If it seems like something is too odd to be true, it probably isn’t.
One of the things I enjoy about this job is the chance to talk to groups in the community. And occasionally in these conversations, I’m surprised by things I take for granted that the people in the room don’t know.
One of them emerged more than once in the last couple of months as I talked to groups about “fake news.” It’s a way to tell real news from fake news.
So I’ll tell you about it today — my gift to you as Hanukkah begins and Christmas waits in the wings.
Now I’m not talking here about the political version of “fake news” — the one where politicians denounce legitimate news stories that portray them in a bad light as having been made up.
I’m talking about the kind of fake news that originated the widespread use of the term, back at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign — the kind that shows up in your Facebook feed because a friend posted it. The kind that makes you shake your head and wonder, could that possibly be true?
Things like whether the pope really endorsed President Donald Trump (he didn’t) and whether Hillary Clinton was really running a child-sex ring out of the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor (she wasn’t). And, more broadly, false stories of all kinds, from wrong reports of celebrity deaths to debunked Facebook posts saying human traffickers in nondescript white vans were using the vehicles in abductions across the United States.
If you’re asking whether there’s any way something could be true, there’s a good chance it isn’t. And there are several websites that will help you separate fact from fiction.
The Associated Press does fact checks, mostly of political news, at apnews.com/APFactCheck. The Washington Post does them at washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/. Our sister paper USA Today writes them, too — more than 7,700 checks at bit.ly/36r40QC, on subjects from impeachment to the factuality of the new movie about Mister Rogers to the question of whether Pope Francis and Pope Benedict really bonded over Fanta, pizza and soccer, as portrayed in a Netflix TV series. (Not really.)
The granddaddy of the fact-checking sites is snopes.com, founded in 1994 to look into “urban legends, hoaxes, and folklore,” as the website says. They’re not only reliable, but they’re fast. By the time your Cousin Fred has posted “Will and Jaden Smith Killed in Car Crash,” Snopes has often already published a story saying it’s not true. (And no, this one isn’t true, either.)
Because of the term’s political overtones, Snopes actually no longer calls things “fake news.” It prefers “junk news,” it says — as in junk food, nutritionally dubious, and capable of squeezing out more wholesome fare.
So when you see something that just doesn’t ring true, go to one of these websites and see if they’ve done a fact check.
Or go to your favorite search engine and type in some key words, plus the name of the fact-checking site: “Will Smith Jaden killed Snopes”
Then, ever so gently, you might post a link to the article debunking the hoax in the comments area of the original junk-news post. Use polite, caring words like, “I thought you’d want to know, Fred — this isn’t true.”
Spread some facts this holiday season — your own gift, not just to Cousin Fred, but to the world.
Lost and found
There’s a happy ending to the story of the 1953 wedding announcement of Alice and Bill Kearney.
As I wrote last week, a reader had found it, laminated and stuck to the bottom of a drawer, in an old end table. And she couldn’t bear to just throw it out, so she sent it to me.
The Kearneys had died in the intervening decades, but their daughter Betty Ann still lives in Cranston. She saw the item in last week’s column and emailed me.
So that family heirloom is now back in the hands of the Kearney family — another gift of the season.
— Alan Rosenberg is The Journal’s executive editor.
On Twitter: @AlanRosenbergPJ