The term “fake news” is one that entered the cultural lexicon only a scant 18 months ago, but while it’s certainly a new term, the concept behind the phrase is an old one. In the internet age, however, it goes one step further.
Fake news is more than just misinformation or propaganda:
Fake news is misinformation or propaganda dressed up so that it’s virtually indistinguishable from real news.
Fake News in History
Governments—and powerful individuals and organisations—have long understood the power of information, and of misinformation. And while few powerful institutions have throughout history been able to avoid the temptation, the real power of propaganda came to be seen in the 20th century, when newly-developed mass communication methods suddenly made it possible to distribute written material on a previously unseen scale. While such propaganda was controlled mainly by governments—and deployed most often during wartime—it nevertheless became a common enough phenomenon that most people began to feel that they were immune to it.
How the Internet Supercharged the Power of Fake News
Prior to the development of the internet, the process of creating and distributing information was infinitely more time-consuming. And it took just as much, if not more, time for organisations to build up enough trust for the material they distributed to have any significant effect. The internet has made information and news easily available and has contributed significantly to the blurring of the line between what constitutes entertainment, and what can be classified as news. It’s also made it much easier for individuals and organisations to engender feelings of trust in their target audiences, to the point where the must gullible amongst us often fall prey to scams, hacking, and other practices.
In short, the internet has fundamentally changed the way that we produce, distribute, and consume news and entertainment content—and there is no going back.
What changes have come about as a result of the internet?
- It’s increasingly harder to draw a clear line between news and entertainment.
- The boundaries that prevented widespread distribution of news are gone: news can be disseminated across the internet, across almost all geographical boundaries, in an instant.
- The news cycle has shortened considerably. For the most part, news happens, is reported on, discussed, and forgotten within a 24-hour cycle.
- Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, along with the ease of blogging Platforms such as WordPress, mean that anyone can comment on the news—can, in effect, make
- In the online environment there’s little to distinguish between legitimate press and members of the public.
All of these changes have contributed to an environment in which fake news flourishes and is highly influential. And with large numbers of both individuals and organisations not above using this to their advantage, fake news is increasingly harder to spot. The barriers that once made it difficult to create effective fake news are all but gone.
What is Fake News Today?
Not all fake news is the same. It comes in multiple “flavours”, which is one reason why it’s such a difficult problem to address. For instance there are three main types of fake news online.
#1 – Fake commercial content
Commercial content with a sensational twist, with a relaxed attitude towards truth. These stories are published to draw people to websites for the purpose of generating advertising revenue. Commercial-oriented stories don’t tend to support any particular ideology. Examples include sensational advertisements that claim a certain popular celebrity has died, a celebrity couple has married or divorced, or claims about the health-giving or weight-loss properties of a certain food.
#2 – Politically-oriented fake news
Partisan news sites. These sites tend to be obviously and outspokenly supportive of a particular political stance or party and publish stories that may have a grain of truth in them, but facts may be sensationalised or twisted.
The most egregious examples of the damage fake news can do can be seen in the events leading up to the 2016 US Presidential election, and in the months since. For instance:
- Two different news storiescirculated on Facebook, one claiming the Pope had endorsed Hillary Clinton for President, the other claiming the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump. Both stories were published by the same site, on the same day, and both stories were untrue.
- False claims that Hillary Clinton had sold weapons to ISIS, was the head of a child sex ring or that the Democratic party wanted to impose Islamic law in the US. Other stories claimed incorrectly that thousands of attendees at Trump events had chanted anti-Muslim and anti-Black statements. All of this was untrue.
#3 – Social media and fake news
The extent of the problem on social media became apparent during the last US election, although the extent of the damage was not fully known until recently. During that period, it has transpired, automated Russian Twitter accounts spent vast amounts of time disseminating fake news designed not to disrupt political candidates, but to undermine faith and trust in democracy itself.
One recent event demonstrates just how easy it is to create fake news that subtly but effectively undermines the truth:
Multiple white viewers of the Marvel movie Black Panther claimed they were assaulted by black movie-goers who, they claimed told them white people couldn’t see the movie. The alleged victims posted pictures on social media of wounds they claimed to have received. However, the photos they posted were stolen from elsewhere online and depicted violence that had happened in completely unrelated events. In short, the racially-charged events alleged by the movie-goers didn’t happen.
The Impact of Fake News
The impact of fake news is hard to quantify, partly due to the sheer scale of the numbers that researchers are working with. With 2 billion users on Facebook, and 330 million on Twitter, however, it’s obviously true that large numbers of people have come into contact with one or more types of fake news. In fact, during the 2016 US election, fake news got more hits and more views than real news in the weeks leading up to the election itself. And the hotly contested—and controversial—presidential race itself ensured that the public was ready to believe the lies.
Some analyses suggested that fake news has little impact overall, indicating that while up to 25% of Americans consumed fake news during the pre-election period, most people were consuming far more “real” news from official media outlets. However, even though the volume of media consumption may seem innocuous, the real problem is more insidious.
The real issue is that the proliferation of fake news makes it harder for people to know what’s true and what isn’t. Trust in traditional media outlets is at an all-time low, and large percentages of people are getting all their news from online publications and social media. As a result, the impact of fake news is likely to continue to grow, even as purveyors of such news learn more subtle means of disseminating fake or sensationalised content.
Lessening the Impact of fake news
On a wider scale, it’s hard to imagine closing this particular stable door. The horse has well and truly bolted—and fake news has already undermined public confidence in news media to a considerable degree. For those of us who are concerned enough to watch our own media consumption, some simple adjustments in media consumption can help.
First, always trace an article back to its original source whenever possible. If you’re reading news that’s three or four iterations removed from the original piece, chances are it contains errors or outright lies. And no matter what sources you’re reading, always question it—who are the publishers, who are the writers? What agendas, biases, or interests might they have?