Debunking misinformation and disinformation online is now a point of focus for many news organisations across the world, whether the teams consist of specialised fact-checkers or reporters who are taking on a new task.
The small team behind Lead Stories, a website highlighting trending stories on social media, moved towards debunking popular articles online a couple of months ago.
Maarten Schenk, who developed Trendolizer, the search tool powering Lead Stories, spoke to Journalism.co.uk about his process of finding these articles and looking for red flags that might point out they have no basis in fact.
Schenk set up a “fake news” dashboard designed with separate columns in a similar manner to Tweetdeck.
His searches are based on lists of “prank websites”, political clickbait sites with “two or three words in all caps” in the headline, straight up satire sites, and partisan left and right wing websites.
"A lot of the sites have hidden disclaimers," explained Schenk, adding that for political clickbait websites, an easy way to check whether the source quoted in the text is legitimate is by searching for a particular quote on other news websites known to be trustworthy.
The lists he pulls stories from add up to more than 600 sources, from satire to websites that publish pranks.
Certain websites he has found to regularly publish fake stories do not feature them on their own front page, populating it instead with news stories that can be verified.
For his fake news dashboard, Schenk also tracks specific hashtags as well as stories from particular websites, although monitoring these can be difficult.
Search results based on #fakenews have become polluted, he said, as the term’s meaning has been shifting. “The column has lost a bit of its power,” he added, pointing out that #hoax could also lead to good results.
In his work, Schenk has uncovered a network of websites that were set up to promote a film and a website where tags were a clear indicator the stories were made up – an article about Obama divorcing was tagged "Crime", "Have A Scone They're Delicious", and "You're An Idiot".
Trendolizer has also recently introduced a fingerprinting feature where data such as a Google Analytics ID can be extracted from a website and compared against others, making it easier to connect websites that are part of the same network.
Schenk told Journalism.co.uk the fight against misinformation online has so far been taken up only by "top down initiatives". "Our philosophy is to do it bottom up and give people the tools."
While Facebook is now targeting pages posting fake stories, Schenk has been turning his attention to groups, posting links to his debunks in the comments underneath posts.
At this stage, access to Trendolizer is priced at request, although a network of websites by Schenk, such as StoryTide or Trump Tide, publish links to the top 30 stories on a number of topics at any given time.
He is also hoping to find new partners for Trendolizer, to help expand its reach. "If we get 500 likes, we haven't made a dent in the story," he said.
Free daily newsletter
- Weekly journalism news update: virtual reality, WhatsApp audio briefings and TikTok
- Can TikTok save journalism? The Washington Post is set to find out
- Tip: Eight tools for detecting false news
- Weekly journalism news update: fighting misinformation, public service journalism projects, Instagram hashtag strategies
- What does content verification mean in the age of deepfakes?