By Ray Williams
January 19, 2021
Did Pope Francis endorse Donald Trump? No. And yet, millions shared this story on social media, and many believed it. Why? The proliferation of fake news. What’s fake news? Stories that are presented in such a way that they appear to be legitimate “headlines” but are totally made up by groups trying to sell a point of view without citations or supporting evidence. In 2016, Edgar Welch walked into a Washington DC pizzeria and opened fire because he thought Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was running a child sex trafficking ring there. A fake story “informed” him about the conspiracy. ABC News reports that in a text message to his girlfriend that day, Welch wrote he had been researching the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory and it was making him “sick.” In a text to a friend, Welch allegedly wrote that the “cause” was “raiding a pedophile ring, possibly sacrificing the lives of a few for the lives of many.”
Starting early in his presidency, Trump seized upon the words “fake news” and shaped them into a cudgel he incessantly wields.He has routinely tweeted against the “fake news” media when it has the temerity to fact-check a multitude of erroneous claims he has made; doled out “fake news” awards to outlets whose coverage he thinks is helplessly biased against him; and looked on as a series of autocrats and strongmen abroad aped his rhetoric, invoking “fake news” to argue away documented reports of ethnic cleansing, torture and war crimes.
The rapid rate of proliferation of a totally fake news story, or groundless claim, can make it go viral, turn it into a public pronouncement, and sway public opinion. Further, some appointees of Trump, and their kin, directly promoted these fake news stories and sites on Twitter. General Michael Flynn’s son, for instance, continued to tweet the PizzaGate story, afterWelch went into the pizzeria and fired off several shots and was arrested. This constitutes irresponsible behavior at the very least. Flynn has himself promoted this and other claims without evidence.
When government officials like Flynn shared these baseless claims and fake news stories as fact, their proliferation can be even more rapid, as persons are even more likely to deem such claims as “reliable” or “trustworthy” when considering the source. Unable to evaluate the veracity of these tweets and posts, many persons can get “sick”, angry and outraged over what amounts to disinformation, or something totally made up. Right before the election, a Facebook user posted that Hillary Clinton “bathed in the blood of murdered children in Satanic rituals.”
Donald Trump and Fake News
Fake news was named the word of the year in 2017 by the Collins Dictionary. In 2017, the usage of the term had increased by 365% since 2016. The American presidential election in 2016 put the phenomenon on the international agenda. Websites with fabricated content gained massive attention, such as the story that falsely claimed that the Pope endorsed the republican candidate Donald Trump. Shortly after, President Donald Trump politicized the term and used it to discredit established media outlets. But even though the term seems fairly new, the phenomena it covers are old. Manipulation, disinformation, falseness, rumors, conspiracy theories — actions and behaviors which are frequently associated with the term — have existed as long as humans have communicated. The novelty of the term in this context relates to how false or misleading information is produced, distributed and consumed through digital communication technology. Additionally, new communication technologies have made it easier to manipulate the news format, thus simultaneously benefitting and undermining news media’s credibility.
Without reliable information, it will be hard for democracies to function. Fake news and disinformation are symbols of a larger societal problem: the manipulation of public opinion to affect the real world. But even though disinformation is a historic phenomenon, each new communication technology allows for new ways to manipulate and amplify disinformation to people and societies. Following novel digital communication technologies requires new ways to tackle the challenges compared to earlier communication technologies.
A new study restores a bit of clarity to what “fake news” actually represents. Researchers at Oxford University’s Internet Institute spent 18 months identifying 91 sources of propaganda from across the political spectrum on social media, which spread what they deemed “junk news” that was deliberately misleading or masquerading as authentic reporting. They then did a deep analysis of three months of social media activity in the United States, studying 13,477 Twitter users and 47,719 public Facebook pages that consumed or shared this fake news between November 2017 and January 2018.
What they found was a profound imbalance.
“Analysis showed that the distribution of junk news content was unevenly spread across the ideological spectrum,” the institute said in a news release. “On Twitter, a network of Trump supporters shared the widest range of junk news sources and accounted for the highest volume of junk news sharing in the sample, closely followed by the conservative media group. On Facebook, extreme hard right pages shared more junk news than all the other audience groups put together. “We find that the political landscape is strikingly divided across ideological lines when it comes to who is sharing junk news,” said Oxford researcher Lisa-Maria Neudert in a statement. “We find that Trump supporters, hard conservatives and right-wing groups are circulating more junk news than other groups.”
