“Fake news” is a term that has quickly become part of the modern journalism vocabulary, not least because of its liberal use by US President Donald Trump, but how is it actually defined?
Below are the definitions used by some major news organisations in the UK, with general consensus that it relates to news that is based on lies that misinform for political or commercial gain (this is also Press Gazette’s view).
Fake news as a modern phenomenon – since telling lies for profit is hardly new – relates to hoax stories on the internet that gain traction through social media platforms and other content curators.
It first came to wider public attention in late 2016 as a number of hoax stories began to circulate about candidates for the US presidential election, including famously that the Pope endorsed Trump.
The BBC defines fake news as false information deliberately circulated by hoax news sites to misinform, usually for political or commercial purposes… It is worth differentiating fake news from false news, a term sometimes used interchangeably by some politicians to dispute news reports with which they do not agree or which they dislike. (Submission to parliamentary fake news inquiry).
There has been much commentary about defining the phenomenon of fake news, with some commentators blurring the lines between completely false stories, farmed news and more difficult cases such as heavily spun or partially inaccurate news…
The Guardian readers’ editor has proposed the following draft definition – “’fake news’ means fictions deliberately fabricated and presented as non-fiction with intent to mislead recipients into treating fiction as fact or into doubting verifiable fact.”
If, as is increasingly happening, the term fake news becomes synonymous with the notion of flawed journalism a serious prospect threatens: the spread of doubt about whether truth itself can be approximated, the spread of doubt about whether actual events are fake. (Submission to parliamentary fake news inquiry).
The democratisation of information online – which has caused many to describe this as the Golden Age of Journalism – has also led to a situation where credible impartial news sources are placed on a par with hoax websites and hyperpartisan websites claiming opinion as fact.
In the past year – new websites have sprung up posting unverified and untrue information, which has been widely shared on social media.
It falls into several different types:
1) Totally fake news sites – with completely false stories– e.g. “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump” – which received over 1,000,000 engagements on social media.
2) Hyperpartisan sites that present comment as fact or use selective facts while ignoring other salient ones
3) Sites which mix fact and fiction – without traditional editorial standards they publish some true stories and some fake stories which get widely shared. This may include misappropriation of content by third parties, which may distort the material to suit their political agendas
While the above encapsulates what ITN recognises as fake news the definition of the term is shifting and has now arguably been misappropriated to become a catch-all phrase for coverage you disagree with.
This term has been quite regularly applied by President Trump to mainstream media for articles that do adhere to journalistic standards and ethics – and which mainstream media would strongly contest is “proper” journalism. This sets a precedent for other organisations and governments to dismiss critical stories as fake.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government recently described reports of torture from a human rights activist as “fake news”. This demonstrates how the terms has become a method or strategy enabling those held to account not to engage with genuine news reports and instead dismissing media who question them by labelling their reports as “fake”.
The consistent misuse of the term fake news in turn dilutes and undermines the label when it is accurately applied to articles that publish falsehoods. It could be argued that a new term or label needs to be found – although this too risks misappropriation. (Submission to parliamentary fake news inquiry).
Picture: Channel 4