In the book The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket, there’s a paragraph that reads like this:
“Newspaper stories aren't always accurate," Klaus said nervously.
The shopkeeper frowned. "Nonsense," he said. "The Daily Punctilio wouldn't print things that aren't true. If the newspaper says somebody is a murderer, then they are a murderer and that's the end of it. Now you said you wanted to send a telegram?”
This is very similar to Jill Abramson’s quote: “If The Times said it, it was the absolute truth.”
Reading both examples out of context means some people will take them literally, while others will see them as a portrayal of real-life mockery.
Whichever group of people you resonate with, the same question arises: can we even mention objective truth and the media in the same sentence? This question is especially relevant nowadays when we’re bombarded with non-truthfulness, that is, fake news.
So, how do we navigate our journey to truthfulness in a sea full of fake news?
A good start is to get informed about fake news better - how it appears, how it spreads, what it means, and how to recognize it so that you can stay on the right - or let’s say, more truthful - track.
And that’s what we’ll help you with today!
What Is Fake News?
Fake news can be defined "as those news stories that are false: the story itself is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes. Sometimes these stories may be propaganda that is intentionally designed to mislead the reader, or may be designed as “clickbait” written for economic incentives (the writer profits on the number of people who click on the story). In recent years, fake news stories have proliferated via social media, in part because they are so easily and quickly shared online."
Nowadays, fake news travels at the speed of light, and this shouldn’t come as a surprise - people spend long hours on the internet, watching TV, and/or using social media, so they’re exposed to all types of information. So consequently, you’d assume that this influx would make it easy to spot false information.
However, the problem with fake news isn’t with spotting them - it’s with believing in them. The problem with fake news, or fabricated stories to affect the opinions of the public isn’t a recent phenomenon. It’s a powerful driving force that has a wide range of motives: political, financial, personal, and so on.
And when we consider how easy it is to write and share stuff on the internet, it becomes evident that fake news can’t be stopped altogether.
This means we should strive to inform ourselves better. The silver lining is that it gives us an opportunity to become critical about the things we listen to/hear/see and tell, and also sharpen our senses before we spread news and/or discuss their validity. In other words, it teaches us to take things with a grain of salt before we’ve had the chance to properly confirm them.
Fake News Examples
There are plenty of fake news examples of the Internet. In fact, it’s more than likely you’ve been exposed to fake news at some point. Who knows, you may not even know you’ve read a fake news article, to begin with. And there’s nothing wrong with that - truth be told, there are so many false stories out there that it’d be weird not to fall for at least some of them.
What’s more, when it comes to fake news, it’s all about pointing out relevant examples to understanding what goes on behind the scenes. Only by exploring an actual piece of fake news can you understand the consequences it may cause.
So, we’ve scoured the Internet to find relevant examples, and here’s our selection of fake news examples.
The infamous fake news scandal Pizzagate revolves around the following story: Hilary and Bill Clinton used a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C., the Comet Ping Pong, as a pedophile sex ring. The back room was allegedly used for kidnapping and then trafficking children.
The story started spreading on Twitter and Reddit first and then became viral on Facebook too. A thread called Pizzagate attracted thousands of subscribers, but since then it has been suspended.
The whole situation got out of hand, as Alefantis, the restaurant’s owner, and his staff received death threats on various social media channels.
Afterward, the pizza restaurant’s owner issued a statement on Facebook: “Comet Ping Pong is a beloved institution in Washington. What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has started, there has been a plethora of fake news. From miracle cures, and rumors claiming that consuming garlic will treat the illness, to loading up on vitamin C, and drinking bleach.
Here’s one such “recipe” that circulated on social media channels: “Good news, Wuhan’s coronavirus can be cured by one bowl of freshly boiled garlic water. An old Chinese doctor has proven its efficacy. Many patients have also proven this to be effective. Eight (8) cloves of chopped garlic add seven (7) cups of water and bring to boil. Eat and drink the boiled garlic water, overnight improvement, and healing. Glad to share this.”
This piece of fake news revolves around a Twitter confrontation between Pakistan and Israel and nuclear powers.
The story first popped up on the site AWD News, which has been identified by fact-checking organizations as a fake news site.
The issue was allegedly prompted by the publication of a fake story with the headline: “Israeli Defense Minister: If Pakistan sends ground troops to Syria on any pretext, we will destroy this country with a nuclear attack”.
AWD News was accused of playing on “nationalist fantasy” and conspiracy theories to create fake and alarming stories.
Khawaja Mohammad Asif, Pakistan’s defense minister, apparently read the article as a genuine threat and took to Twitter to warn Israel that “Pakistan is a nuclear state too”.
On 1 July 2017, a dubious website called AllNews4US.com posted a story claiming that “a Muslim figure” threatened to leave the USA “unless they were provided pork-free menus”.
The story was quickly picked up by other clickbaity websites such as “Freedom Writers“, “USA Life Buzz“, and “World Source Media“, and spread further.
