Few people used the phrase Fake News before 2016. The rise of social media and online platforms means misleading information can go viral. Fake News has regularly appeared in the headlines. Many people see it as one of the greatest threats to Western democracy and free debate.
Fake news becomes all the more dangerous as the world confronts the challenges of the Coronavirus virus (COVID-19) epidemic. The need to identify fake news has become all the more urgent.
This article can assist journalists and members of the public alike to distinguish between reliable information and fake news.
It also explains why fake news is such a problem and gives some useful information on how to identify fake news and disinformation.
What is fake news?
Put simply, fake news is a lie. It’s deceptive and deliberate. It refers to events that never occurred, or it uses quotes that were never said. So, a story about Barack Obama supposedly “admitting” that he is a “secret Muslim” is fake news – he never said it. It’s a false quote, it’s made up, and it did not happen.
In its purest form, fake news is completely made-up, manipulated to resemble reliable journalism and attract maximum attention and, with it, advertising revenue.
However, the term “fake news” is being more widely, and often wrongly, used to cover all kinds of inaccurate material, some of which is not deliberately faked. Indeed, fake news is rapidly becoming a catch-all term to discredit all kinds of stories, true or false. So, let’s be clear as to what fake news is and what it is not.
- Fake news is intentionally deceptive and contains stories that are inadequately researched and entirely fabricated, usually for political or commercial gain.
- These bogus news stories depend heavily on wildly exaggerated headlines, manipulated pictures and arresting graphics in order to grab attention.
- Fake news is disseminated through a range of channels. Bogus news sites are deliberately created to look like real news sources in an attempt to fool people into believing the story is genuine and legitimate.
- As well as being distributed through unregulated internet-based social media, fake news may also be picked up and unintentionally distributed by the traditional print and broadcasting news media.
- Fake news stories are provably false but have enormous popular appeal.
The fact-checking website PolitiFact has come up with a more colourful definition: “Fake news is made-up stuff, masterfully manipulated to look like credible journalistic reports that are easily spread online to large audiences willing to believe the fictions and spread the word.”
What fake news is not
- Mistakes – a news story unintentionally containing a wrong fact
- Rumour – a report of doubtful truth, for instance, “police investigating rumours of a human trafficking network”
- An article in which the writer expresses their personal opinion with which someone disagrees
- Spin – for instance, providing a favourable slant to a news item to play down a potentially unpopular policy
- Tabloid journalism – sensational crime stories, gossip columns about celebrities or extreme political views
- A misleading headline sensationalised to attract the reader’s attention
- Reliable information that someone simply wants to undermine or factual evidence a politician wishes to discredit.
Although such journalism may be misleading in one way or another, fake news is distinctly different. It is deliberately made-up.
Why fake news is a problem
The proliferation of fake news stories has become an increasingly serious problem. Even so, the deliberate fabrication of news to fool or entertain is nothing new.
What differs today is that most people get their news from social media sites, rather than television or newspapers. Fake news travels rapidly on social networks and originates from a variety of sources. These include pranksters, foreign governments and enterprising individuals who hope to receive advertising revenue by driving traffic to their websites.
Because it exaggerates and sensationalises, fake news readily attracts an audience. Although the story may be inaccurate and untrue, it can appear newsworthy and easily stimulate interest. So, as you would expect, it could score highly on a checklist of news values.
The internet, in particular social media, has fuelled the spread of all kinds of disinformation. In today’s brave new world, anyone with a computer can be a publisher with access to the whole worldwide web. Because of the sheer volume of available information, it becomes increasingly difficult to check out its veracity.
Such is the scale of the problem that the World Economic Forum has defined misinformation as one of the world’s most urgent problems.
How fake news can turn deadly
The Pizzagate conspiracy theory that led to a shoot-out
In Autumn 2016, the personal email account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign manager, was hacked. As a result, WikiLeaks obtained his emails and subsequently made them public.
