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How to Spot a Fake Press Release

Image source: Stanford University 4 mins read

The concept of misinformation is not exactly new to the global media landscape. What’s new, however, is how easy it has become to spread information and by extension, misinformation, on a grand scale. The growing rate of internet access across Africa and the increasing use of social media platforms are contributing  factors to increased information sharing in not only one’s country but also in the continent and by extension to other parts of the world.

As a consequence of technological advancement, it has become more difficult to identify original sources of news. Many people do not cross check the source of materials they view online before they share and this can lead to ‘fake news’ spreading quickly or possibly going viral. 

The result of misinformation can provoke serious consequences and threaten peace; therefore, critical thinking has become a necessary skill to combat this  “info-demic.” 

One way in which misinformation spreads fast is through fake press releases. Tampering with press releases has become very common, particularly now when governments are continually updating citizens on the state of their pandemic response or constantly putting out measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19. People distort information put out in press releases and sometimes simply create their own. 

Here are five ways, though not exhaustive, you can confirm the authenticity or spot a fake press release

  1. Check the Letterhead/Logo and Signatories
    Ideally, all authentic press releases should include the letterhead or logo of the issuer. To confirm the authenticity of a press release, make sure it has the logo of the institution on whose behalf it is being published. Also check the signatories. Is it signed? Whose signature is on it? Is it the head of the institution in question or an equally authorised personnel? If not, then you may want to question its credibility.
  2. Pay Attention to Quality
    With the growing use of technology to alter media, you may come across a seemingly authentic press release because it bears an authentic letterhead or logo. But pay attention to the details. Do you notice spelling errors, lots of ALL CAPS or bold words, dramatic punctuation (?!?!?!), inconsistencies with the font style and size, even subtle differences in the shade of white underneath the text as compared to the rest of the sheet? If yes, you may be looking at a fake document. (See examples of fakes below)
  1. Check Official Websites or Social Media Accounts
    Another way to confirm the authenticity of a press release is to check the website of the issuing institution. You are more likely to find an authentic press release on the issuing institution’s website or social media page. It is also helpful to check who else has posted the press release – you may check the accounts of other staff you may know or possibly credible journalists to see if they have posted about it. In Sierra Leone, official government websites have .gov.sl in their web address. Verified social media accounts have a blue tick.
    Sometimes, even though the institution in question may not have posted the press release, they may post a statement to debunk or counter the fake. You may find something like this –
  1. Compare with Previous Press Releases
    If neither the press release in question nor a statement to debunk it is available, it is advisable to compare and contrast with previous press releases. Usually institutions – especially government run, are consistent with font style, size and colour. Is the date usually on the left, centre or right? Do they publish in black font or blue? See if you can spot any differences (subtle or striking) between the press release in question and those previously published by the institution.
  2. Use your Contacts and/or Fact-checking Organisations
    If you do have contacts of employees of the institution or journalists who can confirm the information for you, then reach out to them and ask them to verify for you. You can also check fact-checking organisations in your country, if available to see if they have confirmed the authenticity of the press release.

While you cannot verify every single thing you read on the internet, it is strongly recommended that you fact-check before you share. There is a wide diversity of resources, reports, sites, and systems available to verify information and develop adequate awareness that will assist you in preventing the spread of fake news in the future.

The researcher produced this fact-check per the Dubawa 2020 Fellowship partnership with Africa Young Voices Media Empire to facilitate the ethos of truth in journalism and enhance media literacy in the country

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