Understanding Fake News: a Broad Perspective on a Multifaceted Issue

Multimedia Reporting by Patrick Larsen

The term ‘fake news’ has picked up fairly constant levels of search interest for the past five years, according to Google Trends. All of that changed, however, right around one specific date: November 8, 2016. You might remember it as the United States presidential election.

Perhaps it is no surprise. Fake news has constantly been in the conscience of the American people since Donald Trump’s inauguration. In the past he has called news outlets such as CNN and BuzzFeed “fake news” on multiple occasions.

President Trump’s free use of this term is only part of the fake news hubbub, though. This brings us to a defining question of this article:

What is fake news?

Unfortunately for us, Donald Trump (along with everyone else) popularized a very poor term for what it is trying to describe.

(Disclaimer: this article will disregard Trump’s use of “fake news” except as a possible explanation for the popularity of the term – his use of the term is consistently inaccurate, even when dealing with something as general as fake news.)

Fake news can be a wide variety of things ranging from The Onion writing about Anthony Weiner sending an “Apology Sext to Entire Clinton Campaign” all the way to Alex Jones of InfoWars claiming Lady Gaga was ready to perform a satanic ritual at the Super Bowl.

Claire Wardle

Claire Wardle, strategy and research leader at First Draft News, brings some definition to the table.

According to Wardle, the first step is to know the difference between misinformation and disinformation – misinformation being “the inadvertent sharing of false information,” and disinformation being “the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false.” Obviously, disinformation is the more troubling of the two.

From here, Wardle gives us a very helpful infographic:

Infographic provided by First Draft News

Specific names are helpful, if not essential, when discussing fake news. As previously mentioned, fake news is a broad and misleading term in itself. Fitting, isn’t it?

The scale goes from least insidious to most insidious as it moves from left to right, making fabricated content the most dangerous.  For example, The Onion article (satire) is nearly harmless while the Alex Jones video (manipulated content) is dangerous and dishonest.

This information, however, only begins to scratch the surface.

Where does it come from?

Buzzfeed News media editor Craig Silverman has some answers.

Craig Silverman, Buzzfeed News Media Editor

In his article for BuzzFeed News titled “This Is How Your Hyperpartisan Political News Gets Made,” Silverman asks why two articles about Kellyanne Conway from entirely different sites (one liberal and one conservative) look almost identical.

“Using domain registration records and Google Analytics and AdSense IDs, BuzzFeed News determined that both sites are owned by American News LLC of Miami.”

That’s right. These two stories with diametrically opposing viewpoints came from the same source.

Silverman found that American News LLC is tied to several clickbait fake news sites posting content tailor made for people of different ideologies.  From this, we can assume that the biggest motivation behind the sites is not political, but monetary.

It’s not just Americans trying to make money off of this phenomenon, however. Fake news that concerns American politics can come from anywhere.

As Samanth Subramanian reports for Wired, there is actually a town in Macedonia that gained attention during the election for being “the registered home of at least 100 pro-Trump websites.”

It is unclear how much impact these websites had on the election, but it is quite clear why so many of them came out of such a faraway place: money. “Boris,” the main subject of this article, dropped out of high school to run pro-Trump websites. It paid off, too.

“Between August and November, Boris earned nearly $16,000 off his two pro-Trump websites,” writes Subramanian.  “The average monthly salary in Macedonia is $371.”

Despite how unsettling that may be, perhaps the scariest origin of fake news is intentional misinformation campaigns. Essentially, these are social media campaigns to profile all individual members of a targeted group (we’ll say voters in a Presidential election) and give them bits of information that are tailored to them.

That means that all of your likes, comments, friends and countless other data points could be gathered by one of these companies to feed you propaganda.

Jonathan Albright writes all about this tactic as used by Cambridge Analytica (CA), a data analytics firm hired by the Trump campaign, in his Medium post “What’s Missing From The Trump Election Equation? Let’s Start With Military-Grade PsyOps.

Jonathan Albright, Elon Professor/Data journalist

Essentially, CA’s job was to attempt to individually profile every American voter using data gathered from social media, internet history, ad interactions and many more data sets.

That’s still not all that’s going on here, though. As we know, Cambridge Analytica aren’t the only people gathering information from internet history. They provide a good example of what Facebook and Google do as echo chambers of emotion and bias (in a more sinister way), but that wasn’t good enough for Albright. He wanted to figure out exactly where it was coming from.

“For the most part, I’m looking at fake news from a system-level perspective,” said Albright. “I found evidence that many factors are overlooked in the fake news debate. These include ad tracking technology, content delivery and web hosting providers, YouTube, Pinterest, LinkedIn, and that misinformation tends to flow from smaller sites in the hyper-biased political news sphere into social media platforms.”

He’s referring to the piece on Cambridge Analytica as well as the rest of his series on fake news in which he thoroughly investigates the complete path that far-right propaganda and  fake news takes – where it starts, where it ends, where it goes in the middle.

This brings us to our next question:

How do people fall for it?

When it comes to the “Military Grade Psy-Ops,” it is not so much about people falling for it as it’s about people having it fed to them strategically.

As previously mentioned, Cambridge Analytica (CA) used internet data points gathered from individual voters to create personality profiles on each different person. From there, advertising could be targeted on a level mostly unprecedented in American politics.

This is a good lens through which to look at the fake news we see today.  Fake news takes advantage of our social media and search history “echo chambers” by being sensationalist.  It uses language that preys on people’s existing prejudices.

