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updated: 10/2/2017 4:07 PM

Need help sorting out what's fake news and what's not?

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For every bit of information in the newsosphere, there is probably a piece of misinformation competing with it.

The sources of misinformation can be as benign as a joke between friends jumping a firewall and spreading like wildfire as "truth" and as insidious as state-sponsored propaganda -- and all manner of things inbetween.

Satire -- whether stripped of its context or not -- can be passed along as gospel.

Clickbait farms produce stuff out of whole cloth for the sake of driving web traffic and ad revenue.

Those who support a particular viewpoint can manipulate facts or photos to try to draw support -- or denigrate their opposition.

Some people just thrive on creating chaos.

There is so much garbage out there that you might be inclined to just go with whatever grabs your eye and accept it as truth -- or perhaps the germ of a greater truth -- or you might be inclined to simply trust nothing.

We hope you don't take either path. Both breed cynicism, and that's bad for our country.

But there are steps you can take to help separate the wheat from the chaff.

What you choose to believe is up to you. If you're interested in becoming a more discerning consumer of news in its various forms, here are some practical ways in which to do so:

Consider context

The quickest way to determine something's validity is to consider whether in light of the news of the day the example given is too good to be true and whether it fully supports one opinion. As with most things, if it's too good (or awful) to be true, it probably is. The world is painted in shades of gray.

In the realm of social media, you'll likely have a photo to consider.

  - Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Take this pictured example of a social media post from Aug. 31 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. A group of people is shown blocking traffic on a highway. The headline says they were blocking relief efforts in Texas.

BuzzFeed.com, which has been doing a good job of debunking bogus news to come out of big crises, used a reverse image search to determine that the photo was from a Black Lives Matter protest in Boston in 2015.

While the reverse image search proves the image came from 2015, with just your eyeballs you can see that the protesters are wearing parkas and there is snow along the roadway.

If you were wondering, the high in Houston the day that was posted was 91 degrees.

Looting also was a big source of anti-black online rage during the hurricanes in Texas and Florida.

While police say there was some looting in Florida, some of what you might have seen on social media was faked.

A Twitter post shows a group of guys posing in a liquor store purporting to be looters during the hurricane bragging about breaking into a liquor store.

I won't show you that image, because there is profane language attached to it.

But I will tell you that the guys in the photo were wearing winter coats.

Do purveyors of fake news not realize that it's hot in Florida and Texas in the late summer? Perhaps not, but they're counting on us not noticing such details.

If the parkas weren't proof enough that there was some subterfuge afoot, the Twitter handle had been created days before and the Twitter account photo was borrowed from someone else.

Dig deeper

Oftentimes you don't have telltale inconsistencies to let you know something is fake. Sometimes you need to dig deeper to check something out.

Still, with a simple reverse image search, this one was easy to pick apart.

  - Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

There is no beating around the bush on this one. This Facebook post that showed up in my feed asserts that the wall you see is what Mexico built on its border with Guatemala.

An image search reveals that it is the wall Israel built four years ago on its border with Egypt to keep terrorists out and to keep African immigrants from crossing the border illegally.

Oh, and if you do a little research, you'll learn that there is no wall between Mexico and Guatemala.

Snopes.com did a good job of breaking this one down.

I read often in social media that people dismiss Snopes because, they say, Democrats work there.

It's a good bet that some Democrats do work there, but you can't use that argument to dismiss empirical evidence that Snopes provides readers. Snopes doesn't issue opinions or simply come up with a ruling; it shows you its homework.

  - Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

As Snopes did in this case, debunking a photo in which someone put Donald Trump's head atop John Daly's body, to make the president look larger than he is.

Signs of trouble

Some of the most problematic social media posts are easily manipulated photos: things with text on them, such as signs or, more specifically, celebrities holding signs, says Peter Adams, senior vice president of the News Literacy Project, which teaches just about everything in this story -- including some of these examples -- to high school students.

There are many websites that encourage you to create your own headlines, alter photos of celebrities and even use the source code for your favorite newspaper so you can create your own front page with stories you've created.

I won't list them here, because I don't want you to try this at home.

  - Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Remember that photo of Michelle Obama standing in the White House holding up a white sign?

I won't tell you what it said, because the version I saw is likely different from the version(s) you saw, many of which were created to rile people up. Memes using this basic image were used to make points both for and against the Obamas.

Celebrity sayings

  - Photo Illustration by Patrick Kunzer | Staff Photographer

Even easier to manipulate are photos of celebrities along with supposed quotes from said celebrities:

That collection of funny sayings on church signs that your Uncle Joe passed along to you? Very likely created on a website.

Vet the website

If you're trying to determine the veracity of a news story, here is a quick checklist of things to look for:

• Does it quote people directly?

• Does it name subjects?

• Does the story offer opposing viewpoints?

• Is there a byline?

• Does it have a "you'll-never-guess-what" headline?

Legitimate journalists worry about satisfying the first four things and avoid the fifth.

Look at the website itself.

Click on the ABOUT US tab to find out who is running the site and what its mission is.

Look at other stories on the site: Are they all from the same narrow point of view?

Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed's News Media Editor, has dug into the fake news phenomenon and exposed many hoaxes. Remember the one that had your celebrity of choice moving to a suburb near you?

Silverman also has looked at how a network of more than 40 "news" sites on the web has pumped out hundreds of fake news stories.

The origins of these websites are well concealed (another tipoff for the presence of fake news.) They are linked only by the account that takes in advertising revenue.

News or opinion?

Reading an opinion piece as news is one of the trickiest thing we all face.

Not all opinion is labeled as such, for starters.

Sometimes, the lines are blurred. This story, for instance, is a hybrid of sorts. I'm trying to provide you information that can help you separate fact from fiction, and in doing so I cite a number of examples and experts. But I'm also offering you advice.

In that vein, I urge you to consider whether something you come across is written as one person's or a publication's point of view or whether the writer is putting forth a report that presents various sides of an issue.

One thing to look for: If you find objectionable language and exclamation points in a piece, dollars to doughnuts it is an opinion piece.

Satire or truth?

It is said that satire points to greater truths, but what the Onion and The New Yorker's Andy Borowitz and other satirists do sometimes end up in your feed -- without sufficient context -- to leave you guessing about whether it's real news or not.

Know your friends

When you get a friend request on Facebook by someone who seems exotic but whom you don't know, take a look at that person's profile.

Just joined Facebook? Hmmm. No friends? Hmmm. No photos or bio?

It's very likely not even a human, no matter how cute he or she is in the profile photo.

It's very likely a scam artist or a bot. The former will probably start up a conversation with you and hit you up for money. The latter will infiltrate your feed.

If you get friend requests like this, just delete them.

• Jim Baumann is vice president/managing editor of the Daily Herald.

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