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Reality check on “fake news”

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Reality check on “fake news”

What is “fake news”?

When the term “fake news” entered the media commentary, it mainly referred to content that was designed to misguide the public, or to animate the partisans susceptible to the message.

Over the last couple of months the term has taken on a much wider range of meanings, however, to the point where it is sometimes used also to discredit news from mainstream media. Some also conflate the term with news articles that included an error at the time of publishing and have been corrected, even if the practice of appending a correction is a sign of commitment to professional ethics, rather than of “fakeness”.

For the purposes of this article, “fake news” is defined as content (text or video) that is substantially based on falsehoods and purposefully misleading, tailored to look like authentic journalism. However, many including Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan have argued that it would be more productive to stop using it, given how muddled the term has become.

Is the phenomenon limited to the US/Trump?

The Tump campaign and presidency were key context in “fake news” becoming a major issue, and arguably the related debates have so far mainly concentrated on the US. But there are signs that similar developments are underway in Europe, which raises concern especially with regard to the upcoming elections in Germany and France. 

Facebook has already expanded the tools it introduced in the US against fake news to Germany, with other markets likely to follow.

Who is behind “fake news”?

Some of the most famous examples of news hoaxes, such as Pope Francis endorsing Donald Trump, relate to the US presidential elections, and some sectors of Trump supporters and the US extreme right were thought to be participating in an effort to influence the elections. 

There is also evidence that some “fake news” sites have financial motivations behind them, such as in the famous case of the Macedonian pro-Trump websites, which sought to benefit from the enormous interest in news about Trump. There is a growing awareness of the economics that help fuel such sites, with some initiatives aiming to disrupt the online advertising model the sites’ funding is based on.

Finally, “fake news” can exist as part of cyberwarfare, or so-called hybrid warfare, by state actors. US officials say that Russia made attempts to influence the US elections, and an EU task force has warned that the country is seeking to influence upcoming elections also in Europe through similar means.

What is Facebook’s role?

Initially reluctant to accept responsibility, Facebook has since launched additional tools that help combat the spread of fake news on the platform, and has expanded them from the US to Germany, with more countries likely to follow. Moreover, Facebook announced earlier this year a new initiative to strengthen collaboration with the news media, and that it would continue to work on the issue of fake news. (Although some have questioned the initiative’s effectiveness.)

For context, recent studies show that the majority of American adults get news from Facebook, but relatively few trust news on the platform.

Facebook is not the only tech company involved: Google has removed 200 publishers from one of its AdSense network, owing to a policy that prohibits misleading sites. But some argue that technical solutions, or even increased news literacy, are not enough to counter the problem: behind there are wider cultural divides that need to be addressed.

Yet it should be noted that false information online is not new in itself, as Axel Springer SE’s CEO Mathias Döpfner said, but social media have made its dissemination easier.

How effective is fake news?

Arguably, random encounters with misinformation are not likely to alter the opinions of most people in a substantial way. But coupled with “filter bubbles” – readers being only exposed to content that confirms their worldview – large networks that spread false information could plausibly succeed in having a more profound effect on the public opinion.

The issue being so new, there are not many comprehensive studies on the effectiveness of fake news, but that is likely to change quickly given that the issue has taken centre stage in media discussions. Still, some anecdotal examples convey an interesting picture of what its like to experience a “parallel misinformation universe”.

What is at stake for the news media? 

The spread of falsehoods that masquerade as authentic journalism could be harmful to the image and reputation of news publishers committed to professional ethics, and detrimental to audiences’ trust in news media more widely.

Various projects have been launched that aim to strengthen the credibility of the news media and highlight the difference between professional, ethical journalism and so-called fake news. Some initial findings suggest that contextual warnings may mitigate the dissemination of false information. Yet there is no simple solution how to address the issue; so far there are a lot of questions, but not many answers. 

The news media is rapidly becoming an active participant in the fight against fake news: for instance Le Monde has created a database of 600 unreliable websites and is developing a suite of products aiming to curb the spread of misinformation.


WAN-IFRA is putting together a task force and an Expert Group consisting of newspaper publishers that will examine the fake news issue and the industry’s relationship with Facebook generally. Watch this space: we will be launching a resource centre dedicated to the issue soon. 


Teemu Henriksson's picture

Teemu Henriksson


2017-01-26 17:39

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The news publishing industry is experiencing transformation at an ever-growing pace, with new policy issues arising as the landscape changes.

We will be examining policy discussions that will define the news publishing environment of the future, the key topics being internet governance, privacy and copyright. Click here to learn more about our work.

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