Is “Fake News” Fake News? Understanding Media Misinformation

Thinking About Popular Media, Part 3

by Patricia Engler on July 7, 2021
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Fake news has become quite the buzzword, but not everyone agrees about what “fake news” means—or even whether the term is valid. Let’s take a closer look at what misinformation is, so we can better understand how to spot it.

One late August day in 1835, readers of the New York Sun1 opened their papers to find a truly incredible news update: a high-powered telescope had reportedly enabled an astronomer to glimpse tailless beavers walking upright on the moon.

That’s right—bipedal beavers.

Without tails.

On the moon.

The article, one of six in a series expounding on “great astronomical discoveries,” reported,

The (extraterrestrial beaver) resembles the beaver of the earth in every other respect than in its destitution of a tail, and its invariable habit of walking upon only two feet. It carries its young in its arms like a human being, and moves with an easy gliding motion. . . . From the appearance of smoke in nearly all (its huts), there is no doubt of its being acquainted with the use of fire.2

Other newspapers soon picked up the story. Even the New York Times is said to have published the statement, “The wonderful discoveries in the moon . . . are all possible and plausible, and have an immense air of verisimilitude,” while the New Yorker reportedly celebrated the discoveries as the start of “a new era in astronomy and science in general.”3

A personal letter by the story’s apparent author, Richard Locke,4 revealed that he likely intended the piece as satire.5 Still, many people fell for it. Even after the series became known as a hoax, the Sun never fully retracted the articles.6

The “Fake News” Phenomenon

As the beaver incident illustrates, “fake news” is nothing, well, new. Even Scripture documents cases of false information shared as news. For example, Matthew 28:12–15 records that after Jesus’ resurrection, the chief priests bribed the guards of Jesus’ tomb to report that his disciples stole the body—a report which became “widely circulated” among the people.

Millennia later, various shades of false reports still circulate as widely as ever—especially thanks to the internet. Rising concerns about media misinformation have sparked a firestorm of discussion among scholars and civilians alike, even leading Google to alter their search algorithms.7 But while everybody seems to be talking about “fake news,” few can apparently agree what it is—or what should be done about it. Let’s take a closer look at the “fake news” debate, so we can better think biblically and critically about claims in the media.

Debatable Definitions

“Fake news” might sound like “news which is fake.” The trouble is, there’s no single, expert definition to pin down exactly what it means. Does “news” only mean information from professional journalism platforms? Or does it also include reports broadcasted from other platforms, social media accounts, and citizen journalists, like bloggers? Does “fake” only mean intentional deception, or can it include honest mistakes? Do partial truths count as “fake news?” How about facts reported from only one perspective?

Describing how definitions of “fake news” have morphed over time, one philosophy scholar explained,

The term seems to have originally meant just ‘news that is fake’, before coming to be associated with satirical news shows . . . before coming to be associated with profit-driven clickbait producers, [before] finally acquiring its use as a catch-all for bad information.8

This definitional shapeshifting makes fake news an easy term to exploit for propaganda wars. Instead of arguing logically against an opposing perspective, each side can simply accuse the other of promoting “fake news”—and therefore of posing a threat to society.

But ironically, as another philosophy scholar has pointed out, it’s not necessarily the phenomenon of “fake news” which may pose the gravest threat to society9 so much as the use of this term to justify censoring whatever information governments and corporations consider to be “fake.”10 The author lists several nations where this is happening; for example, Russia lumps “fake news” with messages “showing blatant disrespect to the state.”11

Such issues have led these and other scholars to call for dropping the phrase “fake news” altogether. But other researchers disagree, arguing that even though the term “fake news” can be weaponized, it nonetheless points to real problems which need to be addressed.12,13 Still others suggest using less slippery words to describe those problems.14 Illustrating these discussions’ impact, the British government moved away from including the phrase “fake news” in official reports, opting instead to use the term misinformation for false news mistakenly presented as true, and disinformation for false news intentionally presented as true.15,16

Types of (Potentially) Misleading Information

Whatever the issues surrounding “fake news,” it’s clear that however we define it, false or misleading information does appear in the media and does demand our critical thinking in response. Here are a few types of potentially problematic messages which communications researcher Claire Wardle has identified:17

  • Satire or parody: exaggerated or completely made-up news stories intended to entertain rather than to inform.18 Like Locke’s alien beaver story, these reports may sometimes be taken as true.
  • Misleading content: messages which present select facts in a misleading manner. For instance, photos may be angled or cropped to make a crowd look larger or smaller. (For other examples, see “misleading with facts” in last week’s post.)
  • Imposter content: messages from impersonated sources.
  • Fabricated content: made-up information presented as legitimate news and intended to deceive.
  • False connection: headlines, captions, or visuals which don’t accurately relate to the information they’re supposed to support.
  • False context: information which has been taken out of its original context in order to mislead.
  • Manipulated content: materials including photos or videos which have been altered or otherwise manipulated to deceive.