The story also contained a reference to President Donald Trump’s ban against travel into the USA from several countries with large Muslim populations. Then the story shifted to Michel Rotger, a conservative mayor of the French city of Chevigny-Saint Sauveur and his decision to allegedly ban any school menu that excludes pork.
This story was first reported by L’Express, a French magazine.
All in all, the story ended up being a totally fake one.
Conspiracy theorists are said to have linked the new 5G mobile networks and the coronavirus pandemic, which has fueled arson attacks on cell towers. There have been many such conspiracy theories about wireless communications posing threats throughout the years, but it seems the pandemic has amplified them.
The medical director of the National Service in England, Stephen Powis, said: “I’m absolutely outraged, absolutely disgusted, that people would be taking action against the very infrastructure that we need to respond to this health emergency”.
Overall, 50 fires targeted at cell towers have been reported in Britain, 16 have been torched in the Netherlands, and other such attacks have been reported in Belgium, Cyprus, and Ireland.
Fake News Definition
Fake news is:
- also referred to as junk news, alternative facts, pseudo-news, false news, and hoax news;
- something we’re all susceptible to believing at some point (regardless of our intelligence, knowledge, and level of information);
- tricky, as it includes both stories that are absolutely not true (stories made up from scratch) and stories that have some truth to them (but exclude important details);
- an example for the latter can be when a politician is misquoted, or something that they said is taken out of context so that it has a completely different meaning when compared to the politician’s original comment;
- false information being presented as truthful;
- easily spreadable (especially nowadays with the increasing presence of various social media channels);
- said to cause a wide range of emotions: anger, frustration, disbelief, betrayal, and so on;
- becoming a major phenomenon;
- misleading information, thus, it’s misleading people;
- fabricated stories;
- misleading content;
- manipulated content, data, facts, stories, and information;
- part of the concept of misinformation and disinformation;
- Misinformation: false information that’s inaccurately created and could be spread further (however, its function is not to deceive on purpose);
- Disinformation: false information the purpose of which is to deceive deliberately;
- inaccurate news;
- distorted content;
- becoming a big issue;
- damaging to specific individuals/ organizations/ countries/ labels/ groups of people, and so on (depending on what the fake news is about);
- said to show up in different ways:
- sometimes in the form of propaganda to achieve a specific goal;
- so-called “clickbait” to satisfy someone’s economic incentives (for instance, the writer of a fake news story might make money based on the number of people that click on that story); in general, people on the lookout to make more money;
- satirists who simply want to have fun and cause others to laugh (there are many such websites, and we’ll discuss them in greater detail later on in the article);
- untrained journalists who don’t double-check sources, don’t care about the accuracy of the information, and simply want to get “their job done” without thinking about what this may cause;
- party partisans keen to deliberately influence political beliefs and spread false stories that comply with their biased political opinions.
Fake news isn’t:
- anything new;
- able to provide verifiable sources;
- always written in a “weird” manner (in fact, many fake news tend to be written quite “normally” and they may not be always distinguishable in style from “true” news);
- something you can run and/or protect yourself from (in fact, there’s a study that suggests that more than 25 percent of Americans visited a fake news website in a six-week period during the 2016 U.S. presidential election);
- easily resolved and explained (ultimately, people will believe what they want to believe, even if certain news ends up being refuted);
- something that’s supposed to be encouraged (on the contrary, it’s supposed to be punished);
- always straightforward (that is, it isn’t always clear why we’re prone to believing fake news, as there are many factors that need to be considered);
- always the actual problem (sometimes people make a fake news issue where there actually isn’t one - for example, they may claim accurate stories are false only because they disagree with them);
- easily manageable (you can’t predict the outcome or the consequence that fake news may cause);
- supposed to be further shared with others (you can contribute to a larger problem if you decide to engage in sharing such malicious content - that said, if you share it to warn others, then that’s a whole different subject);
- always easily detectable (that’s what causes so much trouble when fake news pops up and it starts spreading like a virus).
The History of Fake News
It’s very difficult to talk about the beginnings of something that seems to have been part of human history since... forever. It seems as though “using fake news…goes so far back into pre-history of the Internet that [you] can’t find good references when it started”, as Robert Graham has aptly pointed out.
Still, there are certain periods along with examples from history that may have shaped the way we perceive fake news today.
For instance, during the first century B.C., Octavian spread disinformation about Mark Anthony, his rival, claiming he was a drunk and a womanizer. He also suggested that he was just Cleopatra’s puppet.
In 1439 A.D., after the printing press had been invented, various publications became much more available, but there was no way to know whether they adhered to journalistic ethics. It was later on, somewhere in the 17th century, that journalists started to cite their sources in the footnotes.
In more recent history, it seems as though fake news started spreading drastically in the 1990s, a period when an increasing number of magazines, articles, and newspapers were released in circulation. Also, the 1990s marked the fast-paced development and personalized use of technology, so, by using computers and other electronic devices, news began spreading even faster.