But while social media may help reinforce tribal divisions, the “fake news” moment reflects a deeper, intensifying polarization in the United States, one that predates Trump’s political rise or even the era of social media as a prime vehicle for delivering information. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias noted in a gloomy essay on the prospect of a looming crisis in American democracy — written well before Trump was elected — the country’s political system is being fundamentally weakened by intensifying ideological divisions. Those gaps have made compromise more difficult and emboldened presidents to expand their executive powers.
“Over the past 25 years, it’s set America on a course of paralysis and crisis — government shutdowns, impeachment, debt ceiling crises, and constitutional hardball,” Yglesias wrote. “Voters, understandably, are increasingly dissatisfied with the results and confidence in American institutions has been generally low and falling. But rather than leading to change, the dissatisfaction has tended to yield wild electoral swings that exacerbate the sense of permanent crisis.”
In this climate, the proliferation of “fake news” — and the arguments over it — are a mark of a dangerous political degradation. For Trump, it serves as an extension of the same demagogic mind-set that saw him labeling Democrats who did not clap during his speech as “un-American” and “treasonous.” Analysts point to how such unravelings led to coups and chaos in countries as disparate as Chile and Turkey.
“Some polarization is healthy, even necessary, for democracy. But extreme polarization can kill it. When societies divide into partisan camps with profoundly different worldviews, and when those differences are viewed as existential and irreconcilable, political rivalry can devolve into partisan hatred,” wrote Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, authors of the new book How Democracies Die.“Parties come to view each other not as legitimate rivals but as dangerous enemies. Losing ceases to be an accepted part of the political process and instead becomes a catastrophe.”
Conspiracy theories are also false beliefs, by definition. But people who believe in them have a vested interest in maintaining them. First, they’ve put some effort into understanding the conspiracy-theory explanation for the event, whether by reading books, going to web sites, or watching TV programs that support their beliefs. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state, and conspiracy theories provide a sense of understanding and certainty that is comforting.
- Conspiracy theories can give their believers a sense of control and security. This is especially true when the alternative feels threatening.
- Endorsement of conspiracy theories is associated with characteristics such as intense authoritarian attitudes, high narcissism, and low self-esteem.
- According to the researchers, “Fear and anxiety were reported as positive predictors of conspiracy beliefs. As people are anxious, fear a threatening situation, or have low perceived feelings of control over situations, they tend to conspiracies.” This was found to be especially true in people who have a need to exert control over their environment — they like the feeling of being in control at all times.
- Conspiracists tend to be more suspicious, untrusting, eccentric, needing to feel special, with a tendency to regard the world as an inherently dangerous place.
- The strongest predictor of conspiracy belief was a constellation of personality characteristics collectively referred to as “schizotypy”. The trait borrows its name from schizophrenia, but it does not imply a clinical diagnosis. A study also showed that conspiracists had distinct cognitive tendencies: they were more likely than nonbelievers to judge nonsensical statements as profound (a tendency known as “BS receptivity”). In turn, they were more likely to say that nonhuman objects — triangle shapes moving around on a computer screen — were acting intentionally.
One thing is for certain: the growth of conspiracy theory groups such as QAnon is reflective of a significant and growing part of American society that feels alienated, and gravitates to conspiracies as an attempt to find simple answers to complex problems, an uncertain future, and a feeling of isolation and marginalization. The bad news materializes when conspiracists take destructive action based on their conspiracy beliefs.
The Origins of Fake News
The term fake news has roots back to the 1890s. For more than a century, it has been used to indicate falsehood printed as news. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary cites newspapers such as The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune, The Kearney Daily Hub, and The Buffalo Commercial that all used the term fake news in articles from 1890 and 1891 in connection with false information.
But the phenomenon appeared even earlier, and historian Jacob Soll traces its origin back to Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1439. He explains that as printing expanded, so did fake news, appearing as spectacular stories of sea monsters and witches or claims that sinners were responsible for natural disasters. All this began to spread after Gutenberg. “Real” news was hard to verify in that era, even though there were many news sources. The concept of journalistic ethics or objectivity was still not developed.
Fake stories have historically been produced to sell newspapers (e.g., The Great Moon Hoaxabout observation by astronomers of the bizarre life on the moon, published by The New York Sun, 1835), to entertain (e.g., The War of the Worlds, Orson Welles’ radio adaptation in 1938 of H. G. Wells’ drama from 1898), or to create fear and anger (e.g., the so-called “blood libel” story from Trent, Italy, which claimed that the Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian boy).
Even though the term has deep historical roots, newer definitions of fake news have been suggested in recent years to better reflect the challenges posed by new communication technologies. Recently, the term has been used to describe a wide range of disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation , ranging from lies, conspiracy theories, and propaganda to mistakes and entertainment.