False claims were made that the emails contained coded messages referring to human trafficking. Moreover, they connected several US restaurants and high-ranking officials of the Democratic Party with an alleged child sex ring. These claims went viral on several social media outlets including 4chan and Twitter.
A 28-year-old American read these and packed an assault rifle into his car. Then Edgar Welch, a father of two, drove from his North Carolina home to Washington DC, a distance of nearly 500 miles. He walked into one of the restaurants, the Comet Ping Pong pizza shop and fired three shots. He then began to search the premises in the belief that they were running a child sex ring from their back room.
Welsh said he was investigating online claims that one of the Presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton, and her campaign chief were involved in human trafficking.
He had been acting on “fake news”. Fortunately, on this occasion no one was injured, and Welch surrendered to police.
Pakistan’s nuclear threat against Israel in response to fake news
Less than three weeks later another fake news article sparked an even more extreme, and potentially lethal response. The article included a fabricated quote attributed to the Israeli defence minister claiming that Israel had threatened Pakistan with a nuclear attack if it sent ground troops into Syria. This prompted his Pakistani counterpart to respond by tweeting a thinly-veiled threat towards Israel “reminding” it that Pakistan is a nuclear power that will strike back if attacked.
Mr Khawaja Muhammad Asif’s ominous threat on Twitter, available to the whole world to see, was a response to an article that was completely bogus. The original story appeared on the website AWD news, a site known for peddling outrageous conspiracy theories.
Fake rumours of child abduction lead to mob lynching of two men
In the last two instances, common sense prevailed. But, in August 2018, rumours of child abductors spread through Mexico on the private messaging service, WhatsApp. The rumours, which were fake, had fatal consequences in the small town of Acatlán. A mob burned two local men to death , before anyone checked their innocence.
The two men, 21-year-old Ricardo Flores and his uncle Alberto Flores, a 43-year-old farmer had been taken into the police station in connection with a minor incident.
Following rumours on What’sApp that a plague of child kidnappers, involved in organ trafficking, had entered the country, a crowd gathered outside the station.
Despite police saying that there was no evidence the men had committed any crime, the mob, whipped up in part by local agitators, had a different version of events.
One local resident live-streamed events on Facebook via his phone, while another alerted locals that the police had plans to release the two men.
The crowd wrenched open the narrow gate at the entrance to the police station and dragged out the two men. As people held their phones aloft to film, the two were pushed to the floor, savagely beaten to death and set on fire.
How fake news spreads
The arrival of social media has provided a new and highly effective platform for spreading all kinds of information. Internet technologies are optimised to encourage widespread sharing.
Social sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, make sharing easy. Just about anything can go viral. Soon they flooded the internet with fake news. People were beginning to believe it.
Despite a healthy public scepticism about improbable news stories, social media have added an authenticity to fake news. Facebook is about friends talking to and sharing events with friends. If your friend shares a story with you, you will be more likely to believe it – because you trust your friends. And so few people have been taking the trouble to check out dubious stories.
The rise of fake news
The explosion of the internet has opened up a plethora of information, but it has also made the news-flow vulnerable to the strong possibility of fraud and abuse.
Social media have left the field open, as never before, to the politically motivated or those who have the financial incentive to peddle fake news.
The rising tide of this made-up news relies heavily on sensationalism, half-truths and outright lies. Eye-catching pictures often accompany the text and grab the reader’s attention. The more unlikely a story is, the more likely it will attract attention.
There are hundreds of fake news websites out on the world wide web. They range from those deliberately posing as real-life newspapers to government propaganda sites. They also include those which tread the line between satire and outright disinformation.
However, most people use social media for personal reasons. They may simply enjoy passing on an interesting story, or thought-provoking information, or even indulging in a little harmless gossip. With the increasing use of social media, people who do not read newspapers, or even watch television, resort to its platforms for their news. These sites present real and fictional stories in such a similar way that it can be difficult to tell the two apart.