The 21st century is probably the century with the greatest expansion of any type of news, including fake news. It’s not that there wasn’t such an abundance of news in the past - it’s just that the news nowadays spreads so fast, it’s incomparable to any other historic period. We’re literally a click away from finding out everything that’s going on on the other side of the planet.
Now, whether that information is truthful and valid or not is another thing. And that’s precisely why being aware of the damage fake news can do is of utmost importance.
Why Is Fake News Important?
Fake news reveals a lot about human psychology - how quickly we trust something we’ve come across online; how fast we are to judge others; and also how willing we are to share it with others.
Fake news also tells us how opinionated and inflexible we are. We’re often biased and only willing to see one side of things. As Chrysalis Wright, an associate lecturer at the University of Central Florida says:
most of the time the information that we view already agrees with views we have because the information that is presented to us is based on our previous likes and clicks and all of that anyways. That in itself is problematic because it does not present us with the whole picture on any topic. And if we only see one side of the story or whatever it is all of the time we begin to believe that that is all of the information that we have. But we come across information, it makes us feel emotional, we get upset about it, we think other people should have this information, So, we share it, we like it, we send it to all of our friends and family and then it just, the cycle just continues.
Moreover, fake news shows us how important the truth is, or at least how devoted we should be to seeking it. It shows us why it’s so frustrating to be misled, manipulated, and lied to.
It also forces us to look beyond sensationalism and spot exaggerated language, manipulative phrases, and questionable images. It motivates us to adopt a kind of detective-like attitude.
Finally, fake news is important because it shows us how much chaos and damage can be caused by a simple article. Fake news causes fear and distrust among readers/ listeners, and this matters because the more we engage in it, the further we are from the truth.
How To Recognize Fake News?
Recognizing fake news isn’t always straightforward, but there are things you can pay attention to which can be of great help:
- Read beyond the headlines. Headlines are almost always exaggerated and put things out of context to attract readers. In other words, their point is to grab attention and simply manipulate readers’ emotions.
- Always check dates. This is important because old stories are often recycled and shared in order to mislead readers regarding the current state of affairs.
- Consider the source. What’s the URL like? Also, review the formatting - poor sentence structure and weird syntax, paragraphs lacking unity and greater context, and misspellings all allude to a questionable source.
- Search for supporting evidence and look at the bigger picture. Is there enough evidence? How do the claims sound? If there are photos in the articles, you may even check how accurate they are by doing a reverse image search on Google.
- Don’t forget your critical thinking skills. Maintaining a critical approach toward everything you hear/ see/ read can help tremendously. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn't trust anyone and/or anything you read, but it simply means to take things with a grain of salt.
- Recognize your biases. Having biases is a normal thing when we soak up information - all of us have them. They could stem from our upbringing, educational system, family, friends, acquaintances, and our own personal beliefs. Reflect on how all of these might be affecting your judgment.
- Finally, don’t forget to visit fact-checking websites such as:
Examples of Fake News in Everyday Life
Just because something’s on Facebook or Twitter doesn’t make it true. Yet, a lot of people find it difficult to believe in this.
This is so because we’ve grown so used to being exposed to news on social media that we aren’t critical towards it anymore (or have never been critical to it).
We spend so much time on social media interacting with people and absorbing posts, news, photos, sponsored links, videos, and polls that we aren’t critical towards. It’s like we like it so much that we’re insatiable - we simply want more of it, without stopping for a second to think about it in depth.
But here’s the thing: no matter how hard we try - social media is here to stay. “There is no way back; Pandora’s box is opened [...] We are all part of the ecosystem, consuming and also generating information, so we must do our part of the job to make the ecosystem healthy”, as suggested in The New York Times.
What’s interesting about social media is that not only does it spread fake news produced on a specific social media channel (for instance, someone writing a Facebook status sharing inaccurate information), but it also supports the sharing of fabricated content published elsewhere (such as an article from a questionable website that ends up being shared in someone’s Facebook feed). But even when fake news isn’t completely fabricated,
“it typically distorts real-world information by tweaking or contorting it, mixing it with true information, and highlighting its most sensational and emotional elements. It then scales rapidly on social media and spreads faster than our ability to verify or debunk it. Once it spreads, it’s hard to put back in the bottle and even harder to clean up, even with a healthy dose of the truth.”
Finally, there’s no cure for the spread of fake news on social media. We can limit how much time we spend there; we can control who we follow, and whose posts and statuses we read; yet, at the end of the day, there’s always going to be that specific piece of fake news that pops up seemingly “out of nowhere”. What matters is how we react to it, and whether we buy into the falseness of it or not.
Social media’s commitment to truth
In the USA, the First Amendment protects individuals from government censorship. That said, when it comes to social media, we need to understand that these are all private companies we’re talking about, so they have the right to censor what people post as they deem appropriate.
To better understand this, we need to take a look at their censorship policies first.
