False stories abound on the internet. And most of us will be taken in from time to time. But what harm will they do, and how can you spot when something isn’t what it seems?

Leah Hardy finds out…


Have you heard? Dialling 55 during an emergency call will get the police to come to your location, even if you don’t speak; in the Netherlands doctors killed a teenager because she had depression; and 5G phone masts harm your health*.

If any of these stories sound familiar, then you’ve been reading ‘fake news’. And it’s very likely you found them on the internet, watched them on YouTube or were sent them by a friend via WhatsApp. Claire Milne, the deputy editor of the UK fact-checking website, says, “The growth of social media and messenger apps means there are new ways to mislead, misinform and confuse people.” A single click can spread them to any number of friends and family. A US study found lies spread faster than truth and reached more people. The top one per cent of false news reached up to 100,000 people, while the truth rarely reached more than 1,000 people. False news is more likely to heighten our emotions – make us angry, sad, afraid – and we are more likely to share something such as this quickly and without checking to see if it’s true, if it’s current or if there is an ulterior motive behind its creation out of a need to keep people we love safe and in the same knowledge bubble as us. 

The term itself arose in 2016, during the US presidential election. False stories about Hillary Clinton deriving from Russia circulated on social media, damaging her chances of winning. The victorious President, Donald Trump, regularly appears to spread false stories via Twitter, while denouncing factual reporting as ‘fake news’. Recent events have seen Twitter attaching a fact-checking service to political claims – which hasn’t been received well by the President!

Mr Trump’s misuse of the term is one reason why fact-checking organisations say that the expression ‘fake news’ can itself be misleading. “What we call fake news is not simply one thing,” Claire explains. “On the one hand, it can be used to describe deliberate disinformation. On the other hand, we have misinformation, which we define as the inadvertent spread of misleading or false information.”


Where does fake news come from?

Accidental ‘fake news’ can include jokes that get taken seriously and shared as truth. One anonymous prankster who created a WhatsApp text claiming the recipient had been fined for leaving the house too often during the lockdown told the BBC that it would be ‘funny’ to scare people. Sometimes, fake news is the result of an honest mistake, or in the case of a viral video in 2012 which purported to show an eagle flying off with a toddler, it was the work of a student who had to make a convincing digitally altered video for their course.

Deliberate fake news is more sinister. It can be tricky to track disinformation to
a single source, but it may come from a malicious person or troll – a person who enjoys fooling or riling up people on the internet – or from political groups or conspiracy theorists who wish to sow discord, spread racism and divide societies. State-backed Russian hackers and trolls are widely believed to be behind a host of social media posts designed to interfere in elections around the world, often by using ‘hot-button topics’ such as immigration designed to stir up anger. For example, in 2018, a voiceover on a viral video claimed it showed a TV news organisation faking a scene of drowning migrants on a beach in Crete. The video, released via a Czech anti-immigrant Facebook page, rapidly racked up more than a million views on social media. In fact, it depicteda camera crew who were filming a documentary about the 1922 exodus of Greeks from Asia Minor.

A 2020 study looking at the origin of false health claims identified fake news coming from both automated users – spambots – and human trolls on Twitter. Bots are computer programmes designed to simulate human conversation, both written and spoken – like the automated customer service assistants that pop up on company help pages. As spambots are automated, they can tweet or post the samefalse information hundreds or thousands of times in little time. The study also found ‘content polluters’ – people who use fake news to lead people to click on links where every click leads to income for those behind the website.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Claire says, triggered a tsunami of false health claims. These included claims that gargling saltwater or heating your sinuses with a hairbrush – depending on which Facebook post you read – could stop the virus in its tracks. In April, social media posts claimed that one of the first people to be injected as part of UK human trials for a coronavirus vaccine had died. The supposed victim, microbiologist Dr Elisa Granato, who took part in the trial in Oxford, took to her Twitter account to say, “Nothing like waking up to a fake article on your death… I’m doing fine everyone.” False stories can be inadvertently amplified by celebrities, which makes it even harder to weed through the rubbish to get to the facts. Earlier this year, Eamonn Holmes was reprimanded after appearing to back 5G conspiracy theories on ITV’s This Morning. And certain communities, such as anti-vaccination activists and the far right, rely on spreading their message via false stories on social media. 


How does ‘fake news’ harm us?

“Misleading information has the potential to ruin people’s lives,” Claire explains. A recent study found that people who believe conspiracy theories – around 40 per cent of the UK – are more likely to ignore health advice and undermine democracy, making us less likely to vote. Stories about fake ‘natural’ cures for cancer may dissuade people from getting effective treatment. Research published by JAMA Oncology in 2018 showed that cancer patients who exchange their conventional therapyfor alternative medicine, such as aromatherapy or dietary supplements, are more than twice as likely to die in the same period as those who rely on conventional therapies.

