When does “fake news” become “real news,” if ever?
How did fake news affect the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election?
Has fake news been used by foreign powers to adversely affect U.S. interest at home and abroad?
How can people tell for certain when news is fake?
What is being done about the proliferation of fake news?
III. Review and Discussion
A. What is fake news?
B. The potential impact of fake news
C. Responses to fake news
So-called “fake news” has become increasingly commonplace in recent years due in large part to the proliferation of social media platforms such as Facebook that are either unable or unwilling to stop their spread as well as numerous Web sites such as the National Reporter that specialize in publishing fake news reports. This essay reviews the relevant literature to provide a definition of fake news, its potential impact and recent responses to this phenomenon. Finally, the paper provides a summary of the research and important findings concerning fake news in the conclusion.
Although so-called “fake news” has been around as long as humankind in the form of rumors, gossip and innuendos, the phenomenon has become increasingly commonplace in recent years due in large part to the widespread use of social media platforms and the emergence sources such as National Report and Empire News that intentionally attempt to deceive their readers with authentic-sounding news reports.
To determine the facts, this paper reviews the relevant literature about fake news, its potential impact and what steps are being taken in response, followed by a summary of the research and important findings concerning these issues in the conclusion.
According to the definition provided by Black’s Law Dictionary (1990), “fake” means “to make or construct falsely, something that is not what it purports to be; counterfeit” (599). In the context of the news, it is easily possible to report facts that are not accurate but they are not intentionally falsified. By contrast, fake news intentionally seeks to deceive readers by making reports sound sufficiently authentic for them to appear credible. Fake news, though, is certainly not a new phenomenon. For example, Omilian reports that, “Fake news has existed in some form for centuries. Back in 1801, Thomas Jefferson noted, ‘as for what is not true, you will always find abundance in the newspapers’” (A8).
More recently, though, fake news has become virtually ubiquitous with publishers such as National Report and Empire News flooding the Internet with fake news stories and some analysts are concerned that the trend represents a threat to U.S. interests at home and abroad. In this regard, Omilian points out that, “The widespread dissemination of fake news had real impacts on political discourse and has steadily eroded the general public’s trust in media outlets across the political spectrum” (A8). Some newspapers such as The Onion (recent headline: “World Agrees To Just Take Down Internet For A While Until They Can Find A Good Use For It”) intentionally publish stories that are clearly fake and readers are expected to know the difference. By contrast, fake news stories intentionally mislead readers – and many cannot discern the difference. As Dewey emphasizes, the publisher “National Report has already proven the reliability of Facebook users … determining fact from fiction. (In other words: They can’t.)” (3).
What makes the stories published by National Report and their ilk is the manner in which these stories are framed and titled, making them appear sufficiently credible for people to believe what they are reading. In many cases, this belief translates into revenues for fake news publishers. In this regard, Dewey notes that, “Their business model is both simple and devastatingly effective: Employ a couple unscrupulous freelancers to write fake news that’s surprising or enraging or weird enough to go viral on Facebook; run display ads against the traffic; gleefully cash in” (3).
The potential impact of fake news
Although the overwhelming majority of fake news stories are recognized as such as and little or nothing comes of them, a few stories have had a real impact on events in the U.S. and abroad (Frank 315). In support of this assertion, Frank cites a number of fake news stories that were already being published online in mid-2013 with the following headlines:
While these headlines sound plausible to many readers because they conform to conventional journalistic style, were published on Web sites that resembled legitimate news organization sites and contained information that many people want to believe, none of these stories was real (Frank 316). Likewise, some recent headlines posted by the National Reporter sound true, but on closer examination it becomes clear these headlines are also fake news:
While these headlines may be amusing on their face to more discerning readers, they have the potential to cause unexpected and even tragic outcomes. For instance, the fake news reports concerning a pedophile sex ring being operated in the back of a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC that resulted in a North Carolina man actually driving there are firing an assault rifle at an employee and the restaurant owner received hundreds of death threats (Omilian A8). Even more troubling, a fake news story about Israel threatening war against Pakistan resulted in Pakistan responding with a real nuclear war threat against Israel (Omilian A8).
While these high-profile examples may be the exception rather than the norm, there have been some other cases where outcomes have been directly affected by fake news. Indeed, some observers believe that fake news was responsible in large part for propelling Donald Trump to victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election (Omilian A8). The newly elected president has also engaged in spreading fake news stories which has received an enormous amount of attention from the press, and this raises the very real question concerning at what point “fake news” becomes “real news.”
It is impossible to eliminate fake news stories entirely due to free speech rights and the Internet’s open publishing environment. In fact, it is reasonable to suggest that most people would prefer to allow fake news to continue rather than try to restrict or infringe on free speech rights. Moreover, even the mainstream media has contributed to the problem recently by actually publishing fake news stories about fake news (O’Neil 2). Against this backdrop, responses to fake news must therefore be targeted at those who unjustly profit by deceiving consumers.
The 600-pound gorilla in the room on this issue, social media giant Facebook, has been heavily criticized for allowing the spread of fake news stories in recent months and the company has taken some modest steps to limit the number of fake news stories that are published on its platform. For example, in January 2017, Facebook announced that it implement a redesigned “trending” module that would provide users with more reliable content based on three main changes as follows:
While this and similar initiatives are a step in the right direction, the harsh reality facing consumers and social media platforms alike is the sheer volume of information that is being published on social media sites every minute. In fact, since 2013, the number of posts on Twitter has increased to more than 350,000 “tweets” and Facebook users publish more than 4 million posts each minute (Gwava 2). In other words, trying to censor fake news is like trying to drain the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon, so consumers should be vigilant in the selection of news sources in order to avoid becoming yet another victim of these unscrupulous and greedy publishers.
The research showed that fake news is just that, news that looks and feels real but which is intentionally intended to deceive consumers rather than entertain them. Although fake news has been around as long as humankind, it gained increased influence with the printed word and an explosion of influence more recently thanks to the Internet and social media platforms. Some sources such as National Report and Empire News even specialize in fake news that appears just authentic and credible enough to dupe some readers who then spread the information through their social media pages. This vicious circle is unlikely to be interrupted to any extent in the foreseeable future, so consumers should remain skeptical about what they read until they can confirm it through other reliable sources.
Black’s law dictionary. St. Paul, MN: West Publishing Co., 1990. Print.
Dewey, Caitlin. “Why Fake-News Industry Isn’t Afraid of Facebook Changes.” Daily Herald, 23 Jan. 2015, p. 3.
Frank, Russell. “Caveat Lector: Fake News as Folklore.” Journal of American Folklore, vol. 128, no. 509, 2017, pp. 315-317.
Grenoble, Ryan. “Facebook inches timidly forward in fight against fake news.” Huffington Post, 26 Jan. 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/facebook-redesign-fake-news_us_588a3c15e4b0737fd5cc211f.
Gwava, T. “How Much Data is Created on the Internet Each Day?” 6 Sept. 2016, Micro Focus, https://www.gwava.com/blog/internet-data-created-daily
Omilian, Patrick B. “Fake News Is an Emerging Threat to Our Democracy.” The Buffalo News, 25 Jan. 2017, p. A8.
O’Neil, Luke. “The media is still addicted to fake news: Here’s how the media spread a fake news story about fake news.” Think Progress, 29 Nov. 2016, https://thinkprogress. org/media-fake-news-cbda10577ef3#.5yqr8rj4d.