Breitbart, a well-known fake news publication, has plenty of headlines that do just this.  Take for example “Planned Parenthood’s Body Count Under Cecile Richards Is Up to Half a Holocaust.”  This is an article written by former senior editor and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos about undercover videos of Planned Parenthood employees.  The article itself is filled with inaccurate or misleading statements about the business model of Planned Parenthood, among other things.  All of this is done to fire up pro-life individuals in order to get more shares and push Breitbart’s alt-right ideology.

What’s being done?

At the end of the day, it’s tough to say what the best course of action is for dealing with the systemic problem that is fake news.

“I don’t think there is an easy fix,” said Albright. “What’s currently happening is a problem that will never really disappear.”

Alexios Mantzarlis, a journalist and fact-checker working for Poynter, doesn’t think we should sit back and watch the problem grow. He thinks we should put a stronger emphasis on fact checking.

Alexios Mantzarlis, International Fact-Checking Network

In his article “Journalism can’t afford for corrections to be next victim of ‘fake news’ frenzy,” Mantzarlis writes about the threat to fact checking posed by the term “fake news.”

In this instance, a newspaper was fact checking its own work after publishing an unfortunate but mostly innocuous error.

“The Texas newspaper’s top headline on Feb. 21 incorrectly indicated that Lt. Gen. McMaster would be replacing Vice President Mike Pence — rather than the outgoing National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.”

The error must have been horrifying to the newspaper, but it seems more comedic than problematic when looking back. That’s the opinion of this writer – not so of some commenters.

“Hey, did anyone think of proofreading your headline today before the paper went to press?” reader Barbara Tyler asked. “I am pretty sure Trump did not replace his vice president. Fake news at its best. Sometimes I wonder why I continue to subscribe to your paper.”

This sort of outlook on fake news is a different level to the issue entirely. It’s why the carefree use of the term by public figures is dangerous.  It also goes hand in hand with why fact checking is so important to Mantzarlis.

Fact checking seems to work, too – to a certain extent. In another article, “Fact-checking changes minds but not votes, according to new research,” Mantzarlis discusses the findings of a study Royal Society Open Science.

The study worked by asking people to assess several different statements used during the presidential campaign. Some were factual, others were not, some were attributed, others were not. From there, participants were asked to assess the statements after seeing a fact-check either confirming or denying it.

Mean belief in statements made over time for each group/statement type, showing effect of fact checking over time.  Graph from Royal Society Open Science.

“The results are clear: Regardless of partisan preference, belief in Trump falsehoods fell after these were corrected.”

As Mantzarlis points out, this study doesn’t show that fact-checking has a measurable impact on ballot choices. That should not be too concerning to a journalist, however. What matters is that fact-checking does work in the fight against misinformation.

John Robinson, adjunct professor at UNC

John Robinson, adjunct professor at the University of North Carolina and former editor at the Greensboro News and Record, thinks that fact-checking is an imperfect solution.

“There are two responsibilities,” Robinson said.  “One is on the news consumer to make sure that they are getting factual information and absorbing it and understanding what the information is as best I can.”

“The other side of it is the people who are presenting the information.  There’s a lot of responsibility to go around.”

What can be done/Wrapping up

By now, you may have figured out that talking about fake news isn’t easy.  There are lots of things to cover and, as with all new problems, solutions are not clearly defined.

Stephanie Brown, director of Park Library

Stephanie Brown, director of Park Library at UNC, wants to help bring solutions to students.

At this point, Brown is especially interested in bringing information about fake news to students outside of the communications field.

She wants to “teach non-journalists what reporters do – you talk to sources, you gather information.”

This is an interesting idea.  So much discussion coming from certain politicians is focused on undermining mainstream news media sources that it seems to have lowered trust in the press.  Maybe helping people to understand what it is the news media does is the key to rebuilding that trust.

Beyond that, Brown wants to help students with determining the trustworthiness of an article online.

“Let’s say you see a story on Facebook and you are not sure if it’s true or not,” Brown said.  “Before you share it, you should check it out.  So how would you go about checking out whether a story you see is in fact true.”

In terms of what universities should be doing, Robinson wants to see media literacy classes taught.

“For a couple years now I’ve proposed that UNC-Chapel Hill should require a media literacy and understanding media course for all students in the same way that English and history and econ courses are required.”

The purpose of a media literacy course would be to help students understand the news media a little better.  This would help to foster trust in the decisions of mass media because more people would understand what goes into making those decisions.

“It seems to me as if it’s a failure of the education system that they don’t have a stronger place for a media literacy requirement,” Robinson said.

Brown also thinks that media literacy courses are a must.

“Not only universities, I think high schools should be doing it, I think it should probably be taught in middle schools,” Brown said.  “I think it needs to be taught to everyone in some way and I think librarians are uniquely positioned to do that.”

Outside (and inside) of schools, lots of work is being done by lots of people – journalists and researchers especially.  It’s important to support these people in their efforts to quell this threat.  You can do so by actively following and sharing the work of the people mentioned in this article as well as taking some of the tips from the following guide:

For more thorough information on checking your own facts, please check out this page created by Brown.  It features many helpful resources for teaching yourself to be a better news consumer.

Online fake news may well be looked upon as the defining media issue of this time.  It will be written about in textbooks and it will be referenced in scholarly discussions for years to come.

Although we will likely never leave it all the way behind, do your best to at least be aware of it and talk about it.  Discussion can only help shed more light on the issue.

Check facts and click carefully!


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