Nevertheless, there are many problems with the term fake news, and one of them is the close connection to news as a format and as an independent institution. The European Union (EU) report from the independent High Level Expert Group on fake news and online disinformation suggests abandoning the term fake news altogether. As the term is inadequate and misleading to explain the complexity of the situation, the report rather suggests using the term disinformation, which can be defined as “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”. Disinformation is clearly a more precise term to use to discuss false or misleading information, without alluding to the news format or the institution of news. But in order to more correctly reflect how this phenomenon has been covered in the research literature, this article will use both the terms fake news and disinformation.
The Motivation for Fake News
Continuing with the intention behind fake news, political or economic motives are often mentioned as typical intentions. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism defines fake news as “false information knowingly circulated with specific strategic intent — either political or commercial. Such content typically masquerades as legitimate news reports while trafficking in conspiracy theories or other matters laden with emotional appeals that confirm existing beliefs”.
Along the same line, researchers describe fake news as “completely false information that was created for financial gain” , such as sensational clickbait articles attempting to lure readers to click and share. But also advertising is mentioned in the research literature as a type of fake news. Advertising and public relations refers to how advertising materials in the guise of genuine news reports are published as news. Fake news in this form is defined as when public relations practitioners adopt the practices or appearance of journalists in order to insert marketing or other persuasive messages into news media, for example as native advertising.
Native advertising looks like news articles, but is paid by a sponsor. The obscuration of its origins may mislead audiences into believing that the news produced is entirely free of bias.
The clear emphasis on financial gain is a distinction with regard to public relations or advertising-related fake news versus other types of fake news. This content is often based on facts, albeit in an incomplete set, often concentrating on the positive aspects of the product or company being advertised and takes advantage of the legitimacy of the news format.
When news stories are created by a political entity to influence or mislead public perception, it is often described as propaganda. The overt purpose is to benefit a public figure, organization or government. There can be an overlap between propaganda and advertising. Similar to advertising, propaganda is often based on facts, but includes bias to promote a particular site or perspective. The goal is to persuade, rather than to inform, and, differing from advertising, the emphasis is not on financial gain, but on political influence, such as the Russian Channel One which is found to have published factually untrue news stories to influence public perception of Russia’s actions.
Lastly, the degree of falsity or fakeness has been examined by researchers: Rather than fake news in the sense of wholly fabricated falsities, many of the most-shared stories can more accurately be understood as disinformation: the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading. News fabrication is an example of articles that have no factual basis but are published in the style of news articles to create legitimacy. It closely mimics legacy news, and the producer of the items often has the intention to deceive, either for political or financial reasons.
Once the reader suspends credulity and accepts the legitimacy of the source, they are more likely to trust the item and not seek verification. This category has a similarity with news parody, except that the reader does not have the implicit agreement with the author that the “news” item is false. Similarly for visual content, photo manipulation of real images or videos creates a false narrative. Typically, fake news appearing in photo manipulations features pictures from one context used in another context, such as the circulation of manipulated photos that were circulated on Twitter during Hurricane Sandy, which hit the United States in March 2012.
A political or ideological motivation has been identified in heavily circulated fake news stories recently. Political disinformation is often called propaganda, and political actors who produce disinformation masqueraded as news intend to influence public perception, either on specific issues, individuals, or perceptions of the world. Propaganda is defined as “the deliberate, systemic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist”, and propaganda can thus be understood as a deliberate attempt to alter or maintain a power balance, advantageous to the propagandist. To identify a message as propaganda is to suggest something negative and dishonest, and synonyms to the word propaganda are therefore lies, distortion, deceit, manipulation, mind control, psychological warfare, and brainwashing.
The use of fake news, automated bot accounts, and other manipulation methods gained particular attention in the United States in 2016, but manipulation and disinformation tactics played an important role in elections in at least 17 other countries over the past year, among them Venezuela, the Philippines and Turkey, according to the Freedom of the Net report. But also European countries are applying digital operations to influence perception or persuade specific individuals. In the United Kingdom, cyber troops have been known to create and upload YouTube videos that “contain persuasive messages” under online aliases, and this content creation amounts to more than just a comment on a blog or social media feed, but instead includes the creation of content such as blog posts, YouTube videos, fake news stories, pictures, or memes that help promote the government’s political agenda.
The Freedom of the Net report found that the number of governments attempting to control online discussions in this manner has risen each year since Freedom House began systematically tracking the phenomenon in 2009. But over the last few years, the practice has become significantly more widespread and technically sophisticated, with “bots, propaganda producers, and fake news outlets exploiting social media and search algorithms to ensure high visibility and seamless integration with trusted content”.