What’s more, we decided to not only include the policies regarding fake news (which is under Misinformation in the below sections), but to also provide you with information on other types of speech, as we believe they’re all equally important, relevant, and most importantly, interconnected.
So, let’s take a closer look.
Type of speech: Hate
“The First Amendment protects hate speech from government censorship unless that speech incites or is likely to incite imminent lawless action.”
“Bans hate speech, but does allow humor, satire, or social commentary related to these topics, as well as sharing someone else’s hate speech in order to raise awareness or educate others about hate speech. Organizations dedicated to promoting hatred against protected groups are not allowed.”
“Don't post any content that demeans, defames, or promotes discrimination or violence on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or veteran status.”
“Permitted unless it ‘encourages or incites violence, threatens, harasses, bullies, or encourages others to do so’.”
“Don't encourage violence or hatred. Don't post content for the purpose of promoting or inciting the hatred of, or dehumanizing, individuals or groups based on race, ethnic or national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, age, veteran status, sexual orientation, disability, or disease.”
“...we don't support content that promotes or condones violence against individuals or groups based on race or ethnic origin, religion, disability, gender, age, nationality, veteran status, or sexual orientation/gender identity, or whose primary purpose is inciting hatred on the basis of these core characteristics. This can be a delicate balancing act, but if the primary purpose is to attack a protected group, the content crosses the line.”
“Hate speech is forbidden but may be permitted if (1) shared to challenge it or to raise awareness and (2) with that intent clearly expressed.”
“You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.”
Type of speech: Misinformation
“The First Amendment protects false statements of fact (although it does allow for people who make false statements of fact that damage others’ reputations to be sued for defamation).”
“Facebook’s policy is not to remove false news, but instead attempt to reduce its visibility. As of fall 2020, it will ban political ads on the site the week before Election Day. It will also remove posts that try to discourage people from voting. Post-election, Facebook will not allow any candidates to claim false victories by redirecting users to accurate information.”
“We prohibit malicious deception and deliberately spreading false information that causes harm, such as denying the existence of tragic events.”
“[W]e will remove content denying that well-documented violent events, like the Holocaust or the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, took place.”
“You may not use Twitter’s services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress voter turnout or mislead people about when, where, or how to vote.”
Type of speech: Harassment
“The First Amendment does not protect true threats (serious expressions of intent to commit acts of unlawful violence) from government censorship. But some anti-bullying laws have been struck down for violating the First Amendment.”
“Bans content that purposefully targets private individuals with the intent of degrading or shaming them. Includes repeatedly targeting people with unwanted friend requests or messages.”
“Do not bother or make other people feel bad on purpose.” This policy does not have any limitations or exceptions.
“Harassment on Reddit is defined as systematic and/or continued actions to torment or demean someone in a way that would make a reasonable person conclude that Reddit is not a safe platform to express their ideas or participate in the conversation, or fear for their safety or the safety of those around them.”
“Don't engage in targeted abuse or harassment. Don't engage in the unwanted sexualization or sexual harassment of others.”
“It’s not ok to post abusive videos and comments on YouTube. If harassment crosses the line into a malicious attack it can be reported and may be removed.”
“Bans content that targets private individuals to degrade, shame, or blackmail them, and repeated unwanted messages.”
“Bans harassment, and considers factors such as if the behavior is one-sided, includes threats, incites others to commit harassment, and if the primary purpose of an account is to harass others. Does not limit this policy to private individuals.”
How to approach this?
- How can you spot fake news on social media? Here’s some help:
- Does the account have any professional and/or emotional stakes in the claims they make?
- Does the information presented sound reasonable and plausible? Is it reputable? Does it cite any other sources?
- Why is this piece of information valuable to the person who posted it? In other words, what’s in it for them?
- Is the context understandable? Or is it just a bunch of stuff taken out of context and then randomly posted on someone’s profile?
- Do you perceive social media channels as a reliable source of information? Why? Why not?
- How do you think fake news on social media can be effectively fought against? What approach would you adopt?
- Have you ever come across fake news on social media? If yes, what was the news about? What did you do?
- According to you, what’s the right thing to do when you notice fake news? Do you think it’s okay to write a comment with accurate information, report the user’s profile, or do nothing?
- Do you think social media channels are mostly about sharing opinions and biases rather than sharing facts and reliable information? Reflect on the way you use your social media channels. What do you usually post about? What do you comment on? How do you communicate with others? Do you tend to engage in conflicts with people (users) you’ve never met only because you don’t see eye to eye with them? Or maybe you just like to read stuff without ever actively engaging in discussions?
- Do you think becoming a victim of fake news can have serious consequences? If yes, how so?
- When you read posts on social media, do you maintain a healthy and normal level of curiosity? How critical are you, really?
- Do you know what steps are taken to push back against fake news on social media websites?
You can get a website up and running in no time. Then, you can post blog content and share it with your visitors/followers within seconds. In other words, nowadays everyone can run their own website and publish whatever content they like.
