Fact vs fiction: Has 'fake news' become a victim of itself?

The term 'fake news' was supposed to singpost dangerously misleading information but it soon became a term slapped carelessly on journalism across the board, prompting even more confusion about the nature of the truth. Meghan McGrory investigates what the phenomenon means for our democracies

WHAT is ‘fake news’? There seems to be as much uncertainty in defining what makes a piece of information a fake news story as there is in identifying when you are presented with one. Social media is awash with articles from so-called fake news websites, so what happens when stories from these sites are presented as truth?

The term fake news (stories with no foundation, created for capital gain) is a relatively recent addition to public vocabulary, yet there is much confusion in the minds of the public as to what makes a piece of information specifically “fake news”. Does the term ‘fake news’ encapsulate jokes or comedic stories intended to entertain? Or should it apply to articles with unverified claims or misinformation circulated in order to influence public opinion on political or social issues? And who decides which story falls into which category, when we live in an era of such distrust?

Perhaps this is why there are more and more accusations that information or articles circulating throughout media platforms are fake. This is problematic for both legitimate media outlets, reporting on genuine stories, and the public they are presenting them to. 

Read more – Fake news: Address "political distortion of reality" says trade union organiser

Clearly there is an issue with identifying and defining fake news. It seems to be a grey area not just for the public but for mainstream media and even the government. In order to combat this, Minister for Digital and Cultural Policy Matt Hancock is planning roundtable talks with representatives from mainstream media in order to assess the problem with fake news. 

It can be difficult to determine whether material is from a legitimate news source because fake news sites often emulate mainstream media organisations’ branding and as such can be deemed by the reader to be affiliated with them. How does this impact on the way in which we dissect the news and what challenges does it pose in light of the overwhelming rate at which fake news is spread? 

There were many examples of these kinds of stories gaining traction in 2016, particularly throughout the US presidential election campaign, where numerous fake news stories targeted both candidates and were shared across the world - notably claiming Pope Francis’ endorsement of Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton funding Isis. 

Trump has been very vocal both in the media and on his personal Twitter account, calling out journalists when he deemed something written about him to be fake news. However, as well as being the subject of fake news stories, he was also responsible for propagating misinformation himself. He challenged former President Barack Obama’s place in the White House when he accused Obama of being a non-US citizen.

It can be difficult to determine whether material is from a legitimate news source because fake news sites often emulate mainstream media organisations’ branding and as such can be deemed by the reader to be affiliated with them.

The false story claimed that Obama was born outside of the USA (therefore barring him by law from being a legitimate presidential candidate). Trump demanded that Obama publish his birth certificate as proof of his citizenship. When the document was released and proved Obama’s right to sit in the Oval Office, Trump was forced into a humiliating climb down.

Sunday Herald editor Neil MacKay asserts that politicians and public figures claiming fake news should not make journalists any more cautious when reporting a story.

“Professional journalism has always been able to navigate lies,” he says. “Trump isn’t going to tell journalists, who’ve been doing this job for 25 years, how to do their job because he doesn’t like what has been written about him. Quite the the opposite, in fact - journalsists should be telling Trump how to do his job, holding him to account.”

In the age of social media, information can be taken, copied and shared all over the world in a matter of seconds. It has made it possible to connect with people who would otherwise be unreachable. As Tim Dawson, president of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), says: “Social media and technology have made the scare of fake news spread further and faster.”

This has made revenue from advertising on social media incredibly lucrative. Generated by the number of clicks, likes, comments and shares, it is easy to see why a shocking or interesting piece of fake news may be created by individuals solely motivated to earn money. 

Such was the case – again involving Trump –  for a group of teenagers in Macedonia who gained both notoriety and substantial increases to their account balances by creating numerous fake news sites. The websites were disguised as legitimate American political news publications, which were pro-Republican/Trump. Their stories were viewed, shared and believed by hundreds of thousands of people across the world. Although the motivation was money for the creation of the sites, the content was influential to the public and potentially damaging to the Clinton campaign  with stories like “Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought’” (story from ConservativeState.com) for example.

Facebook says: “We take misinformation seriously on Facebook. It’s important to us that the stories on Facebook are meaningful and people are connected to the things they love.”

The majority of fake news stories circulating, particularly during the US presidential elections, were shared on Facebook. In light of this, Facebook has responded with a number of measures aiming to combat the veracity of fake news stories generating throughout their site. Facebook says: “We take misinformation seriously on Facebook. It’s important to us that the stories on Facebook are meaningful and people are connected to the things they love.”

Fact checking capabilities have been installed on Facebook to aid the public in identifying fake news. If you see an article and are unsure as to the legitimacy of what you are reading you can flag it up. A link to stories flagged by users is then sent via Facebook to fact-checking organisations to determine the accuracy of the information.

The social media site also recently launched the Facebook Journalism Project to establish stronger ties between Facebook and the news industry, involving collaboartions for the development of new products to better inform readers in the digital age.

