7 ways to spot real facts from fake news

From fake news to online reviews, it’s increasingly challenging to sort fact from fiction. Here are some tips to become a more critical media user, and tactics to actively manage your online reputation.

By Abigail Murison

As our newsfeeds fill up with stories about the US presidential election, it’s hard to believe that both “fake news” and “alternative facts” – now a top-of-mind concern – only came into daily use during the 2016 campaign.

While most of us are savvy enough to ignore clickbait headlines like “How to achieve results using this one weird trick”, more subtle alternative facts related to businesses and individuals – including online reviews of businesses – can have real-life risks and impacts.

Question of trust

According to a 2020 Reuters Institute study, 76 per cent of Australians source news online – including from social media. ABC News, Australia’s public broadcaster, is the news source Australians trust most. While 39 per cent get news from Facebook, only 17 per cent claim to trust the news they get via social media.

How can you spot alternative facts and fake news? The Harvard Division of Continuing Education offers some suggestions.

  1. Research the publisher. Follow the url and read the “About us” information to find out more about the publisher’s positions and history. Some publishers will deliberately choose a url that is similar to a well-known, reliable publisher (the now-defunct abcnews.com.co is one example) – don’t be fooled.
  2. Research the author. Check the author’s byline to find out what else they have written and where their stories have been published.
  3. Consider the language and grammar. Most reputable publishers employ editors and sub-editors and will have few or no spelling and grammatical errors in their articles. 
  4. When was the story published? Old stories may be “recycled” and taken out of context.
  5. Check the sources. Who is quoted, and what sources are provided for claims within the story? Stories with few or no quotes or sources should ring “fake news” alarm bells.
  6. What about the pictures? You can do reverse searches on images to check they aren’t being taken out of context, and that they haven’t been digitally manipulated.
  7. Consult fact-checking websites. Snopes, ABC Fact Check and the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network all investigate and debunk alternative facts.

Online reputation management

At the more local level, we rely on online information and reviews to help us decide which companies and businesses to deal with. BrightLocal’s 2019 Local Consumer Review Survey found that 90 per cent of consumers use the internet to source a local business, and 82 per cent read local business reviews, reading an average of 10 reviews before trusting a company.

That’s bad news if you have negative reviews: 82 per cent of respondents said they are less likely to use a business that has negative feedback.

For businesses, this means that monitoring and managing your online reputation is more important than ever.

“Conversion rates increase in line with positive online reviews and active online reputation management,” says Binh An Nguyen, founder and CEO of Market Ease Digital.

To respond to online content – good or bad – you need to know it’s been posted in the first place.

“If you haven’t claimed your online listings yet, claim them. It’s very simple. Google your business name and look in the Google Maps section for ‘Claim this business’. Once you claim a listing, you’ll get notifications anytime a review is posted, so you can stay on top of things,” Nguyen says.

You can also set up Google Alerts. Put your business name or personal name in quotation marks as the alert phrase, and Google will let you know if any new content is indexed that matches that name or phrase.

“There are also tools such as Reputology that you can use to keep track of online mentions and reviews,” adds Nguyen.

Good and bad

Not all bad feedback is false or malicious: in some cases, constructive criticism can help a business improve. In others, it’s a chance to demonstrate great customer service.

“Many people judge a business by how they handle negative reviews. They understand people aren’t perfect and how you respond to negative feedback can win them over,” Nguyen says. “Don’t react to reviews: respond. Be professional and empathetic.”

Another way to counter negative reviews online is to drown them out with positive reviews from happy customers. While you shouldn’t pay customers for reviews, you can ask for their honest feedback.

“The best time to ask a customer for a review is when they have just had a great experience,” Nguyen says. 

“For example, we work with Hyundai and Subaru, and we advise the dealers that when they hand over the keys to a new car, they wrap the car with a bow, and offer to take a photo of the customer with their new car. They can then ask if they may post the picture on social media and also get a review.”

Fake reviews

What if you receive a negative review and suspect it’s fake? Nguyen says there are some tell-tale signs to look for to identify reviews that could be false.