Fake news produced for financial gain might seem like a relative new dimension of disinformation, but it has historic similarities with what is called yellow journalism. Yellow journalism is often associated with misconduct of newsgathering, and the term is used to describe the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York Worldand William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Both papers were accused by critics of sensationalizing the news, to create war hysteria and stimulate morbid curiosity in murders, seductions, drunkenness, and immorality in order to drive up circulation. False, sensationalist content is creating attention and curiosity in the 21st century as well, but this time measured through web traffic and social shares.
One of the most infamous recent examples of fake news produced for financial gain involves the teenagers from a town in Veles, Macedonia, who churned out sensationalist stories about the American presidential candidates in 2016 to earn cash from advertising. They were seeking money rather than political influence, and figured out that publishing pro-Trump content generated more advertising revenue than pro-Clinton content. This observation was confirmed in a study of the most shared news stories during the same election campaign, which showed that false stories, outperformed real news stories on Facebook, indeed three of the most shared false election stories were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. Creators of fake news motivated by financial opportunities have diverse backgrounds and are ranging from the teenagers in Macedonia, start-ups in the Philippines, a 38-year man old from Arizona, and Russian troll armies, to mention a few.
Factually inaccurate, often deceptive content produced by people seeking money is also encouraged by the algorithms on social media platforms. A post with many likes, shares, or comments is more likely to be further liked, shared, and commented on, as popularity on social media is a self-fulfilling cycle, one that lends well to the propagation of unverified information. Facebook is in the business of letting people share things they are interested in, and their business model relies on people clicking, sharing, and engaging with content — regardless of veracity.
Social needs might also be motivations for producing fake news and disinformation, such as status, attention, identity building, or entertainment. Actors may create and share disinformation to gain acceptance within online communities or to earn fame. Social media users are incentivized through likes, shares, and comments to create content that will resonate with their friends, followers and groups, and media manipulation might be a way to gain statues and express identity. Researchers have examined how disinformation from American far-right communities such as the so-called alt-right can express insights into these communities’ shared identity: Taken as a whole, these communities may feel that by manipulating media outlets, they gain some status and a measure of control over an entrenched and powerful institution, which many of them distrust and dislike. The expression “I did it for the lulz” indicates that trolling Internet users might post racist or sexist content, but claim to do so merely as a way to generate lulz through the offense of others.
How Technology Amplifies Fake News
While editors and publishers were the main gatekeepers of information in the time of mass media, tech platforms and algorithms are the new gatekeepers. Social media, especially Facebook, has become an important entrance point for news in many countries: more than half of online users or 54%, across 36 countries say they use social media as a source of news each week. Furthermore, in a study that examined the exposure to misinformation during the American election campaign in 2016, the researchers found that Facebook was a key vector of exposure to fake news.
Secondly, the technological development has democratized the production of fake news. When supposedly everyone can publish (false) information that looks like news, and spread it to large groups of people online, it becomes harder to differentiate between false and trusted information. Fake accounts and pages on social media are blurring the conceptualization of information sources. Digital amplifiers such as bots (i.e., automated Twitter accounts) have been used to give an illusion that fake or partly fake stories are widely circulated. A study that analyzed 14 million Twitter messages with 400,000 claims, found evidence of how social bots played a disproportionate role in spreading and repeating misinformation during the American election. Bots target users with many followers through replies and mentions, and may disguise their geographic locations. Studies have also shown how Facebook’s algorithm periodically trends fake news after the company fired its human editors.
Similarly, YouTube’s recommendation algorithm has been accused of promoting conspiracy theories and for fueling disinformation during the 2016 American election. YouTube is described as one of the largest and most sophisticated industrial recommendation systems in existence, but when studying YouTube’s recommended videos, Guillaume Chaslot, a former Google engineer, found that “YouTube systematically amplifies video that are divisive, sensational and conspiratorial”.
Digital and social media have lowered the threshold for creating and circulating information — also disinformation and fake news. Additionally, low or declining trust in news media has been mentioned as another reason for the spread of fake news.
The Loss of Trust in News
Trust in information and news media is of paramount importance. Fake news is thus problematic for several reasons. Foremost, because it makes people confused about which information to trust or not. Two surveys, one from the United States and another from Sweden, showed that respectively 88% and 76% of the respondents replied that fake news made them very or somehow confused about basic facts. If people are unable to differentiate between what is verified or false, whether one can trust news or not, it makes people confused about the state of affairs, particularly during an election when voters need reliable information to make an important political decision. But low trust in information and news media can also make it more likely for people to spread fake news and disinformation. As argued by some researchers, the declining trust in mainstream media could be both a cause and a consequence of fake news gaining more traction.