Fake news is often adopted as truth. This is a real dilemma in the current climate of mass information. The public are aware that fake news stories exist, however there seems to be a real issue in identifying when these stories are presented to them.

 “People are vulnerable to this type of information.” David Leask, The Herald

In a study published in the Global Changes Journal last month, a group of scientists sought to ‘vaccinate’ the public against misinformation in the media. Part of the social psychology experiment involved exposing the test subjects to conflicting information regarding climate change (the subjects were unsure as to their position on the matter).  An accurate statement followed by an account with inaccurate contradictory information was presented to the subjects. Results showed that the misinformation negated any retention of the prior positive information, effectively setting their opinions back to where they were before the experiment, with some even reporting that the misinformation’s influence formed their opinion. 

Motivations for sharing fake news stories are not black and white. People have different agendas when forwarding this kind of information. Operators of fake news websites have an obvious monetary incentive for sharing the stories they create. Sections of the public who are fully aware of the illegitimacy of an article may share it simply because they find the content humourous or compeletly outrageous, but regardless, it still increases exposure for it. Conversely, there are those who will share on the assumption that what they have read is fact. Usually these facts fit in to the pre-existing thoughts or beliefs one may have on the subject. Others share because the (inaccurate) content furthers a particular political ideology or influencing factor on a social issue.

David Leask, chief reporter for The Herald, attributed public perception of certain fake news stories to the fact that “people don't like seeing negative comments about their heroes”, adding that “there is a massive power in social media and people are vulnerable to this type of information”.

For example, there was a rumour that circulated from WikiLeaks suggesting John Podesta (chairman for the 2016 Clinton presidential campain) and even Clinton herself were involved in cannibalism – a claim refuted by Clinton supporters but propagated by those in favour of Trump. 

“It boils down to where people get their news from. If you only get news from bloggers or social media you’re not broadening your horizons enough to deal with the truth when its presented to you.” Neil MacKay, Sunday Herald editor

There is danger that in gaining popularity, fake news stories can also gain credibility and the spread of fake news is “absolutely” something journalists should be conscious of when trying to do their job, according to MacKay. 

He says: “It boils down to where people get their news from. If you only get news from bloggers or social media you’re not broadening your horizons enough to deal with the truth when its presented to you.

“People arn’t exercising their minds enough, they are not exposed to enough media sourses. If I only get news from my Twitter feed, for example, it’s a shared peer group, I am limiting myself to the kind of information I get and most of it I will already know. I read papers I don’t like to open myself to different opinions, I might not agree with them but I still expose myself to them.”

MacKay then cites a famous peer study about the Iraq war which found that “people who believed the lies and fake reoprts about the war used Fox News as their main source of news - they did not expose themselves to other media outlets,” he says.

Leask adds: “The issue for mainstream media is what you do when the fake story gets so big it cant be ignored.”

Although mainstream media does, not or should not, run with fake news stories there are times when unverified information is presented.

It happened recently when Buzzfeed ran with a story claiming Donald Trump was compromised by Russian Intelligence through damaging video and audio files.

There are also times when the media makes genuine mistakes, adding fuel to the fake news fire, and can directly or indirectly influence public opinion on political or social issues. 

Scotland is by no means immune to this. When polarising opinions are felt on contentious political or social debate the public can be swept up in a mass of accurate and inaccurate information. Much like the presidential elections, the Scottish independence debate in the lead up to the referendum in 2014 created a hotbed for opposing sides to speculate about, share and most importantly believe false news reports.

Leask says: “We have examples of in Scotland during indyref on both sides of the argument”. The error in the Daily Record that £26m was to be spent on Gaelic road signs was “a big thing in the minds of people against Scottish independence,” he adds. Conversely, false reports of a secret oil field west of Shetland had many in support of the Yes campaign convinced the UK Government was involved in a conspiracy to cover it up. 

The integrity of mainstream media and journalists is often more exposed than that of a blogger or poster in public perception. However, online publications are coming under greater public scrutiny following the high profile cases of fake news originating on the internet.

“The issue for mainstream media is what you do when the fake story gets so big it cant be ignored.” David Leask, The Herald

Fake news was certainly a prevalent issue in the media throughout 2016 and continues to be challenging for both mainstream media and the public to decipher. Leask raises concern about journalists using time to investigate stories cropping up on social media, asking: “Is it our job to ‘debunk’ as journalists?”

MacKay reaffirms the importance of credible journalism, saying: “Politicians have been dealing with fake news for years - our job is to be the watch dog to those in power.”

The threat is now being addressed by the government, by mainstream media and by social networking giants in the hopes of steering the public away from taking fake news at face value.

However, it’s not yet clear whether the volume of these stories is dropping. As long as there is money to be made, it will be difficult to prevent the spread of fake news. However, the greater the intervention from the likes of Facebook, and the greater awareness there is in identifying these stories, the less susceptible people may become to taking this information as truth.

Picture courtesy of ep_jhu

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