While the first fake news article published is difficult to trace, notable author Mark Twain (writing as Samuel Clemens) published many fictitious articles in the second half of the 19th century. On October 30, 1938, The Mercury Theatre on the Air did a live one-hour broadcast reading of H.G. Welles’ The War of the Worlds novel. This was presented as live news bulletins supposedly documenting an ongoing invasion by Martians, and caused a mild panic amongst listeners that Earth was under attack by the planet Mars. During the second half of the 20th Century, you could find fake news at every supermarket checkout stand; the grocery stores were full of ‘newsmagazines’ like The National Enquirer and The Weekly World News, and there was not a single factual article to be found within their pages.
These are examples of a phenomena known as fake news. Both of these examples and many others show that the average reader often has difficulty distinguishing fake news from real news. Prior to our digital age, news was provided by one of two media: print (newspapers and magazines) and broadcast television. With the rise of cable television and now the internet, coupled with mobile devices that allow quick and easy news consumption anywhere, people have more choices and availability to news sources than ever.
But what is fake news? Most would say fake news is any article that is not factual or accurate. These are hoax-based, propagandist, or advertisement driven. They are designed to distort the facts and are disguised as legitimate journalistic reporting. And while these types of fake news articles tend to make up a large majority of the fake news on the internet, the term fake news is also used to refer to a late-night news broadcast that addresses the actual social issues of the day, with a humorous and sarcastic tone to the reporting. Sadly, most people young and old have trouble discerning real news from fake. A study by Stanford History Education Group found that many teens and young adults had troubles picking out native advertising (often a source of fake news) nearly 80% of the time. Additional studies found that teens and young adults were trusting that if someone took the time to post something, then that thing must be true. This can be problematic when sites with a particular bent post something worded to strengthen their side of an argument. Checking a poster’s website address can provide you insight into the type of political leanings espoused by the poster. Additionally, doing a secondary fact-finding check on the internet for information about these types of websites can enlighten readers. It was found though, that most did not take the time to do this additional research.
So why does fake news matter? Fake news matters because it spreads false information and promotes unhealthy beliefs. When presented as more entertainment-based than hard-news centered, it provides readers a quick fix without any journalistic fact-checking. Because of this, disinformation can be more easily spread if readers are choosing primarily fake news due to the enhanced entertainment value of the posts. Studies have shown that absorbing primarily fake news tends to lead viewers into problems discerning fake news from real news. The most prevalent example of this in recent years was #pizzagate. On December 4th of 2016, a North Carolina man opened fire upon the pizzeria Comet Ping Pong, which an online conspiracy theory purported to be the headquarters of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton. The gunman believed the post was providing factual information. Putting aside the near-ludicrous claims ‘purported’ by the article, real people could have been killed due to fake news, in this case, news spread by Republicans trying to discredit Hillary Clinton by claiming she was running a child sex ring. Problems with receiving fake news or satirical news entertainment and information are deepened distrust, cynicism, and political alienation. When your primary sources of news tend to paint all politicians as bumbling, incompetent, and corrupt, it can lead to viewers feeling distanced from the political process, and too disgusted to want to enact positive changes at any level.
As we know, facts are purely objective and indisputable otherwise they wouldn’t be facts. Alt-facts however, masquerade as legitimate facts even though they are opinionated and completely disputable. Alt-facts are regularly used by individuals and organizations that want to mould the perceptions of people in their favor. This primarily manifests in either promoting media that makes one appear better than the competition, or by discrediting the competition directly. Often a mixture of both are used. Either way, alt-facts are used to further the agenda of whoever creates them. Propagating false facts, coupled with the study that showed students often had trouble telling real from fake news, presents what could become a real crisis of misinformation if education and training in the viewing and reading of websites isn’t enacted.
Fake news really became part of the cultural zeitgeist leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election. As sites like Facebook began overtaking traditional media as the primary supplier of news, ridiculous headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks the World, Endorses Donald Trump” began appearing in people’s Facebook feeds. Because Facebook tends to promote articles that are ‘trending’ (meaning an article has been shared by a multitude of people, thereby granting certain articles ‘headline’ type status on a Facebook feed page) these are seen by more people than would normally be interested in something about, say, the Pope or Donald Trump. During the course of the year, fake news on Facebook became more prevalent and more politically charged. Facebook replaced their editors with automated engineers, who failed to detect these false stories. In May of 2016, it was claimed that Fox reporter Megyn Kelly was fired for supporting Hillary Clinton. Again, this story trended on Facebook feeds. The post about Kelly originated on endingthefed.com, a site dedicated to right-wing ideologies and outright falsehoods. By starting a false claims news article elsewhere and then posting it to Facebook is one way to help spread disinformation to the masses, because while most people have a Facebook feed, it’s unlikely most people spend a lot of time visiting endthefed.com.
In fact, fake news became such an issue on Facebook that it supplanted real news articles. On October 12 of 2016, the Washington Post published its own survey. “Facebook has repeatedly trended fake news since firing its human editors,” the story reports. Monitoring four users’ accounts from August 31 to September 22, five “indisputably fake” and three “profoundly inaccurate” stories trended, the Post found. (Gendreau, H. The Internet Make ‘Fake News’ A Thing – Then Made It Nothing. http://www.wired.com. Wired).
Indeed, some even point to the proliferation of fake news on Facebook as helping to influence the Presidential election. Liberals want to believe misinformation and false facts helped spur Republicans to take to the polls to cast their votes for Donald Trump for President. Fake news on a single social media site was probably unlikely in determining the outcome of a Presidential election, but it’s easy to see how fake news does influence people, from the #pizzagate shooter to the President himself. President Trump is currently in a battle against the media, claiming he is misrepresented and inaccurately quoted. Any good journalist will tell you they work hard to insure their quotes are correct. However, the President has decided that almost all major news channels are ‘fake news.’ This is not how the news media works, but it is because people are so willing to believe what they see, read, and hear, that Trump has any leverage in his claims whatsoever.
According to the Stanford Educational Summary referenced earlier, educating students on how to look at websites and providing them the tools needed to question what they are reading, is the best recourse against falling prey to fake news. Additionally in March of 2017, Facebook, where nearly 62% of readers get a majority of their news, has started pinning disputed (fake) news stories with a warning label. This may temporarily give people pause to research articles they are tempted to read, but the technology will likely evolve again over time leading to new instances of fake news articles. Additionally, the advertising companies may be one of the best weapons in the fight against fake news. By boycotting fake news websites, advertisers pull any financial backing that keeps fake news sites and content-generators running. Eventually, when the funding runs out, the content will stop.
Our case studies presented herein will attempt to examine the cultures of fake news, the rise of alt-facts, how best to combat fake news, and one study that makes the case that all fake news isn’t bad news.
- Marchi, R. (2012). With Facebook, Blogs, and Fake News, Teens Reject Journalistic “Objectivity”. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 36(3), 246-262. doi:10.1177/0196859912458700
- Balmas, M. (2014). When Fake News Becomes Real. Communication Research,41(3), 430-454. doi:10.1177/0093650212453600
- Shellenbarger, S. (2016 November 22). Why Students Might Not Know If This Story Is Fake — A new Stanford study finds most teens get news online without considering the source; how to teach research, skepticism. Wall Street Journal. p.A11