Disinformation spread by the anti-vaccine movement has led to a fall in vaccination rates. In 2018, the UK lost its ‘measles-free’ status from the World Health Organization, after a marked increase in cases from the previous year. There were 991 confirmed cases in England and Wales in 2018, but just 284 in 2017.

In addition, conspiracy theories about 5G causing illness have led to arson attacks, such as on a mast serving a Nightingale Hospital in Birmingham, and Philip Jansen, the chief executive of BT, which owns the mobile operator EE, has said that 39 of the company’s engineers had been physically or verbally assaulted.


So why do we share fake news?

Most of us are taken in at some point by misleading or false news, Claire explains.
And we often spread stories out of the best of intentions. “People’s instinct is to share things that will keep their friends and family safe,” she adds. “We want to help. And
if a story provokes strong emotions such as fear or anger, we are more likely to share it without checking where it came from or if it’s even true.”

Carl Miller, the research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos, agrees. “It’s when we’re angrily nodding our head that we’re most vulnerable,” he says. “That’s when, above everything else, we just need to slow down everything that we do online.”

Claire agrees. “In the interests of our health and well-being, we have a collective responsibility to be aware, pause and double-check before we hit that share button.”


The fact-checking charity Full Fact shows how to recognise false or misleading stories before you share them.

If it doesn’t look right, be careful. False news can be on websites made to look like the real thing. Look for clues such as bad spelling.

People who make false news try to manipulate feelings. Making you angry or worried means they’re more likely to get clicks.
If it’s winding you up, check it before you share.

Beware of ‘experts’. Often, fake posts contain the names of doctors or hospitals in order to give them credibility. This doesn’t mean they are real. Google the doctor or hospital. Do they exist? If a post is attributed to, say, an anonymous nurse or a friend of a friend, then these are red flags that mean the advice is likely to be false.

If it looks too good to be true, it probably is. Hope can be used to manipulate
us too. Usually, the miracle cure doesn’t exist. World Health Organization, after a marked increase in cases from the previous year. There were 991 confirmed cases in England and Wales in 2018, but just 284 in 2017. In addition, conspiracy theories about 5G causing illness have led to arson attacks, such as on a mast serving a Nightingale Hospital in Birmingham, and Philip Jansen, the chief executive of BT, which owns the mobile operator EE, has said that 39 of the company’s engineers had been physically or verbally assaulted.

DON’T BE THE PERSON WHO DOESN’T SPOT THE JOKE. Jokes and satire online aren’t always obvious. If you spot something funny or with outrageous details, look at how it’s written, check the original site it’s on and ask yourself if it’s a satire, fake comedy news or parody news site. Popular sites include The Onion, The Poke, The Daily Mash and NewsThump but there are many more. 

CHECK THE DETAILS. Sometimes, photos or footage are real but mislabelled to make a political point or to be shared. Look at the surroundings. Are there any business or street signs, and does the language in them match up to where the uploader says it is? A picture online which claimed to be a giant pro-Trump and Tommy Robinson demonstration in London in 2018 is actually a religious gathering in Cairo in 2011. A closer look shows that people are praying, not marching, and the skyline has no London landmarks. 

USE YOUR COMMON SENSE. This seems out of fashion today! But if something you read seems far-fetched, trust your instincts and don’t spread it. 

IMAGES AND VIDEOS CAN BE FAKED. False news stories often contain images or videos that have been changed. Even real images can be made to look like things they’re not with a false date or caption. Check for the original (see the box on page 40) and look for the original date too – false stories often recur year after year. 

TRUSTED SITES TO HELP YOU CHECK WHAT YOU’RE SEEING IS TRUE for stories related to Africa ● McGill Office for Science and Society ● BBC Reality Check – check US political claims, science and health claims and false stories on the internet 



A graphic posted on Facebook in January was shared more than 6,000 times after it said ‘new technology’ allows police to track the location of a caller who dials 55 during an emergency call. But if a 999 call is silent, it will divert to an automated service that asks the caller to dial 55 if they need assistance. The call will then be forwarded to the relevant police force, if necessary. 

In 2019, I7-year-old Noa Pothoven died. She was said to have been killed by doctors at a euthanasia clinic in the Netherlands, sparking outrage. In fact, she was mentally ill and starved herself to death. Dutch newspapers reported that she had once approached a clinic in the hope of being helped to die, but was refused. It’s thought that issues with translation and a rush to print meant editors thought she had died at the clinic. 

Conspiracy theories around phone masts have been around as long as mobile phones have. According to the website, there were protests against 3G and 4G masts too. No study has ever found a link between phone masts and illness. 






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