Other researchers would include propagandistic political messages, news from non-traditional journalistic sources,19 and externally sponsored stories in the list of problematic news.20,21 Sponsored stories refer to advertisements which third-parties have written in news article formats and paid journalism platforms to post. While these articles may report genuine facts, they were not written according to the outlets’ journalism standards and may easily be confused with actual news articles. Accordingly, some researchers have classified them as “fake news.”

The Foundation for Thinking Critically About the News

Again, disagreement about what types of messages count as “fake news” (and whether such a term should exist) shows what a complex issue media mis- and disinformation has become. As one paper summarized,

There is considerable disagreement when it comes to determining which content should be considered “fake news” and which should be excluded. This holds especially true as the term “fake news” has become highly political and is often used as a buzzword not only used to describe fabricated information but to undermine the credibility of news organizations or argue against commentary that disagrees with our own opinion. Moreover, classifying a piece of content as false requires a grounding of a universal truth, which can be a difficult endeavor that requires collective consensus.22 (Emphasis added.)

Bingo. To talk about what is false, we need a foundation for understanding what is true. The above paper suggests that popular consensus helps define universal truth. But if the subjective human perceptions which made up that popular consensus happened to be wrong, would those many wrong beliefs add up to one objective, universal truth? Nope.

We need God as the source of absolutes. A biblical worldview provides the foundation for truth to exist and be knowable. Therefore, it also provides us a foundation from which to think critically about claims in the news.

Even claims about extraterrestrial beavers.

Footnotes

  1. Not to be confused with a later periodical also called the New York Sun.
  2. Richard Adams Locke, The Moon Hoax; Or, A Discovery That the Moon Has a Vast Population of Human Beings (New York: William Gowans, 1859), 31 (a reprint of the 1835 New York Sun articles).
  3. These and other responses from the press are quoted in Locke, The Moon Hoax, 1859, 60-63.
  4. A descendant of John Locke, the philosopher.
  5. István Kornél Vida, “The ‘Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835,” Hungarian Journal of English and American Studies (HJEAS) (2012): 431–441.
  6. Vida, “Moon Hoax.”
  7. Ben Gomes, “Our Latest Quality Improvements for Search” The Keyword (blog), Google, April 25, 2017, https://www.blog.google/products/search/our-latest-quality-improvements-search/.
  8. Joshua Habgood-Coote, “Stop Talking About Fake News!” Inquiry 62, no. 9–10 (2019): 1033–1065 (external citations removed).
  9. Especially given the critical thinking and fact-checking tools the internet also makes available.
  10. David Coady, “The Fake News About Fake News,” in The Epistemology of Fake News (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021): 68–81.
  11. See “Russia's Putin Signs Law Banning Fake News, Insulting the State Online,” Reuters, March 18, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-politics-fakenews-idUSKCN1QZ1TZ.
  12. David Lazer et al., “The Science of Fake News,” Science 359, no. 6380 (2018): 1094–1096.
  13. Jessica Pepp, Eliot Michaelson, and Rachel Sterken, “Why We Should Keep Talking About Fake News,” Inquiry (2019): 1–17.
  14. E.g., Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan, “Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making,” Council of Europe 27 (2017).
  15. Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, “Disinformation and ‘Fake News’: Final Report,” House of Commons, Eighth Report of Session 2017–19, February 18, 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmcumeds/1791/1791.pdf.
  16. However, the term “fake news” has since appeared in government press releases, e.g., https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-aid-to-tackle-global-spread-of-coronavirus-fake-news.
  17. Claire Wardle, “Fake News, It’s Complicated,” First Draft 16 (2017): 1-11.
  18. Some scholars distinguish between satire and parody, considering satire to be facts-based and somewhat informative, and parody to be entirely false. (Tandoc et al., “Defining ‘Fake News:’ A Typology of Scholarly Definitions,” Digital Journalism 6, no. 2 (2018): 137–153.)
  19. Notably, it’s a genetic fallacy to dismiss a message as false based only on its source; however, a source’s credibility often lends valuable insight into how seriously to take a message.
  20. Tandoc et al., 2018.
  21. Maria Molina et al., “‘Fake News’ Is Not Simply False Information: A Concept Explication and Taxonomy of Online Content,” American Behavioral Scientist 65, no. 2 (2021): 180-212.
  22. Molina et al. (2021), external citations removed.

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