The problem is not that fake news exists, but that people are too eager to accept and forward it without a second thought. Too many readers believe these stories without troubling to check out their truth. As a result, they allow those who traffic fake news to do their thinking for them.
A reputable journalist will seek out stories that are in the public interest. The fake news writer focuses only on things that engage people’s attention, the outrageous, the sensational, the unthinkable, the incredible.
Such stories will more likely be those one disagrees with – those we hate, or that enrage us. In other words, events and ideas that stir up strong feelings. And before we know what’s what, we’re telling everyone else about it.
Fake stories and their headlines can easily get more attention than real news. When fake news confronts you, think rationally. Fake news writers know how to grab your attention. And they have no regard for truth or accuracy.
- … creates confusion as people don’t know who or what to believe
- … erodes trust and undermines effective communication
- … gives rise to widespread mistrust of all news sources, reliable as well as dishonest ones
- … encourages prejudice and poisons civic dialogue
- … obstructs effective decision making which must be based on reliable facts
- … divides communities and threatens the cohesion of liberal democracy
- … frustrates government in pursuit of its legitimate objectives
- … undermines human rights
How to spot fake news
Rigorous fact checking can take time. So, if a story comes from a trusted friend, that might be a good enough reason to believe it and share it.
People, bombarded by loads of information, find it impossible to see everything that comes into their news feed, let alone fact-check every item.
Sorting fact from fiction
Scrutinise the story
Read the story carefully and ask yourself these questions:
- Does the story sound believable to you?
- Has the story been reported anywhere else? On the radio, TV or in the newspapers?
- Where has it come from?
- How much evidence do you have?
- Who’s telling you this story?
- Does it all add up when you look into the details?
- Check for spelling or grammatical errors. Well-researched articles are typically read and re-read before publishing.
Remember mixed in with all the fair, factual, and well-researched reporting may be something more sinister: fake news or information that seems accurate, but is in fact downright false. Half truths can be more deceitful than outright lies.
Consider the publisher
Play detective and do your research
- What is the name of the organisation creating or hosting the content?
- Is the source one that you recognise and trust?
- Investigate the site, its mission or “About us” section, and its contact info.
- Ensure the story comes from a publisher with a reputation for accuracy.
Look closely at the URL
Be cautious of website URLs that are made to look official or real. A splashy looking website can contain fake news.
Some individuals trick users by using domain names to imitate a reputable organisation. Fact-checked fake news from “abcnews.com.co” is not the actual URL for the division of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).
- Do a bit of searching:
- Is this one you recognise and trust?
- Are there any other web addresses sharing this story?
Look beyond the headline
Be sceptical of catchy headlines. Fake news headlines are often dressed up to grab attention. Many can contain lots of capital letters and exclamation marks. If claims in the headline sound unbelievable, they usually are.
- Be sceptical of outrageous headlines.
- Look at the language people are using.
- Watch for unusual formatting.
Are there lots of capital letters, exclamation marks, random characters?
Many fake news stories often contain spelling and grammar errors, as well as an awkward looking layout.
- Read beyond the headline.
If a provocative headline draws your attention, read a little further before passing on fake news. Even in legitimate news stories, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story.
- Does the headline match the content of the article?
A headline should provide you with an idea of what the entire article is about or arouse your interest in a genuine story. But it can also be used to persuade you to believe something without reading the full article.
Check the author
Do a background search on the author. Check for the author’s name. Is the name available or is it missing? Most authors who put time into a well-researched article will likely have their name attached to it. So…
- Who is the writer?
- What is their occupation?
- Are they credible?
- Have they written articles before?
- Are the articles well-researched?
- What is their track record like?
- What are their credentials and qualifications?
- Does the author work at a reputable organisation?
- Are they an expert in the field?
- Could the person involved in the story have been there at the time?
Look at other reports
Validate a story is by comparing it to similar stories broadcast by other agencies. If no other news source is reporting the same story, it could indicate that it is false.
