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What is fake news?

What is fake news and why has fake news become such a large industry? We dig deeper into the different types of fake news and how it can be used to interfere in elections, economies, and geopolitical conflicts.

Man in a brown singlet sitting on a table outside looking at his laptop

“Fake news” is a buzzword that we have grown accustomed to in recent years, especially in association with elections. However, it is not a new phenomenon. 

Disinformation, propaganda, decoy, “PsyOps”, and false flag/red herring are all well-known concepts. These are techniques used to disguise and convey only selected information that goes many centuries back in time. And, with the rise of social media, it has become even easier to spread fake news. 

What is fake news?

Fake news is when hoaxes, opinions, stories, scams or rumours are created to look like legitimate news stories or information. They are presented in such a way to deliberately mislead, deceive, and misinform people. 

Traditional mainstream media outlets are bound by ethical standards of good practice for journalists. That includes truthfulness, source criticism and accuracy. Newsrooms, editors and authors are openly disclosed. There are also legal processes in place to hold them accountable and monitor their work. 

With the Internet, however, everyone can easily create content, present it however they want and spread it without complying with the same ethical standards. This, combined with the information overload we are met with on the Internet, makes it easy to be deceived.

Another important factor is the fast-paced media world we live in, where news stories are being published the moment they happen. This has led to lower news quality and less time to critically review the sources, also from mainstream media outlets.

Many types of information can be problematic when spread, whether it’s misinformation or disinformation. Misinformation is defined as “false information that is spread, regardless of whether there is intent to mislead”. Disinformation, on the other hand, is defined as an act of “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda”.

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Different types of fake news

Seven types of fake news have been identified by Claire Wardle, an expert on social media, user-generated content, and verification:

  • Satire or parody that has the potential to fool its audience but has no intention to cause any harm. Also known as “trolling”.
  • A false connection where headlines, captions or visuals are being used in a way that doesn’t support the actual content. Also known as “clickbait”.
  • Misleading content where the information is used in a misleading way in order to frame something or someone.
  • A false context where the content itself is genuine but is taken out of its context and placed in a different one.
  • Impostor content where false and made-up sources are imitating genuine sources and portraying them as such in order to trick an audience (i.e. disguised as legitimate mainstream media).
  • Manipulated content where genuine content, such as images, is changed with the aim of deceiving.
  • Fabricated content, where all content is false and made up with harmful intent.

While some fake news appears fake, fake news stories get increasingly more sophisticated. One method commonly used is to blur the line between truth and blatant lies. 

One example of sophisticated fake news is “deepfakes”. Deepfakes are fictional videos or images with either well-known or made-up people doing, or saying, things that are not real. This is created using artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

This form of advanced manipulation is a worrying development. One notable example is this TikTok account with a fake Tom Cruise. 

Why has fake news become such a large industry?

There are many reasons fake news has grown to become such a large industry.

For many fake news merchants, it is financially lucrative to create click-bait stories or other bogus stories on social media designed to catch attention and generate clicks. The content itself is of little importance as long as it lures the users onto sites sold to advertisers.

Fake news can also be a great way to lure potential unsuspecting victims into scams or frauds. This includes investments scams falsely endorsed by celebrities, and false marketing campaigns for brands leading to fake pages. 

It can also be false news sites or articles designed to look identical to legitimate existing ones. This way, criminals are luring the victim into giving away their financial information or other sensitive information in one way or another.

Fake news as a powerful tool in power struggles

But there are other reasons as well. Fake news can in some cases be designed to manipulate everything from stock markets to political opinions and decision making. It has become a powerful tool in global power struggles, interfering in elections, economies and geopolitical conflicts.

In 2013, the Associated Press (AP)’s Twitter account posted an article about explosions in the White House, stating that former President Obama was injured. This created panic and sent the stock exchange to plummet in just minutes, wiping away billions of dollars in a blink of an eye. It was quickly established that the AP’s account had been hacked and that the story was fake. However, this is a good example of how serious the implications of fake news can be.

In the wake of the 2016 US election, it also became known that institutionalised groups had been spewing out large amounts of fake news to influence political opinions. These institutionalised groups, also known as “troll factories”, consisted of state-sponsored internet trolls trying to interfere with the democratic process.

This shows how fake news can be a dangerous but effective tool. It also illustrates how it can be used with a broader scope than just rapid financial gain by those that have everything to gain from weakened democracies and global unrest.

How can fake news be damaging? 

As mentioned above, fake news can have devastating effects on democracy if people can no longer distinguish between what information is real and what is fake, and what sources are legitimate or not.

This makes it easier to feed people with propaganda, discredit and undermine the truth and create chaos. With lies intricately woven into truths, opinions and facts taken out of context, it obscures the truth. This again, creates confusion and uncertainty, making it harder to trust any information one is being presented with.

Fake news campaigns can, for example, be used to spread false accusations about your company to scare away potential customers, destroy your reputation or lead to your business having to shut down.

At the same time, fake news leads to conspiracy theories flourishing, as well as scientific denialism. With all sorts of claims existing and presented as legitimate research, science and news making, it has become easy to only seek out people and information supporting your own pre-existing beliefs. 

This so-called confirmation bias creates echo chambers always backing your beliefs. Even worse, they are completely closed off from external input. One such example could be a Facebook group with only like-minded people.

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