Irish public warned to exercise caution over ‘fake news’

Concerns over false information increase ahead of European Parliament elections in May

The public should check the provenance of the news they consume in the same way they would check the history of a car they are buying, according to a new media literacy campaign.

Media Literacy Ireland (MLI) launched the Be Media Smart initiative this week to advise people how to spot so-called “fake news” or political messages disguised as news articles.

The term “fake news”, was initially used to describe - usually entirely fictional - online articles designed to drive internet traffic, before being adopted by US president Donald Trump to describe coverage of him that was unfavourable.

It is becoming an increasing concern for European authorities ahead of the European Parliament elections in May, with the campaign expected to see a proliferation of false information from online activists and foreign governments such as Russia. It is also often seen in the aftermath of major events and tragedies in an attempt to sell a political message or drive traffic.


For example, after the murder last week of 50 people in New Zealand at the hands of a suspected white nationalist, dozens of articles and videos appeared online stating - without evidence - that the attack was staged by the authorities.

According to a recent Europe-wide survey, 83 per cent of Europeans believe fake news is a threat to democracy and 73 per cent are concerned about false information being spread ahead of May’s elections. More than two thirds of respondents said they come across fake news at least once a week.


Governments and tech- firms have started attempting to combat the problem proactively. Last year France passed a controversial law giving power to judges to order the removal of “fake news” during election periods.

Twitter, Facebook and Google have vowed to increased transparency about who is sharing information on their platforms, with Facebook banning some of the more egregious spreaders of false information.

Media Literacy Ireland, which is part-funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), has outlined several tips for spotting false information (Newsbrands Ireland, which represents newspapers including The Irish Times, is a member of MLI).

“The Be Media Smart awareness campaign is built around bringing the same level of care to one’s information sources as one would of their food provenance or car history,” said Prof Brian O’Neill, chairman of the MLI Steering Group .

“Media literacy - our capacity to access, have a critical understanding of, and interact with the media - has never been as important as it is today.”

Consumers of news are advised to think about what purpose the news they are reading serves - is it designed to impart information or argue a point of view.

“Ask yourself whether the information challenges you or does it match your own views. We are more likely to believe information that supports our own views - even if it seems a bit dubious,” the campaign states.

Basic checks, such as seeing if a story is being reported elsewhere, or checking the author and web address of an article, are also advised.

“Information that comes from reliable and trustworthy sources is usually well written. So, watch out for typos and strange sounding sentences.”

The full list of tips:

- Read more than the headline. Headlines are designed to catch your eye but a headline won’t give you the full story.

- Don’t assume that a picture or photo is giving you the whole story. Tools like Google Reverse Image Search[U1] can help to fact-check images.

- Just because information goes viral or is trending, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Information can spread really quickly and easily on the internet.

- Think carefully about what the information is for. Look at the style, tone and source of the information to help you to judge how reliable or accurate it is.

- Consider your own biases. We are more likely to believe information that supports our own views - even if it seems a bit dubious.

- See if the information is being reported anywhere else If it’s not, then it could be because it is inaccurate, unreliable or out of date.

- Look closely at the web address. If the web address (URL) looks dodgy, look for an “About” section to learn more about where the information is coming from.

- Find out who the author, producer or publisher is. Knowing who created the information will help you judge what their motivation is.

- Look at the detail to check for accuracy. Information that comes from reliable and trustworthy sources is usually well written.

- Ask the experts. For a list of fact-checking sites across the world go to the fact-checking database created by Duke University’s Reporter’s Lab.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times