“First, check the reviewer’s name against your customer database or ask your sales team if they recognise the customer. Then, look at the reviewer’s activation date. If a review was left on the same day an account was activated, it’s more likely to be fake. 

“Another sign is when the reviewer’s profile is incomplete: there’s no picture and other details are missing – there’s just a name. I also look at the number of reviews. There may also only be one or a few reviews if it’s a fake.

“Some signs a negative review could have been left by a competitor are if they post very few reviews, but all within the same industry or area.”

Even with suspected fake reviews or reviews that give you a poor rating but with no supporting detail, it can be near impossible to get an internet platform to remove content on your say-so alone.

“It is very difficult to compel a company like Google to remove a one-star review. Among other things, in the absence of commentary, it will be difficult to argue that the review is false or misleading, and so relevant legal principles may be unhelpful,” says Michael Douglas, senior lecturer in law at the University of Western Australia, and consultant with law firm Bennett + Co

Legal options

In some instances, you may have a case to sue for defamation under Australian law. Recent changes to the legislation mean that individuals have no cause of action unless they suffer serious harm: in the case of a company, either corporate reputational harm, or serious financial loss.

“Defamation is a tort – a basis for suing,” Douglas says. “The tort requires that defamatory content be published. If the communications are just between two people and about no one else, they aren’t actionable. 

“In order to be defamatory, the comments must damage your reputation: that is, make the public think less of you. Mere abuse is ordinarily not defamatory.

“Relevant to businesses, some persons cannot sue for defamation. Large businesses cannot sue – they lack standing. However, if a review identifies a human person, like a staff member, then that person could potentially sue in their own name. Professionals such as accountants and doctors may fall into that category.”

In February 2020, an Adelaide lawyer sued a reviewer who had left negative reviews about his firm online, resulting in losses estimated at more than A$600,000. The reviewer was ordered to pay him A$750,000 in compensation, plus costs. While the actual individual reviewer was sued in that instance, other businesses can choose to sue the platform that hosts the reviews.

“There are three tiers you might sue. Tier one is the internet intermediary, which could be a company like Google or Facebook. Making them liable is tricky but not impossible.

Tier two could be an online group or a website, which is easier to ascribe liability. Tier three is the person who posted the review. You might sue multiple tiers at once over the same content,” Douglas says.

Online reviews can be anonymous, but lawyers have tools to find out who posted an anonymous review. For instance, they can compel a website to reveal their online sign-ups. In extreme cases, they can even compel telcos to reveal reviewer details. In the worst case, if the reviewer can’t be unmasked, then you may still be able to sue the platform.

“It is worth getting legal advice because there could be unique options in your circumstances,” Douglas says.

On notice

“The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [ACCC], Australia’s consumer watchdog, wants to make platforms like Google and Facebook take greater responsibility for the information displayed on their platforms and in searches,” Nguyen says.

Online platforms can be considered publishers in certain circumstances if they provide access to defamatory content. However, they must be made aware of potential defamatory content on the platform otherwise it may be considered innocent dissemination.

“That’s why it’s important to use the online tools provided to report or flag negative feedback or reviews: it can put companies on notice,” Douglas says. “Another option is to send a lawyer’s letter, asking them to take down the content.”

Ethics online

CPA Australia members are bound by the APES 110 Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. As internet and social media users, we have a responsibility to keep ethical principles in mind when sharing online content or posting reviews.

“Don’t write a review if you’re angry. Write a draft and sleep on it before you post anything spicy,” advises Douglas.

“Tell the truth and be kind. Consider offsetting negative feedback with positive: for example, ‘the service was poor, but the end result was good’. You might also decide that if you have nothing nice to say, it’s better to refrain from saying anything.”

An alternative is to contact the business privately – not publicly. There’s no defamation risk because it must be public communication.

“A private communication is just a one-on-one chat,” Douglas says. “You may find the business appreciates the feedback and is willing to make things right.”

What if you’ve posted a review and later regret the post, or you discover the information you have provided or shared online is fake news? 

Users are able to remove and edit their own online reviews and delete and unshare social and web posts – usually by going to your profile and clicking the top-right corner on the offending post to access the unshare/delete option.

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