Fake news is a term that has become part of everyday vocabulary. This article explores how the phrase came to be so ubiquitous, and what we mean when we say something is fake news.
What is fake news?
Donald Trump is given much of the credit for popularising the term fake news. During his run for president in 2016 he used the phrase a lot to describe media that gave negative coverage of his campaign.
The next year, in 2017, Collins Dictionary chose fake news as the word of the year, observing that the use of the phrase had increased 365% since 2016.
The definition of fake news, according to Collins, is: "false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting." In other words fake news is news stories that are presented as truthful and accurate, but that are in fact lies or misleading information.
President Donald Trump has continued to use the term fake news to describe media coverage that he sees as inaccurate, sparking a debate about what is meant by the term fake news.
How does fake news spread?
Many believe it is mainly robots that are spreading fake news. By robots we mean software programs that perform automated tasks. These are usually called bots. On Twitter, for example, these software programs can tweet and retweet messages a lot faster than humans can. However, according to a study about the spread of true and fake news published in Science in 2018, it is primarily humans, rather than robots, who spread fake news.
The study found that:
- Fake news stories were 70% more likely to be re-tweeted than true stories.
- It took true stories around six times longer to reach 1,500 people.
- True stories were rarely shared beyond 1000 people, but the most popular false news could reach up to 100,000.
On the other hand a study carried out by Carnegie Mellon University in 2020, looking at 200 million tweets discussing the coronavirus pandemic, saw that the use of bots was extensive. Of the top 50 influential retweeters, 82% were bots, they found. Of the top 1000 retweeters, 62% were bots. This represented an increase compared to results the university had found in previous crises, natural disasters, or elections. The researchers believe there has been an increase of ordinary users making their own bots, and also of companies using bots.
One interesting fact is that fake news spreads more quickly than real news. It is also clear that fake news reaches more people than real news. Why? One reason may be that fake news is more original than true news, and that people are more likely to share extraordinary information.
Why spread fake news?
Often fake news is spread by people who have an agenda. One example of this is what happened after the Parkland shootings in Florida in 2018. Many members of the NRA, a pro-gun organization, were afraid of losing their right to bear arms, and therefore spread news saying that the students who protested were actors. They also spread a picture that showed one of the survivors, Emma González, tearing up the constitution. The picture of Emma González was faked, but many people believed it. We tend to believe pictures more than words, so editing photos is an efficient way of spreading fake news.
When stories are written by people who have a certain bias it can easily result in fake news. If the person writing the text does not try to be fair and objective the facts can easily be distorted.
Creating fake news has also become a way to make money, and there are many sites that are devoted to the manufacture and spreading of fake news.
Deepfake is a term used about synthetic media which can create images, video, and audio using a person's likeness. This technology makes it possible to show someone saying things they would never say, or doing things they would never do. The technology is improving constantly, creating more and more believable results. In the future it may become harder than ever to distinguish fake news from truth.
When discussing fake news, we also need to look at the term media literacy. Media literacy allows people to access, critically evaluate, and create media. It is important to know that even though fake news is used to spread lies and gossip, the distinction between fake news and truth is seldom black and white. It is important for you to be able to spot the nuances in what you read and realise that there might be more than one side to the story. A question we might ask ourselves when we check facts and distinguish truths from falsehoods is: Why do people from different worldviews interpret the same piece of information differently?
Spotting Fake News
It can be difficult to separate fact from fiction, especially when stories pop up in our social media feeds. However, there are several strategies we can use to avoid being taken in by fake news.
- Consider who is behind the story. Where was this story first published? Is the source trustworthy?
- If the headline is sensational or shocking it is a good idea to fact check. Even on reliable sites headlines are created to generate clicks, and this may twist or obscure the truth.
- Consider how accurately the story is reported. Is it possible to point to where an event is supposed to have happened on a map?
- Think about how widespread the information is: Is the story reported on several trusted sites?
- Assess what evidence is given for the claims that are made. Is there more than one piece of evidence?
- Consider if the story may be propaganda. Is the issue presented as black and white? Does the story indicate that either you are part of a group or an enemy of it? Is only one side of an issue presented?
Echo chambers and filter bubbles
To most people the internet is way of connecting to the world. We need it to introduce us to new ideas. It should be a great source for democracy in our society. But this is not always the case.
The internet gives people the opportunity to seek out others who agree with them, and they may end up only listening to views that are similar to their own. An echo chamber is when someone's ideas are never challenged, only supported. If the ideas are wrong or harmful this can be a very bad thing.
Web companies strive to tailor their services, including news and search results, to personal tastes. This can have a dangerous unintended consequence: It can create a filter bubble which prevents people from being exposed to information that could challenge or broaden their worldview. If this happens it means that we are only getting the news we like.
Learn more about filter bubbles by watching the Ted Talk by Eli Pariser below.
Is fake news something new?
Fake news may seem to be part of the times we live in but fooling someone into believing a lie is nothing new. What has changed is how easily fake news is spread, and how ubiquitous it is.
Can fake news be stopped?
Stopping fake news is not easily done, but by thinking critically about the pictures and stories we are presented with, we can avoid being fooled, and we can contribute to not spreading fake news.
Danner, C. (2018). People Are Sharing Fake Photos of Emma González Tearing Up the Constitution. Intelligencer. Retrieved from: Article from Intelligencer about fake pictures of Emma González.
Ellyatt, H. (2017). Donald Trump's favorite phrase has become 2017's "word of the year". CNBC. Retrieved from: Article from CNBC about Donald Trump's use of the phrase fake news.
Fletcher, R. (2020). The truth behind filter bubbles: Bursting some myths. Reuters Institute. Article from Reuters Institute about Filter Bubbles.
Flood, A. (2017). Fake news is "very real" word of the year for 2017. The Guardian. Retrieved from: Article from the Guardian about word of the year 2017.
Kleinman, Z. (2018). Fake news "travels faster" study finds. BBC. Retrieved from: Article from the BBC about how fake news travels.
Libby, K. (2020). Deepfakes Are Amazing. They're Also Terrifying for Our Future. Popular Mechanics. Retrieved from: Article from Popular Mechanics about deepfake technology.
Slotten, Alexander. (2020). Slik avslører du falske nyheter. NRK. Retrieved from: An article from NRK in Norwegian about how to spot fake news.
Vosoughi, S. , Roy, D., Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news Online. Science. Retrieved from: Study about the spread of fake news.
Young, V. A. 2020. Nearly Half of the Twitter Accounts Discussing "reopening America" may be bots. Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science. Retrieved from: Carnegie Mellom University School of Computer Science's article about the study.
Zimdars, M. (2016). False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical "News" Sources. Retrieved from: Document about news outlets that present fake or biased news.