What is fake news and how do you spot it  

What is fake news - Featured image

The modern day disinformation epidemic is not the first chapter in the dissemination of made-up facts. The so-called age of post-truth existed long before misinformation became known as fake news.

But today that term has become an integral part of global political warfare. It can affect elections, fuel ethnic violence and help crush dissent. So many people want to know what is distorted, what is credible and what is fake news?

Fake news spans multiple styles and practices, including everything from clickbait websites to satirical ones.

What is fake news?

During the peak of the Cold War, the UK’s foriegn office housed the so-called Information Research Department. The IRD’s primary function was to forge documents and produce “fake news stories” that were later fed to mainstream journalists and academics.

In 1963, the department exploited an incident in Bulgaria where a group of African students left the country, claiming racial descrimination. The IRD disseminated phony press releases, accusing Bulgaria of “white superiority.”

Although seismic changes in online technology have given rise to far more sophisticated campaigns, the concept of faking news and spreading falsehoods to confuse or undermine one’s enemy is nothing new.

Russia’s alleged interference in the US electoral process in 2016 focused largely on the use of bots and troll farms. But whatever the methods, the ultimate objective is to blur the line between fact and fiction.

Fake news by definition is the deliberate spreading of disinformation or hoaxes through print, broadcast or online media outlets.

These fabrications often begin with the title itself. This is where the author can already claim something outrageous and untrue. The wording is also important, grabbing the reader’s attention and keeping him hooked throughout the whole article. This is called clickbait in online publications. A headline needs an accompanying image, and that’s where another cog gets added to the wheel. It might involve an unflattering photo of a person the article is trying to discredit, a provocative image or even a doctored one.

The next component of a fake news article is the story. The author twists facts, intentionally omitting information and taking quotations out of context. Objectivity is the first victim. One way to spot a fake news story is by evaluating the degree of bias. If a piece sides with someone without offering much in the way of evidence and documentation, it’s a sign that the news is fake. The aim is to misinform the reader  about the topic at hand.

These are all just basic steps on how to identify fake news, and new procedures are being introduced every day. The fake information might be mixed with actual news, so a double and triple check is needed to fully grasp the actual story. A simple Google search can help reveal if the piece is false news or not, and if there are others reporting on this matter. If more reputable news sources aren’t covering this story, or all provide completely different information, then the article is likely fake.

Why is fake news a problem?

A recent study revealed that 50% of Americans believe fake news is a bigger threat than terrorism and violent crime. The majority of those that took part in the study claimed that the political motives behind fake news undermine the nation’s confidence in government as well as each other. But the danger is that fake news could become a catch-all term used to discredit any piece of news that someone simply doesn’t agree with, regardless of whether it includes any fake information.

The rise of fake news in the 21st century happened due to social media where an eye-catching headline often turns a meek story into a trending post on Facebook. This massive surge in deliberate misinformation harmed the credibility of online platforms. Since its main goal is to misinform, the only party benefiting is the one spreading the propaganda.

Types of fake news

Not all fake news is created equally. Sometimes the premise is not even to deliberately misinform but rather entertain or simply increase sales by relying on sensationalism. One of these methods is commonly referred to as  yellow journalism. The term is used to describe techniques that involve the exaggeration of news headlines and gossip-mongering.

As such, we need to make a distinction between the different types of fake stories , starting from classic bait and switch all the way up to devious hoaxes that can shape national sentiment. Here are the most common formats you may encounter in newspapers and online.

Clickbait

Clickbait is most commonly defined as deceptive content designed to attract attention and encourage users to click on a link to a particular webpage. When it comes to fake news, headlines are the bread and butter of catching the reader’s attention. These may not necessarily be completely bogus but are always written in a way to provoke curiosity. It may be a teaser about a certain food that men should avoid or 7 types of banned books where “number 4 will surprise you”. It may also be a word salad that’s both highly descriptive while not saying anything of real value.

Hoax websites and pranks

Some classic examples of fake news are in the branch of slapstick comedy. Their hypothetical banana peel comes in the one-two punch they’ll be giving you throughout the text, with a snarky “gotcha!” at the final point of the article. While there have been some seriously persuasive newspaper articles in the past, the audience rarely had positive reactions when it discovered it was all an elaborate ruse.

Satire sites

A polar opposite from prank websites are satirical sites. They may fall into the same news fabrication boat, but they don’t fall within the category of traditional fake news media. One of the main functions of these sites is to critique the current political climate through parody. In most cases, the websites are clearly marked as satirical and ask readers not to look at it as a news source. However, satire is increasingly used to promote certain political agendas and includes obvious political motives.

Propaganda and biased journalism

News reports that impose a certain bias on a global audience are designed to influence the readers by fuelling existing interests and prejudices. So, what is fake news  doing to consumers of both digital and traditional news? It is making it increasingly difficult for them to distinguish between verified facts and rumors or propaganda. These campaigns come in many shapes and forms, from highly opinionated pieces posing as objective journalism to directly advocating for a certain political party or individual. Well written biased articles are some of the hardest forms of fake news to detect. It is a lot easier for a good writer to deceive his audience than it is for a bad one.

How to stop fake news

The fake news business model  and the fake stories it produces are heavily reliant on people sharing links and getting things to go viral. The owners of the websites sell the advertising space, and more clicks means better chances to charge a pretty penny to advertisers that only see the numbers and not how credible the website is. Clickbait and eye catching images attached to the articles all work in tandem to lure in readers and get those clicks.

That is why fake news and social media are now inseparable. Platforms like Facebook or Twitter are perfect for sharing links quickly with publishers paying to promote their material and ensuring that it reaches as many readers as possible. This widespread proliferation of disinformation has put tech companies on the defensive. Leading platforms have employed numerous algorithms and tools to detect fake news. Facebook posts are now clearly marked if they are created by a fake media company. The users can also report Facebook posts they believe are fake news articles, but the company’s oversight teams have the final say on what is authentic. Meanwhile, other social networks like Twitter have gone a step further, eliminating all forms of political advertising in an effort to tackle fake news.

For users, the fight against fake news starts with educating themselves on how to recognize and report this material. It’s also a good idea to avoid sharing any news without first verifying its validity – sometimes an outrageous title is true, sometimes it’s a clickbait, but it can also be just sloppy journalism.

Bottom line

Finally, is fake news illegal? The line between legitimate news articles and fake ones is getting increasingly blurred. It’s not entirely illegal to create a fake article. However, it can lead to lawsuits if it ends up stirring massive controversies or harms the general public. Fear mongering is real and highly dangerous. Fueling prejudices can lead to violence, instability and other forms of unrest.

So, what is fake news contributing to this equation? Well, in times of political uncertainty and widespread polarization, fake news stories can be the spark that leads to bloodshed.