What is ‘fake news’?
The working definition of fake news I use is the following:
intentionally factually incorrect news that is published to deceive and misinform its reader
This definition can be broken down into three smaller components: (1) intention; (2) veracity; (3) deception. All of these affect whether something can be classified as fake news and are discussed in-depth below.
This first component, intentionally, is what separates fake news from misreported news. See the premature obituaries below:
In the first example from Reuters it is announced that the American businessman George Soros had passed away at XX, showing that the article was a template that had been prematurely published where XX was intended to be replaced with Soros’ age. In the second article, the German magazine der Spiegel published an article titled Der bessere Bush (literally: The better Bush) that incorrectly reported the then hospitalised George H. W. Bush’s death.
Misreporting is common in journalism as shown by news outlets such as the BBC and the Guardian (U.K.) having dedicated corrections and clarifications webpages that correct misreported news. However, it acts to show the importance of intention in classifying fake news and demonstrates that not all factually incorrect news can be labelled as ‘fake’.
This second component, factually incorrect, is integral to the notion of fake news.
Used here as a compound noun, the word fake in its original sense is a slang word that refers to something that is “spurious, counterfeit” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2017). In the British national Corpus (BNC) fake is used most often to refer to imitation products such as fur, tan and pearls.
As would be expected, a news article cannot be classified as fake if it is not factually incorrect and therefore ultimately deceives its reader, whether this is a single fabricated fact or a larger deception.
The third component, deceive and misinform, is what separates fake news from parody and satire, as neither of these intend to deceive their reader nor do they intend to be treated as fact.
For example, the headlines below from the Onion and the Daily Mash:
A distinction here needs to be made between parody and satire: parody is a stylistic choice in which texts are imitated and mocked while satire usually presents a critique or ironic take on social events. This normally feeds into parody discussing real life situations, and satire discussing imagined situations.
The distinction between fake news and satire lies once again in intentionality and purpose – satire does not wish to be taken as truth but instead aims to provide a critical commentary, whereas fake news’ purpose is to be believed by the news consumer. However, as Salas-Zárate et al. (2017) note, “news satire is often mistaken for legitimate news, especially when it is disassociated from its original source” (p. 20) showing that satire may be interpreted as fake news when it is not viewed in context or there is no clear disclaimer.
This first example claims that after the notoriety of his campaign posters, the former U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage has been hired to create posters for the Trump administration. Farage is an experienced politician who helped create societal shift in the UK and was a figure-head of a successful vote for Britain to leave the European Union, and caused much controversy by using an image of Syrian refugees queuing as a reason for Great Britain to leave the European Union.
The second example claims President Trump has said he does not know his son-in-law Jared Kushner ‘very well’. While unlikely, this is not a shocking statement nor is it overtly humorous or satirical and so could be perceived as true, especially when isolated on a Twitter or Facebook newsfeed without any context.
The screenshots below show the two articles from above shared to Facebook:
The Borowitz Report, which acts as the satire section of the New Yorker magazine, features the disclaimer ‘NOT THE NEWS’ in red print in the middle of the ‘tile’ that appears on Facebook. However, the Daily Mash article does not feature any disclaimer and subsequently the article could be perceived as true and not satire. This again demonstrates a key issue with satire – it has no intention to mislead but still has the potential to do so.
Other Definitions of Fake News
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS)
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) provide the following definition:
“the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain. ‘Misinformation’ refers to the inadvertent sharing of false information” (2019, p. 10)
This definition, which originates from the DCMS’ Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report, includes some additional aspects. Firstly, the Government has decided not to use the term ‘fake news’ due to it being weaponised as a slur by President Trump and his supporters. Secondly, it distinguishes between mis- and dis- information, stating that the latter refers to “the inadvertent sharing of false information”.
Thirdly, the definition is expanded to include the motivations for producing fake news. The definition states that disinformation is defined as information that deceives or misleads for “either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain”.
Allcott and Gentzkow, 2017
Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) comprises the most seminal work in the field of disinformation and uses a definition that has been adopted across a range of other academic and non-academic sources. They define fake news as:
“news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers.” (2017, p.213)
This definition emphasises the potential for deception with “could mislead readers” and therefore includes misunderstood satire that is treated as fact.
Allcott and Gentzkow use the example of wtoe5news.com who published a story saying Pope Francis had endorsed Trump, which was subsequently shared more than a million times on Facebook. While WTOE 5’s “About” section admitted that it was a “a fantasy news website”, they believe that as this disclaimer was not front and centre, the source should be considered fake news. This is why sources such as the Borowitz Report feature disclaimers when shared to social networks (see above).
Silverman and BuzzFeed
Craig Silverman is one of the names that comes up the most in any form of fake news research. Silverman is the media editor of BuzzFeed and has published hundreds of articles in multiple languages discussing fake news, rumours and hoaxes online.
Speaking to CBC Radio in Canada in 2018, Craig Silverman said of fake news:
“One, it has to be something is 100% false […] second the piece is created by somebody with the intention of it being false […] and the third thing […] is it’s created for an economic motive”
He goes on to say the reason that it must be economically motivated and not ideologically motivated is because we have a term for ideologically driven fake news content already: propaganda.
Extra: Should we use the term fake news at all?
As mentioned above, the British government have made the decision to exclude the term fake news from all government documents, opting instead for disinformation. This is based on fake news having pejorated since its inception and it being used as a slur.
The American Dialect Society define fake news in two ways:
(1) “disinformation or falsehoods presented as real news”
(2) “actual news that is claimed to be untrue”
This second definition was added in response to what Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s New Words Committee, called “a rhetorical bludgeon to disparage any news report that [Trump] happened to disagree with”.
Zimmer says the use of fake news as a slur to expose alleged bias in the mainstream media has “obscured the earlier use of fake news for misinformation or disinformation spread online” and is what has forced many governments and organisations to stop using the term.
This is often why the term fake news is stylised as ‘fake news’, to give an awareness that this is not only a term with two distinct meanings but also that it is has developed into a non-technical term used to insult members of the press.