According to Reuters Digital News Report, trust in news varies strongly among countries, with the US news consumers placed among the lowest trusting. While 47 and 57% of the respondents in respectively Norway and Denmark and 41% of the respondents in Sweden agree that you can trust news most of time, American respondents have less trust in news — only 34% agree that you can trust news most of the time. If people have low trust in news from mainstream media, which is the case in the United States, it might be more relevant for them to search out information from alternative sources. The partisan difference is particularly strong among American news consumers, and 2016 represented a new low in media trust among Republicans: only 14% had great or fair amount of trust in mass media while 51% of Democrats had trust in media. Even for Google, the partisan divide creates problems. Apparently, Google’s search algorithms have problems ranking truthful information when two groups oppose each other, and it is easier for Google’s algorithms to handle false or unreliable information when there is a greater consensus; it is more challenging to separate truth from misinformation when views are diametrically opposed.
Fake news masquerading as legitimate news is not only a problem for people consuming it, it might also undermine journalism’s legitimacy and trustworthiness. News is expected to provide “independent, reliable, accurate, and comprehensive information”, and news is normatively based on the truth, which makes the term fake newsan oxymoron. Nevertheless, the term fake news has also been appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organizations whose coverage they find disagreeable, thus using fake news as a weapon against newsrooms.
As of February 2018, President Donald Trump had tweeted 181 times about fake news in the 388 past days, one of his most tweeted terms, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. President Trump routinely invokes the phrase “fake news” as a rhetorical tool to undermine opponents, rally his political base, and to discredit mainstream American media that is aggressively investigating his presidency. Around the world, authoritarians, populists and other political leaders have seized on the phrase fake news as a tool for attacking their critics and, in some cases, deliberately undermining the institutions of democracy — often inspired by Trump. In countries where press freedom is restricted or under considerable threat — including Russia, China, Turkey, Libya, Poland, Hungary, Thailand, Somalia, and others — political leaders have invoked fake news as justification for beating back media scrutiny.
Why Do People Believe in Fake News?
A tempting form of explanation for belief in fake news is the deficit model, that given limited cognitive and epistemic resources we become susceptible, but empirical evidence shows that similar deficits do not yield similar tendencies to believe fake news when there is a partisan framing. Researchers argue that we can explain this by appealing to identity protective cognition— the problem isn’t a limitation of our cognitive resources, but the values that inform our deployment of them.
How to Identify Fake News
FactCheck.org has suggested these practical ways to spot fake news:
- Consider the source.
Clearly, some of these sites do provide a “fantasy news” or satire warning, like WTOE 5, which published the bogus headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement.” Others aren’t so upfront, like the Boston Tribune,which doesn’t provide any information on its mission, staff members or physical location — further signs that maybe this site isn’t a legitimate news organization. The site, in fact, changed its name from Associated Media Coverage, after its work had been debunked by fact-checking organizations.
Snopes.com, which has been writing about viral claims and online rumors since the mid-1990s, maintains a list of known fake news websites, several of which have emerged in the past two years.
- Read beyond the headline.
If a provocative headline drew your attention, read a little further before you decide to pass along the shocking information. Even in legitimate news stories, the headline doesn’t always tell the whole story. But fake news, particularly efforts to be satirical, can include several revealing signs in the text.
- Check the author.
Another tell-tale sign of a fake story is often the byline. The pledge of allegiance story on
ABCNews was supposedly written by “Jimmy Rustling.” Who is he? Well, his author page claims he is a “doctor” who won “fourteen Peabody awards and a handful of Pulitzer Prizes.” Pretty impressive, if true. But it’s not. No one by the name of “Rustling” has won a Pulitzer or Peabody award. The photo accompanying Rustling’s bio is also displayed on another bogus story on a different site, but this time under the byline “Darius Rubics.” The Dubai story was written by “Sorcha Faal, and as reported to her Western Subscribers.” The Pope Francis story has no byline at all.
- What’s the support?
Many times these bogus stories will cite official — or official-sounding — sources, but once you look into it, the source doesn’t back up the claim. For instance, the Boston Tribune site wrongly claimed that President Obama’s mother-in-law was going to get a lifetime government pension for having babysat her granddaughters in the White House, citing “the Civil Service Retirement Act” and providing a link. But the link to a government benefits website doesn’t support the claim at all.
The banning-the-pledge story cites the number of an actual executive order — you can look it up. It doesn’t have anything to do with the Pledge of Allegiance.
