The Phenomenon of ‘Fake News’

In the years before the growth of the World Wide Web, we could feel relatively assured that the information presented to us through the mainstream media was, on the whole, accurate, reliable, and delivered to us by people who met professional standards (there were exceptions, of course).

The invention and rapid growth of the web, however, has revolutionised the way we receive information. No longer do people rely purely on television news and newspapers to find out about current affairs or the world around them. The web has provided unprecedented opportunities for people to share and access information from all over the globe. The downside to this, is that the Web is open, allowing anybody to publish anything as ‘truth’ and have it reach a wide audience in a matter of minutes.

For this reason, the term, ‘fake news’ has grown in popularity over the last few years.

What is ‘fake news’?

Fake news takes two main forms:

  • Stories that have some basis in fact, but the reporting is unreliable or inaccurate in some respects. For example, the author may not have checked the facts thoroughly or elements of the story may be exaggerated or taken out of context.
  • Stories that are false and have been deliberately made up by the author.

Why do people create ‘fake’ news’?

In the first case, fake news stories may be created due to the negligence or naivety of the writer. In cases of exaggeration, the writer may wish to sensationalise a story to entice people to click on a weblink or read the story. Often known as ‘clickbait’, a fake or misleading headline can generate a hook. Alternatively, writers may wish to be selective in how they report a story, or take things out of context, to make the story fit a particular set of ideas, or their personal beliefs.

In the second instance, the stories may be invented to spread lies about someone or something. Politicians or political parties, on both sides of the political spectrum, are often the subject of fake news, with attempts made to discredit them or misrepresent their policies. Some of these fakes can be quite elaborate, involving ‘photoshopped’ images or imitations of legitimate websites, to give the stories an increased sense of credibility. The creation of so-called ‘deepfake’ videos have also surged in popularity, further increasing the problem rather than resolving it.

Some ‘fake’ news stories are also made up for entertainment, satire or parody but they are not usually intended to trick people into believing it to be real and will usually state as such on their webpage.

The influence of social media

The problem of fake news has been worsened by social media. A large proportion of people’s Internet usage now involves social media. People scroll down their news feeds and may see a variety of sensationalised headlines. Some people assume uncritically that the stories are true and choose to share the story. And, even if they know or suspect it’s fake, they may share the story if it suits their personal world view, in the hope that it will influence the opinions of others. Fake news can therefore go viral and spread to countless people. Propaganda is nothing new but social media allows for its rapid and widespread dissemination.

Another problem is that as people are becoming more and more aware of so-called ‘fake news’, it can become too easy to label something as ‘fake news’, even when it is genuine, in an attempt to discredit a valid opinion. If people or groups disagree or dislike something they read online, they may dismiss it as fake. Alternatively, they may be confused and may not be able to tell if it is fake or not.

Of course, we are exposed to so much information on the Internet, that we don’t have the time to check the credibility of everything so, when we see a headline, we might just read it and accept it as fact without checking the details.

So how can you identify ‘fake news’?

The first warning sign that a story might be fake, is if the story or its headline seems outlandish or unrealistic. Of course, strange things can and do happen, but an unrealistic or shocking story should arouse your suspicions. If the headline seems shocking or sensationalist, what is the full story?

Are other sources reporting the story? Do they support what is being said?

You should then consider who is providing you with this news. Who or what is the source of the information? Is the website that of a credible organisation? For example, information published by the mainstream media tends to be reliable. Check their website for further clues, does it seem a legitimate source of news?

Further questions to consider:

  • What is the purpose of the website? (e.g. if it is the website of a political party or an organisation or individual that is particularly partisan, it is likely to have a strong political bias and its reporting may not be sufficiently objective.)
  • Who has written the content?
  • What can you find out about the author?
  • Why was it written?
  • When was it written?
  • What biases might they have?

A fair amount of common sense also applies in this situation. If you think an article has questionable credibility, then do not share it. Even commenting on a fake news article helps to popularise it, so only share or comment on stories you know are from a responsible source and leave the fake news to fade into obscurity.

About the author

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Prior to this, she worked in a photography studio as a wedding album editor and also attended work experience at a local library.

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