Fake News: What It Is and What It Is Not

Some of the 2022 SUSI scholars pose at their welcome reception

It is increasingly rare nowadays to switch on a news channel, open a newspaper, scroll through a news website or social media feed and avoid an encounter with the phrase “fake news.” The term is widely used to describe a complex phenomenon of information pollution in this era of digital media. In our SUSI program we have heard about fake news, misinformation, and disinformation in almost all the sessions. Our academic conversations are also many times about this topic. Scholars from fifteen countries have several stories to share about this and we have discussed many nuances and components of this information pollution. What we gathered is that it has been defined in many ways over time. However, to those paying attention to when and how the term is invoked, it quickly becomes apparent that few who use or discuss ‘fake news’ seem to agree on what exactly it is or what to do about it. Yet there are many experts who have stopped using the term for what seem to be justifiable reasons. While ‘fake news’ is where it all started, we have seen how the usage of this term is diminishing.

The term ‘fake news’ first gained global prominence in the run-up to the American presidential elections in 2016 when unverified, unsolicited and made-up stories concerning the two main candidates – Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – started pouring onto social media platforms, particularly Facebook. Studies show that these completely made-up stories, mostly in favor of Trump, became viral and played a key role in forming people’s opinions. In mid-2016, New York-based news website BuzzFeed traced the origin of these false or exaggerated stories to at least 140 independent websites run from Veles, a small city in the southeastern European country of Macedonia. The authors of these sites were publishing completely fabricated stories and posting them on Facebook. The language of the stories was designed to elicit an emotional response from people who saw them. According to the BuzzFeed report, these fake stories garnered thrice the number of public engagements compared to regular posts in terms of likes, comments, and shares, resulting in huge payouts to the publishers from Facebook advertising. 

The phrase again swept the media discourse when, in January 2017, U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump publicly labeled several respected national and international media outlets as “fake news” due to what he considered their unfavorable coverage of his campaign and the incoming administration. This was neither the first nor last time that a leader or politician had used the term in an attempt to quell criticism. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used the term in February 2017 to dismiss an Amnesty International report over the alleged extrajudicial killings of prisoners by government forces in Damascus between 2011 and 2015. The dissemination of so-called ‘fake news’ by established media organizations has been used as a pretext by authorities in many countries to suppress media freedom. In mid-2018, Egypt criminalized the spread of false information while Vietnam cracked down on a local news website for allegedly spreading false news. 

Not only has the term ‘fake news’ been used as justification to censor media, but politicians themselves have been guilty of engaging in the business of ‘fake news.’ Social media platforms and messaging apps have been assigned a new role as weapons for the political elite all over the world to spread fabricated content systematically in an attempt to garner electoral benefit.

Before this modern mix of definitions, ‘fake news’ was a term used to refer to a particular form of satire and parody. Many people are familiar with American TV programmes that blur the line between news and satire such as The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. A similar parody TV show in India called The Week That Wasn’t started in 2006 and quickly gained popularity. There are a number of news parody websites all over the world. The Onion, The Daily Mash, Private Eye and Satire Wire to name just a few. We have seen in our classes how these websites spread misinformation in the guise of satire and parody. Similarly, Indian meme websites like fakingnews.com and unrealtimes.com publish satirical content related to politico-social developments. Forms of parody and satire are popular and beloved arts, but they always run the risk of misinterpretation.

The examples mentioned above reveal that ’fake news ’ has been used in different contexts and at different times to describe a variety of situations⎯everything from news satire or parody to news fabrication to advertising and propaganda. Broadly speaking, the phrase has been used to describe rumor, falsehood, and distortion of information. To capture this breadth, but narrow its scope somewhat, the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) defines ‘fake news’ as “information deliberately fabricated and published with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts.”  However, experts are not in agreement over its use to describe the ‘information disorder’ of the 21st century. 

‘Fake news’ is “information deliberately fabricated and published with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts.” 

Ethical Journalism Network

Claire Wardle, Strategy and Research Director of First Draft News, argues that ‘fake news ’ is “woefully inadequate” to describe the complexity of the current misinformation crisis. She prefers the term ‘information pollution. ’ Emphasizing the trend of world politicians terming critical media coverage as “fake news,” Wardle further asserts that the phrase has been “weaponized” and declares that media institutions have a “responsibility” not to use it. Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media, has also expressed his reservations, calling the term “vague and ambiguous” because it has been used to describe such a range of forms of information manipulation. (Zuckerman, 2017). Even the social networking giant Facebook, which has often been at the heart of controversies concerning fake news, has shied away from the term, using ‘false news’ in formal communications.

Another segment of media experts claims that avoiding the term distorts the issue. They argue that ‘fake news’ refers to a distinct phenomenon the world is facing at present. “We can’t shy away from phrases because they’ve been somehow weaponized. We have to stick to our guns and say there is a real phenomenon here,” says David Lazer, a professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University in Boston. Lazer cites an article published in 1925 to support his argument that fake news has been used to describe this problem for a long time. The article, published by Harper’s magazine, talks about the role of fake news and how information technology is rapidly spreading fake news around the world. He also criticizes the use of ‘false news’, saying that a media organization might get something wrong and publish a false report, but such reporting should not be called “fake news.” “We define it in a very particular way. It’s content that is being put out there that has all the dressings of something that looks legitimate. It’s not just something that is false—it’s something that is manufactured to hide the fact that it is false,” concludes Lazer.

We define it in a very particular way. It’s content that is being put out there that has all the dressings of something that looks legitimate. It’s not just something that is false—it’s something that is manufactured to hide the fact that it is false,

Dr. David Lazer, Northeastern University

The arguments presented above suggest that not only the nature of the content but also the intention behind its publication and circulation is important to consider when deciding whether to describe a piece of information as ‘fake news’. Given the complexity of the subject,  

Wardle aptly classifies “fake news” into the following three categories: 

  • Mis-information: Information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm to anyone and shared unknowingly. For example, sharing an old picture or video with a claim to be of an incorrect event or place.
  • Dis-information: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization, or country. For example, publication and circulation of morphed or doctored audio/visual material that has the power to harm or malign.
  • Mal-information: Information that is based on reality and used to inflict harm on a person, organization, or country. For example, leaking someone’s personal communications or any private content into the public space with the intention to cause harm.  

For now, these are the accepted definitions across the world. Till when we do not know. The lesson here is just because some people start using a term the wrong way does not mean that we have to stop using it. It is easy to discard that and move to the other one. It is difficult to stick to our guns as Dr. Lazer says. If we cannot protect a term, then how can we expect to win a battle against those who are spreading the false news day and night? They have taken ownership of the term that well-intentioned people started with. We must understand that surrendering is easy, and giving a tough fight is difficult. Changes happen only by fighting the hard battles rather than giving in. So let us keep fighting against fake news, misinformation, and disinformation and give a world to our children that values honesty, sincerity, and empathy.