And there would be nothing wrong with it if it weren’t for the fact that that content is often questionable. No matter how hurtful, false, deceiving, and/or problematic a piece of content is, it can still be published and made available online to the public.
Now, some websites are known to be posting false information. Here’s a list with some of them:
- Natural News
- Liberal Society
- React 365
- Empire News
- The Boston Tribune
That said, bigger problems arise when we don’t know that we are dealing with a fake news website/article/information. That’s what causes trouble. And although Pablo Reyes may have said to “believe half of what you see and nothing you read online”, doing so is much more difficult.
Ultimately, all of us are faced with a surging amount of information each day, and it’s only logical that we won’t be able to evaluate each piece of information with the necessary discernment.
Still, we should at least keep ourselves informed as much as possible about potential fake news websites, fake news articles circulating on the Internet, and so on. We can’t protect ourselves from every fake news website and article out there, but it’s our duty to try and do our best.
News satire has really been around for a long time, but it’s become increasingly popular on the web.
Websites such as The Onion, Hollywood Leak, and The UnReal Times use satirical commentary and rely heavily on irony and comedy. Some publish entirely parodical posts which have no realistic element to them, whereas others use real-life events and use comedy to criticize them.
Here are several other prominent satirical news websites:
- The Hard Times;
- The Lemon Press;
- Southend News Network;
- The Lemon Press;
- Free Wood Post, and many others.
We’re including this section as a subcategory of websites because we need to understand that the purpose of these websites is different from those websites that only seek to deceive and misinform people. In other words, such comedy sites aim to entertain the reader/viewer and not to deceive them.
However, with so much information on the internet and such a huge number of websites, users can definitely get confused every once in a while. That means that even these satirical articles may be misinterpreted and/or confuse readers, so someone could end up presenting them as accurate. One such instance is a satire piece about Kanye West which was published on the ScrapeTV website. Various media picked up the piece and reported it as being factual. Here’s an actual explanation:
Earlier this week, a satirical Website called Scrape.TV posted a (fake) story about how, with the passing of Michael Jackson, Kanye West declared himself as the new King of Pop. For those who actually scrutinized Scrape TV and saw its other headlines (“Study Finds Silver Bullets Largely Ineffective Against Werewolves,” “Satanist Group Claims Devil Getting Bad Rap”), it was apparent from the onset that West was just being made fun of for past indiscretions involving his giant ego, like when South Park “murdered” Kanye.
What’s more, some sites such as Literally Unbelievable tend to post the authentic and shocking reactions of people who find their satirical articles to be real too.
Overall, satire stories are basically made-up stories, which means they aren’t meant to be taken seriously. They serve as a form of entertainment mainly for humorous purposes.
How to approach this?
- How did you discover this website? Was it promoted somewhere (for instance, on someone’s Facebook profile)? Maybe a friend/acquaintance recommended it? Or you found it entirely on your own?
- Consider your first emotional reaction when you access a specific website. How do you feel about:
- The website’s name (does it sound credible and professional?)
- The site’s design and overall layout (does it look neat and believable?)
- The headlines and the articles’ titles (are they controversial and come across as clickbait or does it look like they could offer meaningful content?)
- Is there an author’s name below each piece of writing?
- Does the contact section offer a realistic email, does it look friendly and welcoming?
- Check out the “About Us” section. Is it a “normal” website or does it say that it’s a satire/ fantasy news site?
- Do the blog posts have a date included? In general, is it easy to trace when the blog posts were published?
- Are there any hyperlinks to other high-authority sites and sources? In other words, are certain claims backed up by evidence and meaningful facts?
- If you're checking out images and/or videos, how can you tell that they haven’t been altered? Or maybe they’ve simply been taken out of context?
- What do you think: what topics are likely to be the main focus of fake news?
- Can you recognize some persuasion strategies that make fake news come across as true?
- What kind of details do you think will be left out/included in a fake news website/piece of content? Why?
- What circumstances and factors would contribute to people believing in a fake news story?
- Do you think cultural backgrounds affect our reasoning when it comes to noticing fake news stories? If yes, how so?
- Do you think fake news should be tackled and discussed within educational contexts? (Apparently, according to a Stanford study, most students have no idea when news is fake, so there’s clearly an issue with this.)
Fake news is present at all times, but it has the tendency to grow to staggering proportions during election periods. And while this may not apply to all countries, it’s certainly true for the USA, and there are many examples supporting this.
For instance, there’s a study from Ohio State University suggesting that Donald Trump may have won the 2016 election with “the support” of fake news.
And even recently, Donald Trump received harsh criticism for spreading false stories and misinformation on the Internet, resulting in him getting permanently banned from Twitter.
His infamous tweets include unfounded allegations regarding voting fraud and also questionable reactions and comments supposedly inciting violence (which is one of the reasons for his Twitter profile’s permanent suspension).
