As misinformation crisis deepens, ‘fake news’ becomes less accurate

Nov 2, 2018 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
Fake news

In 2017, Collins Dictionary named “fake news” the word of the year. In 2018, it’s going out of style. Journalists and media experts have argued that not only has the term been used so broadly as to lose meaning, it can also have negative effects on democratic institutions and the public’s trust of media.

The idea that the term is doing more harm than good isn’t new. As early as January 2017, Margaret Sullivan wrote a column in The Washington Post urging the “retirement” of the term for its lack of precision describing many different types of falsities — from mistakes to conspiracies, and everything in between.

“All those problems are real,” she wrote. “Discussing them is important. But putting them all in a blender and slapping on a fuzzy name doesn’t move us forward.”

In the U.S., President Donald Trump has promoted the term as a way to demonize and delegitimize the media, especially media that has been critical of him. Just this week, after a series of pipe bombs were mailed to high-profile critics of the president, Trump tweeted that the anger that led to the attack was a result of “the Mainstream Media that I refer to as Fake News.”

But Trump is not alone. Politicians around the world have also adopted the term as a way to speak out against those with whom they disagree.

“Outside North America and Europe, the anti-democratic work of ‘fake news’ is more explicit. In several countries, ‘fake news’ has been used to justify censorship laws – the Burmese Military and the president of the Philippines have both used it to dismiss reports that oppose their preferred narratives,” wrote Joshua Habgood-Coote in The Conversation.

However, others have been using the term simply as a way to identify mistakes or errors in legitimate news reports, according to Glen Kessler, who writes The Post’s Fact Checker. Today, the news cycle happens quickly and the internet makes publishing and sharing information faster than ever. It’s no wonder that errors occur -- but to use the same term that is being used to undermine democratic institutions like the free press is misleading.

“Fake news” has also been used to describe the work of Russian troll farms, Macedonian teenagers who created viral U.S. political ads or simply CNN. In essence, the term has lost any specificity or meaning.

Beyond that, Emily Van Duyn and Jessica Collier, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, found that people exposed to tweets containing the phrase “fake news” were less trusting of the media in general, demonstrating the effects of the term’s overuse and imprecision.

If we’re to abandon the use of “fake news,” what should we use instead?

Claire Wardle, who leads strategy and research at First Draft, worked with writer and researcher Hossein Derakhshan to publish a report that reexamines information disorder and lays out a new framework in which to conceptualize it. They define three types of information of varying degrees of falseness:

  • Mis-information is when false information is shared, but no harm is meant.
  • Dis-information is when false information is knowingly shared to cause harm.
  • Mal-information is when genuine information is shared to cause harm, often by moving private information into the public sphere.

Other journalists and media professionals have not taken quite so clear an approach, but recommend other, more specific terms to differentiate between falsities.

Facebook, for example, has abandoned the term “fake news” for “false news.” Others recommend going a step further than simply replacing the old term with a new one.

“If we want to avoid empty talk and legitimating propaganda, we should simply stop using ‘fake news.’ What should we put in its place? I suspect that we can do quite a lot with ordinary terms such as ‘lie,’ ‘bullshit’ and ‘unreliable,’’ wrote Habgood-Coote.

The words we use to describe propaganda, misinformation and false facts matter. For this reason, IJNet has decided to no longer use the term "fake news" to describe this content.

For readers who are interested to learn more about this topic, Wardle has created a reading list with content related to mis/disinformation’s history, role in elections, use in advertising, possible solutions and more.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via rawpixel. Second image courtesy of First Draft.