- Search to see if there are similar articles written by other news organisations.
- Read multiple news sources to see how it is being reported.
If no other major news organisation is reporting this big shocking story, you might want to be careful.
Scrutinise pictures and photographs
False news stories often contain manipulated images. Also, a photo may be authentic but taken out of context.
- Search the internet to find out where the image came from.
- Check the source.
- Who’s posted it?
- Where and when was it posted?
- How many times has that picture been used before?
If it’s been used many times, it may not be an original. It might even have even been used for another story.
- If the news item includes a video, check this out too.
- Does the photo or video look normal?
Check supporting sources
Look carefully at any named sources in the story. Lack of evidence, or a reliance on unnamed experts may indicate false news.
- Check the author’s sources to confirm they are accurate.
- Click on any supporting links.
- Determine if the info given actually supports the story.
- Check the evidence.
Check the date
Do the dates match real events? Reposting old news stories doesn’t mean they’re relevant to current events. Some false stories aren’t completely fake, but rather distortions of real events. These deceitful claims can take a legitimate news story and twist what it says — or even claim that something that happened long ago is related to current events.
- Check the date.
- Do the dates add up?
- How important is the date? Does the date match the published article?
- Check the timelines make sense and have not been modified.
Is it a joke?
Is it satire? If the text is too outlandish, it might be. But satire and fake news are not the same thing. When it’s satirical, fake news can include several revealing signs. Even so, some readers may believe a satirical article is real. So, is the story just a joke?
- Research the site and its author. Check whether the source is known for parody.
- Do the story details and tone suggest its humour is simply for amusement?
Satire is a form of humour which uses exaggeration or irony to expose hypocrisy, abuse and other shortcomings. It’s usually funny. Fake news is that abuse, and no one is laughing
Be on the lookout for bias. What is the purpose of the information? To inform, to persuade or to sell?
- Is the article informative in some way?
- What information is it giving you?
- Think critically about the information you’re receiving and be sceptical.
- Can you verify the facts?
- Are sources offered? If so, can you evaluate them?
- If there are links on the page, where do they take you?
- Is the article trying to sell you something? What looks like a news article might actually be an advertisement.
- Is the author trying to persuade you to believe a particular point of view?
- Ask yourself why the author might hold this point of view. Is it objective? Is it biased?
- Who benefits from you thinking that way?
- Are there any other reasons why someone might want to spread information, or misinformation?
Check your own biases
This can be testing. Are your own views or beliefs affecting your judgement of a news report?
Bias leads people to put more stock in information that confirms their beliefs, and discount that which doesn’t. They tend to select stories that reinforce their cherished beliefs. We thrive on propaganda when it suits our purposes but seethe with indignation when other views run counter to our pet prejudices. So, be sceptical and take time to check out yourself.
- Consider if your beliefs could affect your own judgement
- Listen to others
- Keep an open mind.
- Analyse the situation
Ask yourself are you sharing something because it’s really true or just because you want it to be? Make your views informed by the facts rather than the other way round.
Consult the experts
Yes, you’re busy, and some of this debunking takes time. So, here are some useful fact-checking sites:
- FactCheck.org is a non-profit website which monitors the accuracy of U.S. political stories.
- PolitiFact verifies political news stories.
- Snopes fact-checks internet rumours and stories. For instance, their checks could determine whether that post your cousin shared on Facebook about the diagnosis of coronavirus has any merit. Indeed, on 5 March 2020, Snopes warned of an incorrect assertion about the diagnosis of COVID-19. It had gone viral on Facebook and was “potentially dangerous”.
- BBC Reality Check. In 2017 the BBC set up team to debunk to fact check and debunk deliberately misleading and false stories.
- FactCheck is run by UK’s Channel 4 News and was launched as a blog in 2010
- The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) is dedicated to bringing together fact-checkers worldwide. The IFCN which sets a code of ethics for fact-checking organisations. It reviews fact-checkers to ensure they comply with its code.
- And finally, your local library. Remember library databases can also be good resources for confirming the credibility of information.
Keep searching for the facts
As Winston Churchill once said: “A lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
Traditional media operate on an uneven playing field. Reputable journalists cannot take refuge in anonymity. By comparison, those who publish fake news can hide behind fake websites and ignore libel laws.
If people are inundated with inaccurate and untruthful news stories, how can they fully understand the world around them?
Without critical thought, people perceive reliable journalism as being no better than made-up stories. When people fail to distinguish between the two, it becomes an easy descent into a cynical way of thinking that nothing can be relied upon and everything is false, and that’s okay.
The forerunners of fake news
Fake news has its roots in history. Misinformation, lies and deceit have been around since humankind could speak.
Writing fictional stories that play on people’s fears and constructing outlandish conspiracy theories is not new. Nor is it illegal. Governments and powerful individuals have used information as a weapon to quash dissidence and boost their reputation for millennia.
Bending the truth for political or economic gain can be a part of propaganda, and records of its uses stretch back to ancient times. The Romans were doing it before the birth of Christ. Octavian, for instance, famously used a campaign of disinformation to further his victory over Marc Anthony in the final war of the Roman Republic.
Era of mass communication
In the 15th century, a new force was unleashed. The invention of the printing press launched the era of mass communication. The resulting increase in literacy changed European society for ever, giving rise to new opportunities for circulating information, both true and false.
News sources were available aplenty. They ranged from official publications by political and religious authorities, to eyewitness accounts from sailors and merchants who had travelled overseas.
From these sources, there also flowed exaggerated and false news, from spectacular stories of sea monsters and witches to sensationalist propaganda and outright factual errors.
Snippets of news were usually a single paragraph, some made-up or misleading, and some true but compromising. They reached a peak in eighteenth century London as newspapers began to circulate among a broad public. By 1788, London had ten dailies, eight tri-weeklies, and nine weekly newspapers.
Reliable news and information were hard to verify. There was no concept of journalistic ethics or objectivity and readers in search of fact had to be sceptical and ready to question.
By the early 19th century, printing had expanded, and modern newspapers arrived on the scene peddling scoops, exposés and fabricated stories to increase their circulation.
With the growth of the New York penny press in the 1830s, some newspapers looked to advertising to boost their revenue.
Publishers resorted to ever more distortion and exaggeration, sensationalising news to bump up their readership and attract more advertisers.
This practice gave rise to some of the most memorable media hoaxes and widespread fabrication in the history of news reporting.
The Great Moon Hoax
One outstanding example is The Great Moon Hoax. Published in the New York Sun over several days in the summer of 1835, the series falsely claimed a highly regarded English astronomer had discovered life on the moon through a giant telescope. This “moon life” reportedly included unicorns, two-legged beavers and flying “man-bats” – furry human-like creatures with big wings.
These strange life forms would not have seemed so ridiculous to people unaware of evolutionary theory and living only 24 years before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species (1859).
Hundreds of thousands of readers believed the story. Indeed, several other newspapers believed and republished worldwide before they realised the hoax. The New York Sun’s circulation increased dramatically setting up the newly emerging paper as an instant success.
Sensationalism has always sold well. As newspapers battled for circulation, distortion and falsification became a fast path to profitability. This practice peaked by the late 19th century.
Even the New York Herald, one of the most widely-read and respected newspapers in the 19th century, got in on the game. A cover story in 1874 claimed animals had escaped from their cages in the Central Park Zoo and were rampaging around New York City killing several people.
The article prompted widespread panic throughout the city. Police were mobilised, schools were closed, and men rushed into the streets with guns to hunt for free-roaming beasts.
By the end of the 19th century, the media had discovered its growing power to manipulate public opinion by sensationalising stories and exciting public emotion for the simple purpose of increasing circulation. This practice became known as “yellow journalism.
The whole point of yellow journalism was to produce exciting, sensational stories, even if it meant stretching the truth or making up a story. These stories would boost sales, crucial in this period when newspapers and magazines were battling fiercely for readership.
Pulitzer and Hearst
This practice peaked in the mid-1890s characterising the sensationalist journalism that arose in the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal.
The two proprietors raised their circulation by producing a new kind of newspaper – papers that appealed to the mass-market. They used large headlines with lots of pictures and illustrations and articles that had scant regard for the truth.
Critics accused both papers of exaggerating the news and falsifying information in pursuit of profit, even though they did serious reporting as well.
Because Hearst controlled so much of the market for newspapers, he could practically dictate what the country would think the next day.
Some historians accuse Hearst and Pulitzer of trying to instigate the American war against Spain in 1898 because they believed war would boost the sale of their newspapers. When one of his freelance artists confidently predicted there would be no war, Hearst famously replied, “You furnish the pictures, and I’ll furnish the war.”
The role of the newspaper industry in this war foreshadowed the increasing importance of the media in shaping public opinion with regard to future wars, not least the First and Second World Wars.
Ironically, in later life, Pulitzer redeemed himself by setting up the much-coveted Pulitzer Prize which continues to make annual awards for journalistic excellence.
The return of quality journalism
Inevitably, the appetite for sensationalism began to wane and publishers started to turn their hand at rebuilding public trust.
In 1896, for instance, the ailing New York Times came under new ownership and refocused its efforts on objective journalism and business news.
Other publications followed suit. For several decades readers could buy a newspaper in the expectation of the news actually being accurate and true.
Newspapers reached their peak of importance during the First World War. This was partly because wartime issues were so urgent and newsworthy.
Following the First Great War, the US economy boomed on the back of mass production techniques and growing efficiency. Meanwhile, the UK faced a period of depression, deflation and economic stagnation, which lead to high unemployment and widespread poverty.
As a result, the Britain press began to undergo a similar metamorphosis which lead to the birth of tabloid journalism. However, this was under very different economic circumstances from America’s yellow journalism.
Free gifts and other inducements
During the 1920s and 1930s, the scarcity of money and fierce competition for circulation affected newspaper sales badly. Moreover, the sharp global economic downturn in 1930-31 further hit the British economy.
Thus, publishers found themselves forced to seek alternative ways of maintaining their readership. One ruse was to introduce incentives. The Chronicle had already offered readers who registered with it insurance compensation for the effects of Zeppelin air raids in 1916.
By 1924 most of the London dailies had begun offering bargain insurance inducements. The Mail paid out more than £1 million by 1928 and the Express was not far behind.
Soon newspaper publishers began to reward new subscribers with a wide range of other free gifts. However, this practice backfired.
People started to play the system. They remained registered readers for as long as it took to qualify for these gifts – before shifting their allegiances to a rival newspaper and more free offers.
As a result, a kind of trade war broke out within the newspaper industry. Soon the inducements became of greater significance than quality news.
Stepping up the struggle for readers, the Chronicle, Mail and Express offered a joint edition of Dickens at well below cost price. The Herald responded by offering encyclopaedias, which the Express matched.
Tempting bargains and free gifts were not enough The news content began to change too as news that would entertain as well as inform. Many readers became more accepting of inaccuracies in the news. Soon reliable journalism descended into excessive sensationalism. Bribes were more successful in building up readership than the quality of news.
Misinformation in the tabloid press during the twentieth century
You can read my article on Tabloid Journalism
Misinformation during the 2017 UK Election
“The misleading use of headlines, images and statistics has always been an element of a partisan press. Although many politicians and journalists use facts and statistics well to make their case, there are also many examples of facts being stretched to or beyond the breaking point.”
Read article on Types Of Misinformation During The UK Election.
Some other examples you might like to read
Take a look at some of my other articles. I have written a definitive essay on news values for journalists, which outlines the criteria of a good news story. This gives you more ideas on how to reach your audience and help you to communicate clearly.