Another viral claim we checked a year ago was a graphic purporting to show crime statistics on the percentage of whites killed by blacks and other murder statistics by race. Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump retweeted it, telling Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly that it came “from sources that are very credible.” But almost every figure in the image was wrong — FBI crime data is publicly available — and the supposed source given for the data, “Crime Statistics Bureau — San Francisco,” doesn’t exist.
- Check the date.
Some false stories aren’t completely fake, but rather distortions of real events. These mendacious 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. Since Trump was elected president, we’ve received many inquiries from readers wanting to know whether Ford had moved car production from Mexico to Ohio, because of Trump’s election. Readers cited various blog items that quoted from and linked to a CNN Money article titled “Ford shifts truck production from Mexico to Ohio.” But that story is from August 2015, clearly not evidence of Ford making any move due to the outcome of the election. (A reminder again to check the support for these claims.)
In October 2015, Trump wrongly boasted that Ford had changed its plans to build new plants in Mexico, and instead would build a plant in Ohio. Trump took credit for Ford’s alleged change of heart and tweeted a link to a story on a blog called Prntly.com, which cited the CNN Money story. But Ford hadn’t changed its plans at all, and Trump deserved no credit.
In fact, the CNN article was about the transfer of some pickup assembly work from Mexico to Ohio, a move that was announced by Ford in March 2014. The plans for new plants in Mexico were still on, Ford said. “Ford has not spoken with Mr. Trump, nor have we made any changes to our plans,” Ford said in a statement.
- Is this some kind of joke?
Remember, there is such A thing as satire. Normally, it’s clearly labeled as such, and sometimes it’s even funny. Andy Borowitz has been writing a satirical news column, the Borowitz Report, since 2001, and it has appeared in the New Yorkersince 2012. But not everyone gets the jokes. We’ve fielded several questions on whether Borowitz’s work is true.
Among the headlines our readers have flagged: “Putin Appears with Trump in Flurry of Swing-State Rallies” and “Trump Threatens to Skip Remaining Debates If Hillary Is There.” When we told readers these were satirical columns, some indicated that they suspected the details were far-fetched but wanted to be sure.
And then there’s the more debatable forms of satire, designed to pull one over on the reader. That “Fappy the Anti-Masturbation Dolphin” story? That’s the work of online hoaxer Paul Horner, whose “greatest coup,” as described by the Washington Postin 2014, was when Fox News mentioned, as fact, a fake piece titled, “Obama uses own money to open Muslim museum amid government shutdown.” Horner told the Postafter the election that he was concerned his hoaxes aimed at Trump supporters may have helped the campaign.
The posts by Horner and others — whether termed satire or simply “fake news” — are designed to encourage clicks, and generate money for the creator through ad revenue. Horner told the Washington Posthe makes a living off his posts. Asked why hismaterial gets so many views, Horner responded, “They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore.”
- Check your biases.
We know this is difficult. Confirmation bias leads people to put more stock in information that confirms their beliefs and discount information that doesn’t. But the next time you’re automatically appalled at some Facebook post concerning, say, a politician you oppose, take a moment to check it out.
Try this simple test: What other stories have been posted to the “news” website that is the source of the story that just popped up in your Facebook feed? You may be predisposed to believe that Obama bought a house in Dubai, but how about a story on the same site that carries this headline: “Antarctica ‘Guardians’ Retaliate Against America With Massive New Zealand Earthquake.” That, too, was written by the prolific “Sorcha Faal, and as reported to her Western Subscribers.”
We’re encouraged by some of the responses we get from readers, who — like the ones uncertain of Borowitz’s columns — express doubt in the outrageous, and just want to be sure their skepticism is justified. But we are equally discouraged when we see debunked claims gain new life.
We’ve seen the resurgence of a fake quote from Donald Trump since the election — a viral image that circulated last year claims Trump told Peoplemagazine in 1998: “If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” We found no such quote in People’s archives from 1998, or any other year. And a public relations representative for the magazine confirmed that. People’s Julie Farin told us in an email last year: “We combed through every Trump story in our archive. We couldn’t find anything remotely like this quote –and no interview at all in 1998.”
Comedian Amy Schumer may have contributed to the revival of this fake meme. She put it on Instagram, adding at the end of a lengthy message, “Yes this quote is fake but it doesn’t matter.”
- Consult the experts. We know you’re busy, and some of this debunking takes time. But we get paid to do this kind of work. Between FactCheck.org, Snopes.com, the Washington PostFact Checker and PolitiFact.com, it’s likely at least one has already fact-checked the latest viral claim to pop up in your news feed.
FactCheck.org was among a network of independent fact-checkers who signed an open letter to Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg suggesting that Facebook “start an open conversation on the principles that could underpin a more accurate news ecosystem on its News Feed.” We hope that conversation happens, but news readers themselves remain the first line of defense against fake news.
