Fake news is a term that’s often thrown around, particularly in the wake of the 2016 US election. People sometimes use it as a buzzword to dismiss something they disagree with, which obscures the fact that it has become a widespread phenomenon. The popularity of fake news, and the dismissal of facts as 'fake news', has serious implications for democracy. We take a look at what fake news is, why it matters, and how to spot it.
What is it?
Put simply, ‘fake news’ is a term used to describe news stories that are deliberately untrue. It's a term that is in some ways problematic: UNESCO, for example, argue that the term 'news' means 'verifiable information in the public interest', and therefore any information that is untrue doesn't deserve the label 'news' at all. They suggest using the word 'disinformation' instead.
The spreading of disinformation to gain political advantage and influence opinion isn’t a new phenomenon. As early as the first century BC, for instance, Octavian ran a campaign of disinformation against his rival Mark Antony, portraying him as a drunkard and a womaniser. Today, however, with the popularity of social media, fake news stories can be easily made and easily spread. Research carried out for 'Science Magazine' in 2018 showed that false news stories reached more people online than true ones; the top 1% of false news stories reached between 1000 and 100,000 people, whereas the truth rarely reached more than 1000 people.
Why is it a concern?
Disinformation in the media is a problem on many levels. It can:
- Make people believe the untrue. False news stories often rely on emotive and sensational headlines. They appeal to peoples’ feelings and/or political beliefs. People then share these stories on Facebook and Twitter, which means more people believe the lies.
- Undermine serious media coverage and trust. The spread of fake news and the outrage the stories create can detract from the impact of genuine news coverage. It can also mean that people are less likely to trust authentic sources of information.
- Make it hard to find the sources. The internet can allow the people who create content such as news stories and videos to remain anonymous. Not only does this make people bolder in creating lies, but it also means that they’re hard to identify and shut down.
- Be ‘weaponised’. Disinformation can be used to unsettle governments, affect elections, and control public opinion. Such a powerful tool can be used by one country against another, as seen with Russia’s interference in the 2016 US election.
As a 2018 report carried out by the UK's House of Commons concluded, disinformation is used to 'distort what is true in order to create influence, to intimidate, to make money, or to influence political elections.' There are individuals, groups, and even governments who stand to benefit from the misuse of information. This includes:
- Those selling stories or getting ad revenue. Internet sites will often rely on ‘clickbait’ - fabricated stories with ludicrous or exaggerated headlines - to attract visitors and get advertising revenue. With so much information available to us, false news sources use outrageous claims to get you to click through to their website.
- Those who stand to benefit from influencing public opinion. Political campaigners and others who seek political or financial gain may use disinformation. A good example of this was the Brexit campaign - both sides made false claims in an attempt to sway the public.
- Those looking to cause unrest. When the truth is hard to find, and falsehoods offer conflicting and extreme opinions, it can be damaging to whole societies. A recent example is the ongoing genocide in Myanmar, where fake news has fanned the flames of violence.
What can be done about it?
Traditionally, journalism is a field that has a code of conduct. Writers at major news outlets have ethical guidelines that value accuracy, fairness, thoroughness, and informed stories. However, these days, it’s easy for just about anyone to create a ‘news’ website and spread disinformation on social media. Government bodies in Russia, France and Singapore (amongst others) are taking a stance against disinformation, and there are some ways you can spot and avoid fake news yourself:
- Check the source. If you’ve not heard of the media outlet that’s created an article or video, make sure you read their ‘about us’ section. Even if you think you know the source, check out their web address. Many fake stories try to mimic authentic sources by making minor changes to their address. (e.g. nbcnews.com.co [fake] instead of nbcnews.com [real]).
- Cross-reference. The best way to tell if a story is legitimate or not is to see whether other major news platforms are covering it. News providers such as Reuters and The Associated Press News tend to be fairly comprehensive in their coverage. You can also use fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and Full Fact to see whether what you’re reading can be verified.
- Look out for joke articles. One area that sometimes muddies the waters of what’s true and what’s not is satirical or spoof articles. Sites such as The Onion and Waterford Whispers News often create comical stories that, at a glance, look like genuine news. However, it’s not uncommon for people to fall for these prank articles and take them seriously.
- Think critically. If something sounds too outlandish to be true, there’s a good chance it might not be. In our guide What is critical thinking and why is it important?, we look at ways you can approach information rationally and objectively to determine its quality. These are skills that are essential for spotting disinformation.
- Escape the algorithm. Remember that social media sites have algorithms that learn what you like and show you more of the same, hiding other views from you.
If you’re looking for even more resources on disinformation and fake news, check out the links below: