Fake News

This article on Fake News is an introduction to a new section on Journalism that I am developing.  


Few people used the phrase Fake News before 2016.  Since then it has regularly appeared in the headlines.  Many people see it as one of the greatest threats to Western democracy and free debate.

Fake news is anathema to a journalist.

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 signpost

Definition

  • 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

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 deliberate fabrication of news stories 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 tends to sensationalise. So although it is false and inaccurate, it may get a high score on a checklist of news values.  Therefore it attracts readers and spreads rapidly on the Internet.

The new media and the information revolution have made it easier for people to access a broad range of information.  The internet, in particular social media, has also fuelled the spread of disinformation.  But in today’s brave new world, anyone who has a computer can be a publisher with access to the whole worldwide web.  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 false information 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.

Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C.

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.

Reading Fake News, Pakistani Minister Directs Nuclear Threat at Israel

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.

Burned to death because of a rumour on WhatsApp

The arrival of fake news

The arrival of social media, in particular Facebook and Twitter, have given rise to an unprecedented outpouring of fake news.

These sites and other sites have provided a new and highly effective platform for spreading all kinds of information. Internet technologies are optimised to encourage widespread sharing.

Sharing is easy. Just about anything can go viral. Soon the internet became flooded 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, for instance, 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 a dubious story.

The rise of fake news

Social media has 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 made-up news has plagued our media in recent years.   This fake 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 grab people’s attention.

There are hundreds of fake news websites out out on the world wide web. They range from those deliberately posing as real-life newspapers to government propaganda sites.  They may also include even those which tread the line between satire and plain disinformation.

However, most people using social media do so for personal reasons. They may simply enjoy passing on an interesting story, or thought-provoking information, or even indulging in a little 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 too many people lap it up without a second thought.   Some readers believe these stories without troubling to check out the truth. Consequently, they allow the purveyors of fake news to do their thinking for them.

Those who publish fake news understand news values or criteria that determine an interesting or sensational story, but they have no regard for truth or accuracy. Fake stories and their headlines usually get more attention than real news.  That is because they do not have to keep within the limits of accuracy.

Fact checking

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.

Moreover, 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.

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.

Fake news has consequences:

Fake news…

  • … creates confusion as people don’t know who or what to believe
  • … erodes trust
  • … undermines effective communication
  • … news gives rise to widespread mistrust of all news sources, reliable as well as dishonest ones
  • … poisons civic dialogue
  • … encourages prejudice and divides communities
  • … obstructs effective decision making which must be based on reliable facts
  • … threatens the cohesion of liberal democracy
  • … frustrates government in pursuit of its legitimate objectives
  • … undermines human rights

So how do you spot fake news?

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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.

19th century

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.

Yellow journalism

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.

Inter-war years

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.

Tabloid journalism

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.