Parsing ‘Fake News’

January 3, 2017


‘Fake News’ has become a social boogeyman over the past few months. There’s nothing new about journalists printing false (or greatly exaggerated) news stories for the sake of ratings or readership; the journalism of a century ago was rife with wild rumor, speculation presented as fact, and flat-out fictitious front-page headlines. (For more on this see my book The Martians Have Landed: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes, co-authored by Robert Bartholomew, and Sensationalism: Murder, Mayhem, Mudslinging, Scandals, and Disasters in 19th-Century Reporting, edited by David Sachsman and David Bulla.)

I have spent the better part of two decades trying to combat and this scourge, ranging from writing for to my articles in Skeptical Inquirer magazine, Discovery News, and elsewhere. As I explained in a previous CFI blog, “the media” or “the mainstream media” are widely misunderstood concepts that are so broad and poorly defined as to be essentially meaningless. Just as “edible” could mean anything from shrub roots to fine wine, “fake news” can mean just about anything. Because “fake news” is so commonly encountered (both the phrase itself and variants of the phenomena it purports to describe), it’s useful to briefly unpack that concept.

There are about a half dozen distinct topics that fall under the “fake news” umbrella, spanning philosophy, satire, folklore, and journalism. Hoaxes, for example, are not necessarily “fake news” but can become so when presented as truth on news and social media. These categories are neither rigid nor all-inclusive, and there is often overlap between them.

• Rumors

Rumors, like urban legends (see below) are studied by folklorists, though rumor has several popular definitions, including “talk or opinion widely disseminated with no discernible source,” and “a statement or report currently without known authority for its truth.” These are fine as far as they go, though some rumors do in fact have discernible sources and are spread by seemingly reputable officials and spokespersons. Sometimes rumors turn out to be true, but until they are established as valid (or at least given credence by a reputable news or fact-checking organization) should be treated with agnosticism and not acted upon.

• Urban legends

The term urban legend has a specific definition to folklorists as a form of narrative with specific characteristics but is widely (mis)used in public discussions as any piece of false information. (Folklorists generally take an agnostic approach to the validity of legends, recognizing that legends-like rumors-can be objectively true or false; the ways in which legends and rumors are used are more interesting and important than whether they are objectively true.) The popular website Snopes, though initially associated with describing and investigating urban legends, now deals with a wide variety of misinformation.

• Speculation

Speculation and conjecture are, of course, common in the news media and in social media: Pundits and laypeople comment on events of the day and wonder what the repercussions might be, for everything from interest rate fluctuations to social trends. Invariably much of the conjecture turns out to be at least partly–and often largely–wrong, for the simple reason that humans are not very good at predicting the future, with all its endless variables. Predictions are based on a set of assumptions about underlying circumstances, which are themselves constantly in flux. The world is a constantly changing set of economic, environmental, social, and other conditions. And often those commenting on a situation in the news media have social, economic, and/or political agendas that color their perceptions–usually skewing their predictions in the direction of dire warnings of catastrophe (no pundit gets airtime by underestimating the consequences of a recent event they oppose).

• Speculation that turns out to be false

The biggest problem with speculation that turns out to be false is that it’s rarely acknowledged as such. Few people in the public eye are interested in revisiting past errors or drawing attention to the fact that they were wrong. And fewer people (except, perhaps, journalists or political rivals) have the time or interest in combing though someone’s past statements to find failed predictions and confront a person with them. It’s much easier to simply ignore past mistakes or double down on them. One consequence is that when we are not forced to account for our past mistakes (either personally or publicly), we have no real incentive to understand where our reasoning went wrong and avoid the same pitfalls in the future. Speculation that turned out to be wrong isn’t necessarily false information, but it can be misinformation if an outdated online article, position, or statement of “fact” is not updated to reflect the truth.

• Infotainment or Infomercials

A blend of information and entertainment, this versatile format is often seen in commercials thinly disguised as news shows, such as Larry King shilling fish oil supplements in a talk show format, or celebrity news shows such as Access Hollywood which promote new films and music. Most media-savvy audiences recognize the commercial aspect of the content, thus it’s not really misinformation per se, but can be part of the problem.

• Propaganda

Though propaganda can take many forms, it’s often thought of as “fake news” stories planted in news organizations in hopes of influencing public opinion. Propaganda is not necessarily false or misinformation; a leaked (yet true and accurate) private communication can be propaganda if its release is calculated and timed to damage its subject. Rival nations routinely try to influence reporting on each other’s leadership, policies, and intentions. Sometimes the information is transparently manipulative, other times it’s subtle, but in any event the fact that it mixes freely and indistinguishably with real news stories makes it difficult to detect (unlike, say, infotainment).

