In part one and two of this series, we discussed strategies for conversing with individuals that hold views that differ from scientific consensus. Occasionally, these individuals have based their views on a misunderstanding of facts, but more and more we are confronted with opinions and political ideologies that are based on “alternative facts”, otherwise known as false statements. In this post, we discuss how false information originates and why it feels so prevalent right now.

Photo credit: Wikimania 2009; Beatrice Murch

Separating fake news from satire, propaganda, and sloppy journalism

The potential role of fake news in the 2016 presidential election (Stanford Press) and the conspiracy theories formed as a result of specific fake news stories (The Hill), has made it clear that fabricated news reports have the potential to be highly influential and seriously dangerous. While fake news is not novel (Washington Post), it seems to be more prevalent than ever, given the ease and speed at which stories can be shared unchecked across social media. Now that the President has taken to calling any news stories he disagrees with “fake news” (Slate), it is important that we pause to think about how we define fake news, and consider how we can separate fake news from biased or otherwise unfavorable news stories.

Many journalists and researchers define fake news as news stories that are deliberately made up or are not based on fact (Guardian, CNN, Slate, Telegraph). In the clearest cases, “fake news” refers to websites that intentionally create and publish completely fictitious stories (Buzzfeed). However, the term has also been used to describe many different types of journalism that may or may not be fake or based on falsehoods. For example, some news sites are satirical (e.g. the Onion), in which the stories are technically made up, but the authors are not purporting to be truthful news sources (CNN, LA Times). Others have proposed that fake news is essentially the same as propaganda (Salon), or the spread of information to support a cause or influence public opinion (Encylopedia Britannica). While fake news and propaganda can overlap, propaganda is often based on fact (Johns Hopkins Library), demonstrating that the two terms are not always interchangeable. Additionally, there has been much debate regarding whether sloppy journalism (i.e. when writers do not confirm their sources, fail to substantiate their claims, or misrepresent situations) could also be considered fake news. However, lumping substandard journalism with fake news may complicate other issues that the media is currently combating, such as bias and sensationalism (Snopes, Slate). Nevertheless, sloppy journalism can also spread false information (Forbes), which is worrisome to scientists (Huffington Post) and should be worrisome to all, because once people have incorporated “alternative facts” into their worldview, it can be hard to deconstruct these misunderstandings (The Undercover Economist, How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences Part 1).

The spread of false information, or “alternative facts”

To understand why false information in the media is so prevalent now, we must first consider who is publishing it and why. For many, the intentional creation and dissemination of false information through fake news websites has become a viable career option. For example, teenagers in a small Macedonian town were found to make more than the average town wage by creating and posting fake news for Americans (BBC). Two writers living in California make $10,000 to $40,000 a month writing fake news stories (Washington Post), and some organizations sustain lucrative traffic by essentially copy-pasting fake articles with new names (Buzzfeed). The owner of another fake news company, Disinfomedia, claimed that although he benefits financially from his company, his ultimate aim is to expose the alt-right by baiting them and demonstrating how quickly they spread fake news (NPR). To confuse matters, many fake news sites have tried to rebrand themselves as “satire”, in an effort to rid their sites of the “fake news” label (The Verge, Huffington Post). Critics argue that these fake news sites are not doing enough to ensure their readers know they are fake (Washington Post), and thus should not be considered satire (LA Times). Whether or not genuine satirical news contributes substantially to media misinformation is difficult to measure, yet it is true that satire is sometimes mistaken for real news (NY Times).

Other misinformation may arise without clear motivation as a result of major issues in the media. For example, all local and national media outlets currently face a lack of funding and time for fact-checking (Columbia Journalism Review), which can directly lead to the publication of falsehoods, or misrepresentations of the truth. The media is also facing a recent proliferation of hyperpartisan news outlets (NY Times Magazine), which tend to publish propaganda, false, or highly skewed information at a higher rate than nonpartisan or less partisan sites (Buzzfeed). Some have argued that many media outlets contain biases that prevent them from being objective, and that all media outlets use varying levels of sensationalism and clickbait as a tool for increasing viewership and revenue (Slate, PBS News Hour). Additionally, media outlets have been criticized recently for reporting on others’ false claims without clarifying that they are not true (Washington Post). Hence, it can be hard to figure out what the facts are and which news agencies are trustworthy in our increasingly partisan society (Pew Research Center, Atlantic).

Once published, false information and misinformation often spread as an unintended consequence of our internet use and social media consumption. To begin, studies have found that people have a hard time identifying fake news (Stanford). The inability to discern what is fake is significant; during 2016, two fake news stories were shared over a million times on social media (Buzzfeed), and during certain months, people engaged more with fake news stories than news based on fact (Buzzfeed). Recent studies have elucidated how this could happen; for example, one study found that over 50% of users do not click on articles that they share online (Washington Post), meaning that many people do not read, much less fact check, articles that they propagate. In another study, almost 40% of people reported that they got their news online in 2016 (Pew Research Center). Furthermore, confirmation bias (see How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences Part 1) and internet algorithms steer us towards news that is consistent with our own beliefs (The Guardian, Brookings Institution), even if that news is fake (NY Times). Specifically, fake news and hyperpartisan websites intentionally play into innate cognitive biases (New Statesmen) in the form of clickbait articles (Engadget) with sensationalist headlines. For instance, the same topic can look very different on the newsfeed of opposing political ideologies (Wall Street Journal) because websites will change their advertisements or suggested articles based on information taken from user internet histories (NPR).

Despite all of these issues, there are ways we can combat the spread of fake news and false information. Our post next week will discuss how major websites like Google and Facebook are trying to stop fake news and how individuals can also help deter the spread of false information.

Emma Dietrich, Caitlin Friesen, Rebecca Tarvin and Julia York contributed to this post, which is the third in a four-part series called How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences. You can read part one, “Why More Information Isn’t Enough” here, and part two, “Having Empathetic Conversations” here.

Additional resources

  • Fresh Air interview of a fake news expert, Craig Silverman. Offers interesting insight into how fake news is created, how it spreads, and why people are so willing to believe fake news, even if they are told it is fake.

  • The Memory Palace recently produced a narrative based on a historical fake news story. Listen to the podcast episode, or read about it on the Museum of Hoaxes website.


2 thoughts on “How to Deal with Reluctant Audiences, Part 3: The Rise of Fake News and Misinformation

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