Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all

A version of this post later appeared as an article for NewsLab, a project of the University of Mississippi School of Journalism and New Media

After the dust from our toxic post-election discourse settled, the talk of traditional and social media turned to “fake news” – a term that has taken on new meaning in recent years, and new prominence in the 2016 presidential race.

In this iteration, fake news doesn’t refer to satire like The Daily Show or The Onion. Nor does it refer to news that is biased in its selection and interpretation of facts. No, for now we’re fighting a much simpler to identify foe – the peddling of information that is blatantly, demonstrably false and intentionally deceptive.

Stuff like these sensational – and completely fictional – headlines that circulated in the months leading up to the election:

Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president, releases statement [Ending The Fed]

FBI agent suspected in Hillary email leaks found dead in apparent murder-suicide [Denver Guardian]

WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary sold weapons to ISIS… Then drops another BOMBSHELL! Breaking news [The Political Insider]

Thousands of fake ballot slips found marked for Hillary Clinton! TRUMP WAS RIGHT!! [Donald Trump News]

President Obama confirms he will refuse to leave office if Trump is elected [Burrard Street Journal]

BREAKING: Hillary Clinton to be indicted… Your prayers have been answered [World Politic US]

Rupaul claims Trump touched him inappropriately in the 1990s [World News Daily Report]

This sort of nonsense has been around for a long time, previously circulating via your crazy relatives’ email inboxes. But it found new prominence this election cycle, on Facebook. Craig Silverman and his team at Buzzfeed compared Facebook engagement metrics on the top 20 fake news stories and the top 20 stories from a sampling of traditional media outlets across the final three quarters of the 2016 election. They found that after lagging well behind for most of the year, the most popular fake news out-engaged the most popular real news in the final three months of the race. (All of the headlines above were among the top 20 in that time period.)

*There are caveats to this method, and if you care, I discuss them at the end of this post. The point is that engagement with fake news has risen dramatically.

That has invited three questions – where is fake news coming from, does it have an effect, and what can be done to stop it?

Where is fake news coming from?

At least two broad sources…

  1. Pranksters

Like this guy, who amuses himself watching Trump supporters share his falsehoods as fact.

  1. Broke Young People

Like these two recent college grads, who couldn’t find a steady job and instead learned the art of clickbait headlines and riling up conservative voters.

Or teenagers in Macedonia, who Silverman’s team discovered run over 100 pro-Trump fake news websites.

Does fake news have an effect?

Part of the frustration about fake news is that it seems so easy to avoid. But the reason partisans fall for it is the same reason its effects might not be as direct as one would think.

As I wrote in 2011 about chain emails:

Partisans tend to seek agreeable information. They are also less likely to think critically about information that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs. It’s part of a phenomenon known as “biased assimilation.” In their pioneering study, Stanford researchers Lord, Ross, and Lepper (1979) wrote that a person’s pre-existing attitudes and beliefs lead to “A propensity to remember the strengths of confirming evidence, but the weaknesses of disconfirming evidence, to judge confirming evidence as relevant and reliable but disconfirming evidence as irrelevant and unreliable, and to accept confirming evidence at face value while scrutinizing disconfirming evidence hypercritically.” (p. 2099)

That it was, and is, happening more in conservative circles may partially be driven by attacking power – fake news has a rebellious tone better fitting an attack on the establishment. To that point, most of the left-leaning fake news I saw this campaign season also targeted Clinton, generated in support of anti-establishment candidate Bernie Sanders. But conservatives also possess strong group ties and distrust in traditional media – both of which encourage seeking affirmative messages from alternative information sources. Both are less common among liberals, who are typically more fractured and do not view media as an out-group, suggesting this may continue to be more prevalent on the right.

Did fake news win Donald Trump the election? No. I can’t imagine the Venn diagram of people willing to believe the fake news headlines above and people willing to even remotely consider voting for Clinton had much overlap. Fake news might’ve offered affirmation to entrenched partisans, but their vote would’ve remained the same without it.