Politics is a very tricky field, even without fake news. It’s very biased, people get attached to outcomes, and each person uses their freedom of speech and expression to say whatever they wish to whomever they want.
That said, expressing such views can seriously harm public interest (especially if we use social media to express ourselves, as then, we’re talking about content that’s easily shareable and thus, spreadable), and can dangerously affect the overall public discourse along with people’s perception of a certain political figure/party/situation.
This leads to different people seeing/reading/listening to various perspectives (oftentimes inaccurate and false to begin with) and then forming opinions about an issue which aren’t based on objective facts.
As Bilawal Bhutto Zardari put it: “I have said that propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation have always been part of political warfare. Social media and other new platforms have given it a new life and reach through which the fake news phenomenon can reach everywhere”.
Finally, we need to consider mass media too - the abundance of fake news undermines the legitimacy and the authority mainstream news ought to show.
How to approach this?
- What do you think about political information? How is it supposed to be conveyed? What’s the best way?
- How affected are you personally by politics? Do you consciously engage in it or not? Do you scour the Internet to find specific political information to prove a point, or do you take your time and stay open to different political news and then form an opinion?
- Have you ever come across fake news regarding politics? Did you know it was fake news or not? How did you react to it? Did it affect your political orientation and/or beliefs? Why? Why not?
- Do you discuss politics with others? If yes, how honest are you about it? And also, do you have the tendency to mention actual political news you’ve come across to support your views?
- Do you follow politicians on social media? If yes, do you comment on their posts and announcements? Also, if you follow them, do you only leave comments under posts of politicians you support, or you tend to engage in negative discussions when somebody from the opposing political party shares something?
- If you know a specific piece of news is fake, what do you do about it? Do you ignore it, or maybe you want to let others know that it’s fake, too? If you want to warn them, are you willing to write a post on your personal profile, for instance, or are you more comfortable texting people individually and talking about it one-on-one?
- From your point of view, what’s the biggest problem that could arise from fake news in politics? What are some major consequences? And if it were up to you, how would you address them?
- What do you think about organizations such as Washington Post’s Fact Checker, FactCheck.org, and PolitiFact that check the accuracy of political claims made by politicians and news organizations? Would you trust them “blindly” or you’d have your doubts?
Conspiracy theories denote the beliefs of certain individuals or larger groups that specific events and/or situations are being secretly manipulated by powerful people with malicious intentions.
More or less, all conspiracy theories have the following traits in common:
- There’s a group of conspirators.
- There’s an ongoing “secret” plot, and there’s so-called “evidence” that seems to support the conspiracy theory.
- They tend to turn groups and/or people into scapegoats.
Conspiracy theories usually pop up during emotionally intense periods such as the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance. There have been a lot of conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 event, the J.F. Kennedy assassination, 5G, vaccination, climate change, the moon landing, and so on.
Most conspiracy theories first start as a suspicion, but once they’ve taken root, they grow fairly quickly and attract “followers”. The biggest challenge with conspiracy theories is to refute them, as each person that tries to do so is being seen as part of the conspiracy.
According to Karen Douglas, a professor of social psychology at the University of Kent,
Some psychological evidence suggests that people are drawn to conspiracy theories when they do feel uncertain either in specific situations or more generally. And there are other epistemic reasons why people believe in conspiracy theories as well in relation to this sort of need for knowledge and certainty. So people with lower levels of education tend to be drawn to conspiracy theories. And we don't argue that's because people are not intelligent. It's simply that they haven't been allowed to have, or haven't been given access to the tools to allow them to differentiate between good sources and bad sources or credible sources and non-credible sources. So they're looking for that knowledge and certainty, but not necessarily looking in the right places.
Finally, when it comes to why people spread conspiracy theories we can say there are several reasons:
- many people simply find them to be true;
- others simply wish to provoke;
- some groups of people want to target and/or manipulate others;
- certain people may have financial and/or political reasons to spread conspiracy theories.
How to approach this?
- How do you know you’re well-informed regarding some matters? We hope a quote by Ian Rowland may help here: “As human beings, we are all prone to believing in rubbish, and life is not short of temptations and opportunities to do so. Fortunately, there are some good ways of reducing the likelihood of this happening. Asking good questions is one. Getting well-informed about things is another. Trying to learn about good and bad reasoning is yet another”.
- What do you think about cyber propaganda? How does it affect you?
- Why do you think people believe in conspiracy theories? Also, have you believed in some conspiracy theories yourself? If you have, what are they?
- Are you interested in talking to people who believe in conspiracy theories? What would you ask them if you had the chance? Would you try to change their opinions? If yes, how would you approach this? Here are some tips:
- Keep calm and don’t react emotionally to their claims, no matter how reckless and/or unrealistic they may sound to you.
- Don’t be dismissive - listen to what they have to say first, and then state your opinion.
- Try to encourage their critical thinking skills without forcing them to look at things from your perspective. Allow them to understand things at their own pace.