A study by Gordon Pennycock and David G. Rand, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that Democrats were better at gauging the trustworthiness of media organizations than Republicans — their ratings were more similar to those of professional fact checkers. Republicans were more distrusting of mainstream news organizations.
Research by Gordon Pennycook and colleagues published in the Journal of Personality, concluded “Inaccurate beliefs pose a threat to democracy and fake news represents a particularly egregious and direct avenue by which inaccurate beliefs have been propagated via social media.” The authors assert, “Our results suggest that belief in fake news has similar cognitive properties to other forms of bullshit receptivity, and reinforce the important role that analytic thinking plays in the recognition of misinformation.”
Yu Chuan published a research study which showed that a substantial number of U.S. adults were exposed to false stories prior to the 2016 election, and post-election surveys suggest that many people who read these stories believed them to be true. Chuan also found news categorized as false or fake was 70 percent more likely than true news to receive a retweet on Twitter. “Political” fake news spread three times faster than other kinds, and the top 1 percent of retweeted fake news regularly diffused to at least 1,000 people and sometimes as many as 100,000, Chuan says. True news, on the other hand, hardly ever reached more than 1,000 people.
Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are taking a look at the issue in one of the largest studies to date. Their findings suggest that humans — not bots — are largely to blame. For their study, appearing in the March 2018 issue of the journal Science, the MIT team attempted to make sense of how and why fake news and misinformation spreads fast via Twitter. Specifically, they investigated how mechanisms in Twitter, coupled with peculiarities in human behavior on social media, make it easy for fake news to spread.
The team looked at a sample of some 126,000 bits of “news” tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017.
“We define news as any story or claim with an assertion in it and a rumor as the social phenomena of a news story or claim spreading or diffusing through the Twitter network,” they wrote in the study. “That is, rumors are inherently social and involve the sharing of claims between people. News, on the other hand, is an assertion with claims, whether it is shared or not.” The team looked at a sample of some 126,000 bits of “news” tweeted by 3 million people more than 4.5 million times between 2006 and 2017.
Jordan R. Axt from McGill University and colleagues in a study in Psychological Science asserted that “Viewing publications as susceptible to honest mistakes or human error implies a world in which information can be distorted for unpredictable reasons; viewing them as deliberately and methodically deceiving readers for sinister reasons, on the other hand, implies some sort of order. It therefore follows that those who crave structure may also be more likely to deem articles false. More interestingly, those who had a higher personal need for structure were also more likely to believe something was intentionally faked (for Democrats, this was even true when they read about retractions by the liberal media). Conservatives also had a higher need for structure and a higher level of belief in deception than liberals.
Overall, the study suggests that a need for structure has a significant impact on someone’s likelihood to call something fake news — an effect that was particularly strong for Republicans.
In a 2016 Stanford study, middle school, high school and college students in 12 states were asked to evaluate the information presented in tweets, comments and articles. The researchers had hoped that the students would be able to tell fake accounts from real ones, ads from articles, and activist groups from neutral sources. But that’s not what happened. Students displayed a “dismaying consistency” of getting duped repeatedly. The researchers stated that “Many assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally savvy about what they find there. Our work shows the opposite.” What tripped up the students so often? Professional appearance and a polished “About” section easily persuaded students that a site was authoritative and neutral, and young people tended to accept information, both words and images, at face value without supporting evidence or citations. The importance of knowing who said what, or who took a picture, was lost on many participants. Most middle school students can’t distinguish paid stories labeled as “sponsored content” from actual articles, most high school students accept photographs as presented, without attempting to verify them.
What to Do About Fake News
A fundamental part of a successful democracy is an informed and educated citizenry. People must be able to discern and believe information that is factual and truthful. With the growing prevalence of fake news and disinformation, the average person must be able to discern truth and facts from lies and misrepresentation. So what is to be done?
First, revitalizing a focus on civics education in the school system must be a priority.
Multiple studies over the past few years has shown that the level of knowledge about the American democracy is deficient. In 2011 Newsweek asked 1,000 Americans to take the standard U.S. Citizenship test and 38% of them failed; 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president; 73% couldn’t correctly say why the U.S. fought the Cold War; 44%were unable to define the Bill of Rights and 6% couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.A 2016 American Council of Trustees and Alumni report showssixty percent of college graduates don’t know any of the steps necessary to ratify a constitutional amendment. Fifty percent don’t know how long the terms of representatives and senators are. Forty percent didn’t know that Congress has the power to declare war.Such dismal trends continue after graduation: Forty-three percent of Americans don’t know that the First Amendment gives them the right to freedom of speech, and a full third can’t identify a single right it gives them.