• Satire

Many “fake news” stories originate as satire, for example from The Onion, Clickhole, or another source that actually does literally create “fake news,” that is, news headlines and stories that are demonstrably false (and often about actual people, ranging from Obama to the ubiquitous “Area Man”) but written in a deadpan, absurdist fashion. The Onion is of course widely recognized as the source of this brand of humor, but it has countless imitators cranking out stories as satire whose origins and agendas are often murky.

• Viral outrage

In a world that often seems awash with genuine social problems, many people share stories directly from others on social media, bypassing news organizations altogether. This is one of the promises of the internet: a global connectedness unimaginable just a few decades ago. But it also leaves the public more vulnerable than ever to bogus news. In a public primed to flag offensive behavior and share their outrage on social media, plenty of hoaxes, stunts, and “pranks”–especially ones crafted to encourage social justice outrage, such as the YouTube star who posted a video claiming to have been kicked off an airplane for speaking Arabic (later determined to be a hoax), or the man who went to a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor rumored to be a front for a pedophile ring armed with a gun–escape our skeptical filters because most people sharing and spreading these stories do so out of good intentions. They want to be part of the solution, drawing attention to some import
ant cause. As veteran philanthropist Bono recently observed, “There is a lazy mindedness that we afford the do-gooders”; we give ourselves and others a pass for spreading misinformation if done with good motives.  

The Skeptical Solution

Though these categories vary widely in cause, intent, toxicity, and in other ways, the good news is that all these varieties of “fake news” have the same antidote: skepticism and critical thinking. All these variations can be stopped in their tracks by media-savvy citizens.

We are all susceptible to the psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias; that is, we tend to notice (and believe) information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs and ignore, downplay, or disbelieve information that contradicts our views. Everyone does it, and does it more often than we realize (for more on this see Mistakes Were Made–But Not By Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson). But recognizing this unconscious tendency is the first step to minimizing it, and thus we need to be especially careful to ask for evidence when it supports our position. It’s easy to find errors and fault in arguments and information we disagree with, but much harder to find them in news stories and memes we support.

In a recent Forbes piece, Jordan Shapiro noted that “Democracy’s biggest threat is not tyrants, but rather citizens who are satisfied with their own limited view of reality. That’s why, when Plato wrote Republic, he… recognized the need for critical thinking. Plato called it Philosophy-Philei Sophia— which literally means ‘love of wisdom.’ This sort of conviction for critical thinking–in the 21st century, maybe we need to call it critical media literacy–feels especially difficult in a world where all of our media is social. It’s easier to point fingers at others. After all, our daily timelines define us and our news streams are intricately tangled up with personal identity narratives. Challenging the information in front of our eyes becomes tantamount to questioning our own sense-of-self. Critical thinking is painful. Plato equated it with walking out of a dark cave and staring directly into a bright light. That’s what it feels like when you’re willing to question your most sacred beliefs no matter how much it hurts…. Today, we mistakenly point to ‘fake news’ when the real problem lies within us…. The issue is not the reality that’s presented to us, but rather our incapacity to challenge it.”

Though the public love to blame the news media for misinformation–and deservedly so–they are less keen to see the culprit in the mirror. Many people, especially on social media, fail to recognize that they have become de facto news outlets through the stories and posts they share. As Faye Flam noted in a Bloomberg piece, “False stories are easier than ever to generate and spread. In decades past… people trusted established newspapers, magazines and TV news programs. But trust in the mainstream media has declined massively over the past 20 years, while a majority of Americans now get news from Facebook.” Flam does not mean Facebook itself, of course, but instead people on Facebook, people like you and I.

Yes, the news media help spread myriad “fake news” stories-but they are gleefully aided by ordinary people like us. We cannot control what news organizations (or anyone else) publishes or puts online. But we can–and indeed have an obligation to–help stop the spread of misinformation in all its forms. It can be as simple as not forwarding, liking, or sharing that dubious news story (especially if it seems crafted to encourage social outrage) before checking the facts. It’s too easy, especially in the heat of righteous indignation, to share and spread misinformation. If news organizations can’t or won’t take responsibility, we as netizens can take that power by refusing to be a conduit for these and other varieties of fake news–or, better yet, debunking it.