- Ask them meaningful questions: Don’t you think some of your statements are a bit contradictory? What/who made you believe them? Have you read about this somewhere before? Are you absolutely sure that all the details surrounding this conspiracy theory make sense? Have you perhaps thought about the counter-evidence?
- Don’t set high expectations - in other words, don’t expect immediate results and them changing their views drastically overnight.
Famous Quotes About Fake News
“The human brain has not evolved to perceive reality, it has evolved to create an illusion of reality. That's why an exciting lie gains more attention than a boring truth.”
“When people talk about fake news, you know, a lot of folks just roll their eyes, like 'Oh, you know, whatever; people will figure it out.' The truth is, they don't always figure it out.”
“During our research, we discovered what I still, to this day, consider some of the scariest scientific results I have ever encountered. We found that false news diffused significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information—in some cases, by an order of magnitude. Whoever said “a lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” was right. We had uncovered a reality-distortion machine in the pipes of social media platforms, through which falsehood traveled like lightning, while the truth dripped along like molasses.”
“Most of us lived through the years when spam threatened to destroy e-mail. Today, democracy is being weakened by lies that come in waves and pound our senses the way a beach is assaulted by the surf. Leaders who play by the rules are having trouble staying ahead of a relentless news cycle and must devote too much effort trying to disprove stories that seem to come out of nowhere and have been invented solely to do them in.”
“The public doesn't know what to believe anymore. We don't know what stories are supposedly true, this idea of 'fake news.' We watch it on what I guess you would call a split-focus. It's half entertainment and half mystery.”
“Fake news is perfect for spreadability: It’s going to be shocking, it’s going to be surprising, and it’s going to be playing on people’s emotions, and that’s a recipe for how to spread misinformation.”
“It is a fact increasingly manifest that presentation of real news has sharpened the minds and the judgment of men and women everywhere in these days of real public discussion. We Americans begin to know the difference between the truth on the one side and the falsehood on the other, no matter how often the falsehood is iterated and reiterated. Repetition does not transform a lie into a truth.”
“People must not believe in rumours. Even those who are spreading rumours and fake news must realize that they are not only disturbing others, but also putting their own lives at risk.”
“More and more people are consuming news and other content from the internet than any other medium. And that's where the problem begins. The production and circulation of physical newspaper is highly expensive and so is maintaining a tv channel or a radio station, hence, transmission of news through these platforms are accessible mostly to traditional news media sources, and the public only acts as the consumer. But the same is not true when it comes to the transmission of news or any other content via the Internet. Anybody can transmit news via the internet quite instantly as well as consume it. And since there is no active fact-checking algorithm involved in this transmission, there is no way of telling whether the news you are receiving is real or fake, if you are not receiving it from a trusted traditional source.”
“You know, that is one of the consequences of the weak sense of responsibility of the press. The press does not feel responsibility for its judgments. It makes judgments and attaches labels with the greatest of ease. Mediocre journalists simply make headlines of their conclusions, which suddenly become generally accepted.”
“The internet is the most important tool for disseminating information we've had since the invention of the printing press. Unfortunately, it's also one of the best ways of stealing or suppressing information and for putting out misinformation.”
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
What effects can fake news have on real life?
Fake news can seriously have damaging effects on real life and in the societies where they’re most likely to circulate.
First of all, fake news may cause irrational fears in many areas of one’s life - finances, health, family, and so on (depending on the type of fake news being spread).
Then, it may spread unnecessary xenophobic and racist ideas. For instance, if there’s fake news surrounding Muslims “invading” a specific country, it’s not hard to guess how that country’s people will behave towards Muslims (those that are going to believe the news, of course).
Fake news may encourage bullying and violence against innocent individuals, as well.
Now, let’s discuss some actual examples of fake news consequences. Remember the Pizzagate story at the beginning of our article? Allegedly, such incidents hint at just one step in a long, dark trail of real-world consequences caused by fake news.
And the Pizzagate incident did not just have a societal impact, but it affected specific individuals too. Allegedly, a man from North Carolina traveled to Comet Ping Pong (the restaurant) to analyze this conspiracy for himself, and he even fired a rifle inside the restaurant in order to break the lock on a door during his intensive search. What’s more, the restaurant owner and the staff are said to have received death threats from other conspiracy theorists.
Also, the claims that Donald Trump won the 2016 elections (which we discussed in the section on politics) in part thanks to fake news has had a lot of political consequences. This may cause people supporting the opposing party to wonder whether the outcome of the election could have been different, how fake news caused this exactly, and so on. In other words, it may cause further political tension and frustration among the people.
Why is it important to detect fake news?
Fake news paves the way for promoting inaccurate ideologies, biases, fabricated content, and deception. Spreading disinformation may be fun for the “spreader”, but absolutely damaging for the person on the receiving end.
Fake news detection is important because if we let fake news slip by and co-exist with other, fact-based news, we lose track of true information. We lose track of values, morals, and ethics.
