Click to view report: #FakeNews: innocuous or intolerable?
This meeting brought together key stakeholders to examine ‘fake news’ and explore these questions that have become critical to journalism and public debate in 2017. We generated critical conversations and understanding at all levels: scope and meaning of the term, nature and targets of the threat, consequences of the public concern over it, approaches to alleviate its prevalence, standards of journalism and standards of law and human rights, and much else. While we do not expect to reach conclusions on all issues, we fostered a common vocabulary for thinking through it, generated a research and reporting agenda from which participants and others may wish to draw, and considered whether there is value in developing a framework to address the issue at a time of global threat to freedom of expression.
What is “fake news?”
The prevalence of “fake news” doesn’t amount to understanding; in fact, the term has come to cloud some key discussions about information and media of all sorts in the digital age. So what does it mean? Does it refer to deliberately false narratives that are represented as true, such as those which were so frequently employed during the recent U.S. election? Does it cover satire? Are unsubstantiated allegations, or mistaken reporting, “fake news”? How do we evaluate the terms that are being used?
Fake news represented as real news
These are the hoaxes — the seemingly true, quick-to-go-viral articles and websites you see spreading through your Facebook or Twitter feed. The stories are usually outrageous, polarizing, and utilize attention-grabbing titles to induce individuals to read them. The sources that peddle these hoaxes generally have odd domain names, names that are strikingly similar to reputable news sources, and poor web design. However, some of these sources represent themselves more professionally and may appear to be reputable news sources at first glance.
A key to recognizing this type of fiction is corroboration. Utilize a rumor-verification tool to check the veracity of the story, or check to see if major new organizations have picked up the story. Be wary of stories that are reported by only one or two relatively unknown sources.
- “A Swedish Facebook group called Mediekollen promises to debunk false information on the web. The twist? Mediekollen is faking its facts.” The Guardian
- “. . . fake news publishers have recycled an old hoax about President Obama’s banning the Pledge of Allegiance.” Snopes
- “A fake news item reported that ISIS’ second-in-command had urged Muslim-Americans to vote for Hillary Clinton.” Snopes
- “A detailed conspiracy theory known as ‘Pizzagate’ holds that a pedophile ring is operating out of a Clinton-linked pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong.” Snopes.
- “Among the fake news stories studied by the authors, two stories favorable to Hillary were the most believed.”
These are the stories that are circulated by news organizations that either admit the fact that they are producing fictitious stories, or are widely known for producing humorous satire. For example, The Onion’s “Our Company” page suggests that it is not a real source, though it does not say so explicitly. The first paragraph contains the text: “Rising from its humble beginnings as a print newspaper in 1765, The Onion now enjoys a daily readership of 4.3 trillion and has grown into the single most powerful and influential organization in human history.” These facts cannot be true, but sound like they are. On the other hand, The Spoof contains the following disclaimer on its fake news stories: “The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.”
Because many of these sources do not explicitly declare that they are satire, there is a risk that the news will be taken as true. Additionally, many of these sources have professional-sounding names, excellent web design, and a professional tone in their writing.
These stories are often, but not always, the result of hastily reported stories without the benefit of rigorous research or verification. These are arguably the most difficult type of “fake news” to identify.
- Various news outlets reported that genetically-modified mosquitoes was being spread by genetically-modified mosquitoes. Experts in the field, including the World Health Organization, stated that the claims were baseless.
- Local outlets reported that a Jewish family had “fled” their city out of fear that they were being targeted by the community for being the reason that a Christmas play was cancelled. In reality, they went on a previously planned vacation and the play was cancelled due to the play taking up class time.
- Muslim teenage college-student said she was harassed on NYC subway by Trump supporters. Widely reported. Later discovered that the incident was actually fabricated, and student made the allegations due to “family problems.”
- News outlets covered this story without really looking into this man’s background. In reality, he is a well-known YouTube prankster known for pulling similar stunts.