Five Simple Ways You Can Expose Internet News Hoaxes

From time to time a clever hoaxer manages to fool the media with a fake press release, normally backed up by a fake web site.  Usually people do this simply to make a point, a tactic used very effectively by the culture jamming group The Yes Men.  More recently it was used by Taradeep Gill, a Canadian Web Developer frustrated by having to make websites compatible with older versions of the Internet Explorer website. To shame people into updating he issued a press release in the name of a non-existent company called Aptiquant that was alleged to have conducted a study showing that browser usage correlated with intelligence, with Internet Explorer users having the lowest. Sent through PRWeb, the release was backed up by a fake company website.  Some major media outlets were fooled by this hoax -- I will not name names to avoid embarrassing them -- much to the surprise of Gill.

At first I was surprised that such a amateurish release fooled major media but I have heard that some legitimate releases are also written just as badly, so I assume that everyone checked the company website, which looked superficially credible. It was, in fact, mostly copied from a real company website. So how could a busy journalist or editor detect a hoax like this?  Here are five simple techniques that would expose virtually all hoaxes.

STEP 1:  GOOGLE THE SUBJECT.  When you Google a company you would normally expect to see more than just the company's own website and perhaps the news release you have on your screen. Real companies leave a much deeper and broader trail, with pages on various websites, and especially on sites that are not easily faked. For example, I could create a fake company website and also create fake profiles for employees on LinkedIn, but I could not create fake pages on media websites or company registries. Compare the suspect company with a real one to see the difference.

STEP 2: USE GOOGLE TIMELINE TO CHECK HISTORY. Hoaxers rarely if ever create a fake trail that goes back several years because this would mean creating now some web pages for a hoax planned many years in advance. Thanks to an amazing Google feature called Google Timeline you can see the history of a search term visually. A real company will have likely have a trail going back a long time even if it is a young company; a fake was probably created very recently. To use this feature first search for something on Google, then on the results page click on "More search tools" in the left menu and then "Timeline".

STEP 3. CHECK WEBSITE REGISTRATION ON WHO IS. Since hoaxers usually create a fake website just before it is needed you can also look up the domain name registration data at "Who Is", the official registry of web domain registration at Network Solutions. This will give you the date and also the name of the person who registered the domain., Be extremely suspicious of very recent dates because a real startup will usually register their domain early, long before they go public.

STEP 4: CHECK COVERAGE ON GOOGLE NEWS. Another clue is in Google's handy news aggregator, Google News, which will show you which other media have covered the company. For an established company you would expect to see a broad coverage, not just in one or two outlets. Be suspicious also if only very small media have covered a story. It could be that they have not fact checked the news. But also be wary if a single major outlet has covered it because sometimes even the best get fooled.

STEP 5: GOOGLE THE PEOPLE:  Fake releases and fake websites always name a contact person simply because you might need to call someone. Another effective detection technique is to Google these people. Unless they are using the real name of a real person you should be able to check on the credibility of a name just by googling it. If the only reference is in the suspect press release then it is almost certainly a  hoax. Even if there are also a few profiles on social networking sites it might also be a fake. Look instead for those things that are hard to fake. For example, in my profiles it says that I am a board member of the French chapter of the IABC, something that can be verified on the IABC website.

In theory it should be possible to make a detection-proof hoax that would pass all of these tests, but to do this you would need to start years in advance of the planned hoax date, preparing a solid trail for the fake company and the fake people.  This means that you can detect any reasonable hoax simply using readily available search tools. Unlike company registration sites this approach will work for companies anywhere in the world. But if you ever do find a hoax that is undetectable using these five steps just let me know and I will find another way to detect it. There is always a way because the only way to make a perfect signature on the web is to make the real thing.

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