The greater effect concerns information and discourse. Interpretation of facts is always going to be muddied by our personal and group biases. But people mindlessly sharing any made up “fact” that validates a worldview is inherently more dangerous. Fake news doesn’t simply create different perceptions of reality, it creates separate informational realities altogether. It’s not about selective exposure or selective interpretation. It’s card stacking with a second deck pulled out of thin air. I don’t know how conversations can even begin if that’s the starting point.

What can be done to stop it?

Advocates of media literacy like myself have been fighting against the former for years. Consume news across the spectrum. Learn about competing viewpoints. Recognize objectivity doesn’t equal agreement. Learn how the news sausage is made, and which outlets make it best.

That’s an easy message to preach, and a difficult one to practice. It demands time, empathy, and recognizing one’s own biases. It’s not achieved in a day.

But vanquishing the latter – the narrow definition of fake news we’re facing today – seems more attainable. Recognizing and rejecting fake news might be seen as the introductory course in media literacy. It requires the most basic of fact checks and skepticism.

A SHOCKING headline with BRUTAL sensationalism in ALL CAPS??!! From a source I’ve never heard of called “Right Wing Patriots for Freedom News Daily.biz”? I should probably Google that…

Essentially, this:

Because we’re dealing with a narrow class of verifiably false information, the mechanisms of distribution can get involved in stopping it. That’s what Google and Facebook did over the weekend, both announcing they would ban fake news sites from using their advertising platforms to generate revenue. For any profit-motivated fake news site, that may well be a death knell – Google and Facebook combine for about 75% of all digital advertising revenue. If you’re cut off from both, there isn’t a lot left.

Facebook went further, announcing ways for users to report fake news and a yet-undefined partnership with fact-checking organizations.

So all is well, right? Wrong. Killing a source of steady confirmation isn’t going to go smoothly, as I wrote in a Twitter thread:

  • Facebook is dealing w/ fake news. Here’s why that’s not going to be pleasant for Facebook or legitimate media.
  • Fake news is more prevalent on the right (for the moment, at least). When those stories get banned, conservatives are going to see bias.
  • Flagging fake news will bring about ‘s prediction- partisans are going to start flagging disagreeable news as “fake.”
  • Facebook’s definition of fake news is narrow (as it should be). Partisan complaints of mainstream bias won’t be heard.
  • So Facebook is going to be right back where they didn’t want to be- in a vast liberal media conspiracy to silence right-wing voices.
  • Except liberals will think the cleanup didn’t go far enough. So we’ll again retreat into our confirming bubbles, for all else is “fake.”
  • Getting rid of blatantly false news is good. But partisans who enjoyed that confirmatory high are in for withdrawals. It’ll be messy /END

Here’s the op-ed by John Herrmann I referenced in the thread.  The money line:

“Fake news” as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold. The fake news narrative, as widely understood and deployed, has already begun to encompass not just falsified, fabricated stories, but a wider swath of traditional media on Facebook and elsewhere. Fox News? Fake news. Mr. Trump’s misleading claims about Ford keeping jobs in America? Fake news. The entirety of hyperpartisan Facebook? Fake news. This wide formulation of “fake news” will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are.

Brace yourselves, we may be shining more light on fake news than ever before, but that doesn’t mean traditional media will suddenly be perfect and revered, or that your Facebook feed is going to suddenly be a kinder place. Happy holidays.

*Now, about that Buzzfeed study. It’s obviously not exhaustive. I’m sure the entirety of legitimate news shares still outpaces the entirety of fake news shares, simply because there’s so much more legitimate news content. Researchers sample, as opposed to analyzing the entire population of data, for feasibility. Silverman’s study is a snapshot of what’s happening with the most engaged real/fake news. Read this critique, or Silverman’s own thread about the study’s limitations.


One thought on “Understanding “fake news,” & why defeating it isn’t a fix-all”

  1. “Fake news might’ve offered affirmation to entrenched partisans, but their vote would’ve remained the same without it.”

    But could it have increased the turnout numbers of the trump inclined voters by firing people up, and thus some influence on the vote ?

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