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We hear it all the time these days, but there isn't really a consensus about what the term 'fake news' means. The Collins dictionary definition is "false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting" but it's sometimes applied to news sources that people don't trust, opinion pieces and satirical material. It encompasses both misinformation (the accidental or inadvertent spread of false information) and disinformation (the deliberate intention to deceive people).

It came to global attention after a flurry of stories appeared in the run-up to the US elections in November 2016. Fake news stories trend on social media where they can earn advertising revenue. Facebook has pledged to crack down on them; in January 2019 Facebook announced it removed 364 pages and accounts engaged in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour" run by a Russian network.

Some stories are the invention of individuals with mischievous or money-making intentions but others are created on an industrial scale by teams of writers. Veles in Macedonia has been identified as a hub of fake news production.

Once the stories are out in the wild, they are spread by bots (automated social media accounts), through advertising on social media and elsewhere, by the media (both online and traditional)... and of course by us. 

 

Real-world consequences

Mostly they cause minor annoyance, confusion and distrust, but fake news can have lasting, real-world consequences. Individuals who unwittingly become the subject of a fake news story can find themselves in the centre of a maelstrom of attention. In December 2016, a US man fired shots in a pizzeria after reading a fake news story involving the restaurant chain and Hilary Clinton. Concerted state-sponsored has the potential to de-rail democratic processes.

The most successful fake news stories are those that push emotional buttons, fomenting fear, anger or disgust which triggers more people to click and share. It doesn't always take place in the relatively public realm of news feeds; it can also happen in your private inbox. In January 2019, Whatsapp limited messages so they could be forwarded a maximum of five times to clamp down on fake news spreading after a number of mob lynchings in India was blamed on fake news shared via the app.

Facebook and Whatsapp (also owned by Facebook) have been slow to take steps to deal with fake news in the past, but they and other social media platforms are now taking it more seriously. However, it will always be a game of cat and mouse as hoaxes become more sophisticated and technological advances such as doctoring video footage make it harder for us to spot a fake story from a real one.

 

What can we do to stop fake news?

It's all our responsibility to be vigilant for fake news and remain sceptical about anything we read or hear. Suspect posts should be flagged or reported to site moderators. Most important, take a deep breath and think very carefully before sharing anything.

The BBC has created a fake news section on their website (that's a section about fake news not containing it!) and a guide to what it is and how to spot it.

On of our favourite YouTube Channels, Crash Course, has created a fun and informative 10 episode series about Navigating Digital Information.

Here's a quick guide to spotting fake news and crucially, for not fanning the flames of a fake story doing the rounds:

  • Engage your scepticism
    Sensationalist headlines are great at getting our blood up, especially if it's a story which confirms our own biases. You don't need to be cynical but do read with caution and be prepared to disregard a story if it doesn't measure up. 

  • How did it reach you?
    You might have clicked on a paid advert or promoted post, read something from an organisation you follow or seen something shared by friends and family (or friends of friends and family) on social media. There's always a motive for sharing information and it's important to bear that in mind in your assessment.

  • Cross-reference
    For all their many flaws, there are still media companies and news agencies with better journalistic standards than others. Wikipedia gets a lot of criticism because "anyone can edit it" but it does have editorial standards, an army of moderators and poor or suspect entries are clearly flagged.  Cross check whether the story appears in trusted sites (your views on trusted sites may vary). Crash Course calls this "lateral reading" and it's an important skill we all need to develop.

  • Who is behind it?
    Where is the story published - who owns the website, wrote the article or contributed the information? Could any of these affect the story's impartiality? Does the story quote its sources or link to them? If a story is just an opinion piece it should make this clear. It can take a bit of detective work but it could have a huge impact on how you view the story.

  • Has it been debunked?
    There are many fact-checking websites, Snopes is one of the most well-known. It's a fact-checking and myth-debunking website which investigates conspiracy theories, hoaxes and fake news. If in doubt, check Snopes first.

  • Report anything suspicious
    In the top right of Facebook posts you can click a menu for options to hide, unfollow or give feedback on the post, including reporting it as fake news. Other social media platforms have similar options for flagging inappropriate content.

  • Don't share unless you're sure!
    Don't share anything unless you're confident that it's reliable and accurate. Forwarding and sharing is the life-blood of fake news, without it the stories wouldn't get the exposure that makes it worth the effort of writing them in the first place. Be aware too that in the UK, a number of laws apply to Twitter and if you tweet or retweet something libellous, defamatory harassing or menacing you could be prosecuted.

  • Does anyone want to hear this?
    Even if it is a 'legitimate' story, many people are fed up of having their online social spaces clogged up with news or current affairs. Consider whether your friends, family and audience would be receptive to the story. 

Fake news and the nature of online information and discussion at the moment can make the internet feel likes a dangerous, unpleasant and unfriendly place. There is a lot that social media platforms, media organisations and governments need to do to address these problems, but it's also up to us. We can set the tone and be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

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