake news” comes from an analysis on Buzzfeed News. Fake news is a somewhat misleading term, because the word “news” implies a trustworthy source. A better word for fake news is “hoax.” In November 2016, Buzzfeed News editors looked at false, hyper-partisan and unproven viral news stories--the kind of attention grabbing headlines you see on your Facebook feed. They compared the amount of times fake news stories and actual news stories--or stories from legitimate news sources like the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times or the major news networks--were shared on Facebook. They found that fake news had as much or more engagement as real news.

So fake news refers to a specific type of hoax story shared on the internet. "Fake news" is not, for example, an insult to use against a disappointing reality, nor is it a new phenomenon. Facebook has been tracking fictional stories since at least 2014. But the lead up to the 2016 presidential election saw fake news at an all time high.

But why would someone publish fake news? The first and most typical reason is, money. Websites sell ad space and generate revenue for each time someone clicks on to their page. The more sensational the headline, the more irresistible the click is, and the more cash the website owner makes.

How to Verify Stories

To demonstrate the fact-checking process, I’ll be going through a typical fake news story from the site World News Daily Report. The headline: “‘Little Old Lady Arrested’ for Making Fur Coats Out of Cats.” The following test is meant to be a holistic guide, not a one-size fits all model, for determining the credibility of things you read online. To illuminate that credibility, just ask yourself the six key questions you learned in school, but in a slightly different order: Who? When? Where? What? How? and Why?

  1. Who is publishing this story?

No byline on example fake news storyTo the left, you'll see our example story, where there is no author listed. Typically, the article author is listed near the title, where the red circles are on the image, or the very end of the article. 

If you can find an author, check to see if they have written anything before. You can do a Google search of their name in quotes, like so: “Houston Public Library”.

You can also check to see who owns a website at http://whois.domaintools.com/ or at https://whois.icann.orgThese websites allow you to perform a WHOIS search. Whenever someone registers a website address, they are required to enter their contact information. When you get to your WHOIS search, enter in the domain (the first part of the website URL). In this story, the domain of the website is worldnewsdailyreport.com, and it is registered to a proxy--which basically means that the people who run the site don’t want to be identified. While the lack of a known author or owner is not by itself an indicator of fake news, it should raise a red flag.

HPL News you can trust

You should always check the “About,” “Disclaimer” and/or “Terms and Conditions” pages for any website you visit, but particularly for news articles online. You'll find these pages in the top menu bar of a webpage or by scrolling all the way down. Frequently, these pages will explicitly state that the website content is fictional or satirical. 


HPL Disclaimer

Below, you'll see the Disclaimer on the example article site. It states that World News Daily Report "shall not be responsible for any incorrect or inaccurate information," but that it "assumes...all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content."

HPL Disclaimer






  1. When is the story from?

Check the date of the events described. Some fake stories repackage old headlines, in effect spreading misinformation. For example, this November 2016 post from the hyperpartisan blog The Gateway Pundit used a story from CNN Money as evidence that the election of President Trump had already spurred economic growth. Readers would have to follow the linked CNN article and read closely to discover that the story in question was actually from August 2015.

  1. Where is the website?

Carefully check the website address, which you can find at the top of the website, to make sure it is the website you actually want. Some hoax websites take advantage of common, hard to notice typos, like MSMBC (now defunct) versus MSNBC. Others use a technique called “spoofing” to trick readers into thinking they are using a website they can trust. One notorious example is the website “abcnews.com.co,” publisher of fake news classics like “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide” from August 2016. The real web address of ABC News is abcnews.go.com. It's pretty difficult to tell this is the real ABC News logo.

HPL abc news fake vs real

Some fake news sites mimic the characteristics of a legitimate news outlet quite well, under the guise of an independent affiliate or local newspaper. With innocuous names like the Boston Tribune or Baltimore Gazette, only close scrutiny uncovers the true nature of these sites.

  1. What is the claim a story is making?

Fake news stories are generally designed to exploit our basest instincts, our worst fears and our insecurities. When a story seems either too good or too horrible to be true, it’s a good time to investigate further. Always read the article, not just the headline. The underlying claim our example story seems to be making is that darkness lurks in even the most unexpected places, like the heart of an elderly woman.

  1. How are they supporting the claim they're making? 

In our story, the claim is supported only with pictures. If you are using the Chrome browser, you can right-click on an image and select "Search Google for Image." The first image search shows that this same picture is used for different news stories, with dates from February 2017 all the way back to 2013, and different names and ages attributed to the woman. 

6. Why does this site exist?

Again, it's always a good idea to check the "About Us" page. Compare, for example, the About Us description for World News Daily Report, our example site, and the About Us description for the Houston Chronicle.

World News Daily Report Houston Chronicle

World News Daily Report is an American Jewish Zionist newspaper based in Tel Aviv and dedicated on covering biblical archeology news and other mysteries around the Globe.

The Houston Chronicle, one of the largest newspapers in the United States, was founded in 1901 and was acquired by Hearst in 1987. In addition to delivering in-depth coverage of local issues, the Houston Chronicle is committed to covering state, national and international news. The newspaper operates a news bureau in Washington, D.C., that provides coverage of issues of special interest to residents of Houston and Texas. 

While you will not find much of biblical and archeological mysteries covered on World News Daily Report--only sensational stories like the one we've examined--you will find both national and local coverage on the Houston Chronicle website. 

If all else fails, and you are still not sure, try searching for the story on one of the following websites: FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, the Washington Post Fact Checker and PolitiFact.com.

Or, better yet, you can contact us by phone, text, chat or email! A Houston Public Library staff member will be more than happy to double check what you're unsure of and point you in the right direction!

Reliable Resources

Sign into these news and health databases with your library card.


The Houston Chronicle - Digital image edition of the Houston Chronicle, from Press Reader.

Newspaper Source - View the full text of regional, national, and international newspapers, plus transcripts of television and radio programs.

Press Reader - Access the most recent 45 days from over 200 papers, including the Boston Herald, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and more!

The Washington Post - Digital image edition of the Washington Post, from Press Reader.


Alt Health Watch

This alternative health database provides full text about complementary and alternative medicine dating back to 1990. 

Health Source: Consumer Edition

Provides information on many health topics including the medical sciences, food sciences and nutrition, childcare, sports medicine and general health.

Natural & Alternative Treatments

Contains information on conditions, natural and alternative treatments, herbs and supplements, and drug interactions.

--Carrie T., Central Library

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