In other words, fake news messes up people’s ideas, beliefs, and thoughts once it becomes accepted by the masses.
So, no matter how challenging it may be to differentiate fake news from “normal” news, it has to be done. And the more responsible and self-educated in the matter a person is, the more likely it is they’ll take fake news detection more seriously.
Fake news isn’t damaging on its own. It becomes damaging once it’s spread, absorbed, and acted upon.
Falling into the trap of believing fake news can be fatal, and we already gave a lot of examples of real consequences. Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s a good beginning towards understanding the full scope of it.
Fake news is said to cause disruption within families too. As fake news and random conspiracy theories pop up, certain members connect with different types of news and this causes friction and tension in the communication between family members.
Finally, you can help make fake news known by reporting it. In other words, if you’ve noticed fake news circulating in your news feed on Facebook, you can report it. Plus, it’s something that doesn’t take much time, all you need to do is:
- Click next to the post you'd like to mark as false.
- Click Find support or report post.
- Click False News, then click Next.
- Click Done.
Of course, other social media channels offer the same tool (not all of them though). The more responsibility social media users can show in how they use these social media platforms, the more they can inspire others to follow suit.
How can you protect yourself from fake news?
Protecting yourself from fake news is tricky. This is so because we’re literally bombarded by various different news on a daily basis and it’s impossible to expect all of them to be fact-based and credible.
That said, there are ways to protect yourself from believing blindly in them, as well as absorbing misinformation that isn’t serving your highest good or that of the community.
Here are some suggestions:
- Be selective regarding what news you read/which portals you follow. In other words, make sure to follow social media profiles that have proven to be trustworthy in the past.
- Don’t believe everything you hear/read/see (especially if it sounds weird and/or too good to be true).
- Stay away from “because I said so” claims.
- Keep an open mind - read beyond the words.
- Understand that something is fake news, and don’t engage in it. Don’t let such misinformation affect you and/or influence your actions and thoughts.
- Be mindful of clickbait article titles (scandalous headings that are meant to grab your attention). Oftentimes, those articles aren’t truthful.
Suggestions for Further Reading
There’s no book (or any lecture or advice for that matter) that can help you identify every piece of fake news. It happens even to the sharpest of minds. Plus, considering the abundance of information we’re faced with on a daily basis, it’s a miracle we’re able to distinguish what’s true and what’s not most of the time.
That said, reading can definitely open your eyes more and help you get informed on the matter in greater detail. A lot has been written about fake news, how it shows up, how it can be prevented, and why it should be prevented.
And while we know that reading and writing about it doesn’t solve everything, it is a solid starting point.
Here are our book suggestions:
- The Anatomy of Fake News: A Critical News Literacy Education, by Nolan Higdon
- The Curious Person's Guide to Fighting Fake News, by David G. McAfee
- True or False: A CIA Analyst's Guide to Spotting Fake News, by Cindy L. Otis
- Fake News, Propaganda, and Plain Old Lies: How to Find Trustworthy Information in the Digital Age, by Donald A. Barclay
- Fact Vs. Fiction: Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in the Age of Fake News, by Darren Hudgins and Jennifer LaGarde
- Misinformation and Fake News in Education (Current Perspectives on Cognition, Learning and Instruction), by Panayiota Kendeou, Daniel H. Robinson, and Matthew T. McCrudden (editors)
- The Psychology of Fake News: Accepting, Sharing, and Correcting Misinformation, by Norbert Schwarz, Eryn Newman, Rainer Greifeneder and Mariela Jaffe
- The Smear: How Shady Political Operatives and Fake News Control What You See, What You Think, and How You Vote, by Sharyl Attkisson
- American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People's History of Fake News - From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, by Roberto Sirvent and Danny Haiphong
- The Truth Matters: A Citizen's Guide to Separating Facts from Lies and Stopping Fake News in Its Tracks, by Bruce Bartlett
- Outnumbered: From Facebook and Google to Fake News and Filter-bubbles – The Algorithms That Control Our Lives, by David Sumpter
- Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era, by Daniel J. Levitin
All in all, fake news seems to be a very prominent topic nowadays, and it shouldn't come as a surprise when we consider the negative effects it has.
Yet, there’s always more to be learnt, understood, and acknowledged. If you wish to go deeper with the issue of fake news, we’ve got you covered.
We have a comprehensive online course on fake news, where we dive deeper into matters - this was merely scratching the surface. We cover:
- how statistics can lie;
- what readers want;
- the motives of publishers;
- understanding bias, and the relationship between bias and the news;
- data, evidence, and fake news;
- facts and opinions, and so on.
This is such a versatile topic, and yet we can proudly say we’ve managed to include a lot of aspects that will give you a well-rounded understanding of the problem. Of course, we’d appreciate any feedback if you decide to join us.
Finally, we’d like to wrap things up with an inspiring quote by Brianna Keilar which says: “Misinformation is a virus unto itself”.
And we have the “cure”.
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