People who are so ignorant of the basic elements of their democracy can be more easily influenced by fake news and disinformation.
Social Media Companies Need to Clearly and Unequivocally Label Lies, False Stories and Fake News
A study by Katherine Clayton and colleagues published in the journal Political Behavior examined the most effective ways to counter fake news on social media. Researchers found that when fake news headlines were flagged with a tag that says “Rated false,” people were less likely to accept the headline as accurate than when headlines carried a “Disputed” tag. They also found that posting a general warning telling readers to beware of misleading content could backfire. After seeing a general warning, study participants were less likely to believe true headlines and false ones.The authors suggest that the specific warnings were more effective because they reduced belief solely for false headlines and did not create spillover effects on perceived accuracy of true news,” they write.
Government Agencies and Institutions Must Pass Laws and Regulations to Curb Fake News
After the spread of fake news, disinformation, and their problematic consequences has been identified, many attempts to counter fake news have been employed in different countries. We can differentiate between efforts directed toward legal, financial, and technical aspects to individuals’ media and information literacy and new fact-checking services. In January 2018, the European Commission appointed 38 experts to a new High Level Group on fake news and online disinformation to advise the commission on how to understand and tackle the phenomenon of fake news and disinformation.
The group clearly advises against simplistic solutions, such as censorship of free speech. As disinformation is a multifaceted and evolving problem, the report suggested focusing the response on five pillars: (1) enhance transparency of the digital information ecosystem; (2) promote media and information literacy to counter disinformation and help users navigate the digital media environment; (3) develop tools for empowering users and journalists to tackle disinformation and foster a positive engagement with fast-evolving information technologies; (4) safeguard the diversity and sustainability of the European news media ecosystem; (5) promote continued research on the impact of disinformation in Europe to evaluate the measures taken by different actors and constantly adjust the necessary responses.
Nevertheless, several countries have tried to ban fake news by introducing new legal measures. Germany introduced a new law in January 2018 to combat hate. The law gives social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube 24 hours to act after they have been told about law-breaking material. Sites that do not remove “obviously illegal” posts could face fines of up to 50m euro ($65m).
A similar legal measure is introduced in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has proposed a law to ban fake news on the Internet during the French election campaign. Macron wants France’s media watchdog CSA to have the power to fight destabilization attempts by TV stations controlled or influenced by foreign states. In Ireland, a new bill has been introduced that is intended to make political advertising on social media more transparent. In Italy, the government has launched an online service aimed at cracking down on fake news.
The aforementioned legal efforts in Europe differ from the approach in the United States, where corporate efforts are mainly suggested to tackle the problems of fake news and disinformation online. Other approaches are directed toward limiting the financial motivation for creators of fake news through advertising. Facebook and Google have attempted to reduce financial incentives to create fake news websites by restricting ads on fake news sites and prohibiting fake news sites from using their ad network — respectively Adsense and Audience Network. The activist group Sleeping Giants has attempted to combat fake news sites by going after the site’s advertisers. Sleeping Giants communicates with companies and nonprofit groups whose ads appear on sites often known for false or misleading content, and encourages them to remove their ads from the sites.
Other approaches to combat and counter fake news have been directed at the users — readers, viewers, and listeners of information. Media literacy and education can help children and students to navigate between trusted and less trusted sources online. Governmental programs have been developed in several countries, for example in Italy to train students to recognize and counter fake news and conspiracy theories. During an expert meeting organized by the Nordic council, one of the suggestions from the expert group was to increase media and information literacy (MIL) in schools, to develop critical media users who can recognize disinformation.
The spread of fake news has also triggered the establishment of new fact-checker services. The Norwegian fact-checking site Faktisk.no was initiated by four competing media organizations in 2017to “disclose and prevent the spread of fictitious content that appear as real news”. In addition to the increased attention to fake news and disinformation, the national election in Norway in 2017 was another reason why Faktisk was established. Similarly, in Sweden, four competing media organizations decided to create a fact checking service in 2018, Faktakollen, to counter fake news, particularly ahead of the 2018 national election in Sweden. The two new Nordic fact-checking services add to a growing list of international fact-checking services. As of February 2018, there are about 140 fact-checking services worldwide, according to Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, the most comprehensive database for global fact-checking sites.
The continuing viability of the U.S. democracy will depend to a significant degree to a discerning citizenry, proactive government and ethical media corporations promoting and defending the truth and accurate news. Remember that fake news, disinformation and propaganda are signs of a fascist state and autocratic governments.
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