The issue of “fake news” has been a dominant theme in the headlines for several years. How do we define a term that has come to mean so many different things to different people?
At its core, we are defining “fake news” as those news stories that are false: the story itself is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes. Sometimes these stories may be propaganda that is intentionally designed to mislead the reader, or may be designed as “clickbait” written for economic incentives (the writer profits on the number of people who click on the story).
However, it’s important to acknowledge that “fake news” is a complex and nuanced problem, one that is far greater than the narrow definition above. The term itself has become politicized, and is widely used to discredit any opposing viewpoint. Some people use it to cast doubt on their opponents, controversial issues or the credibility of some media organizations. In addition, technological advances such as the advent of social media enable fake news stories to proliferate quickly and easily as people share more and more information online. Increasingly, we rely on online information to understand what is happening in our world.
The universe of “fake news” is much larger than simply false news stories. Some stories may have a nugget of truth, but lack any contextualizing details. They may not include any verifiable facts or sources. Some stories may include basic verifiable facts, but are written using language that is deliberately inflammatory, leaves out pertinent details or only presents one viewpoint. "Fake news" exists within a larger ecosystem of mis- and disinformation.
Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is mistakenly or inadvertently created or spread; the intent is not to deceive. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately created and spread "in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth" (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/disinformation).
Claire Wardle of FirstDraftNews.com has created the helpful visual image below to help us think about the ecosystem of mis- and disinformation. And as she points out, "it's complicated."
Misinformation and disinformation is produced for a variety of complex reasons:
The technological ease of copying, pasting, clicking and sharing content online has helped misinformation and disinformation to proliferate. In some cases, stories are designed to provoke an emotional response and placed on certain sites ("seeded") in order to entice readers into sharing them widely. In other cases, "fake news" articles may be generated and disseminated by "bots" - computer algorithms that are designed to act like people sharing information, but can do so quickly and automatically.