What is fake news? Definition, types, and how to detect them
A growing number of people use the internet to stay informed and share millions of posts, articles, and videos across platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The rapid adoption of social media has led to a rise in information-sharing among users, with fake news becoming a component of our digital daily routines. The spread of misinformation is in part attributed to social media failing to verify the authenticity of a news item. This makes it easy to share seemingly real images and videos which have been skillfully manipulated. It is now well-known that misinformation has a significant influence on public opinion and discourse.
In this article, we explain what fake news is and how you can detect false news reports quickly.
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What is fake news?
The term fake news eludes to reports, images, and videos that are shared to purposefully spread misinformation i.e. information that is factually incorrect. These news items may appear authentic at first and attempt to attract attention, shock, or shape opinions. Fake news can be created by individuals or groups who are acting in their own interests or those of third parties. The creation of misinformation is usually motivated by personal, political, or economic agendas.
The sharing of fabricated news to shape public opinion on certain topics is not a recent phenomenon. Sensational headlines or political articles used to spread lies and propaganda have been around since the emergence of print media. In times of digital information exchange, fake news has become more of an online phenomenon that is difficult to control. Fake news can reach high levels of visibility in a short amount of time because it’s easy to share via social media and social bots.
Fake News: Fake news refers to false reports or misinformation shared in the form of articles, images, or videos which are disguised as “real news” and aim to manipulate people’s opinions. Fake news is spread by social media users and hidden social bots which comment on, repost, and retweet such news items.
What types of fake news exist?
Fake news is mostly used to manipulate public opinion for political or commercial gain. But false reports are also regularly used as part of sensational headlines in the form of clickbait, which aims to attract people to click through to linked websites and generate advertising income. Phishing attemps also use simulated information and abuse the trust of internet users. Seemingly authentic contact forms are used to collect personal user data for the purpose of identity theft. Other common phenomena are email hoaxes in the form of chain mail which threaten recipients with issues in case they fail to share an email.
These are four common types of fake news:
- Targeted misinformation: Fictitious piece of information shared for self-serving interests. Targeted misinformation is often directed at groups that are most susceptible to receiving this type of information and easily accept and share polarizing content without verifying its authenticity.
- Fake headlines: Headlines depicting fictitious facts to generate attention. These are regularly employed by less credible publications such as tabloid newspapers. Readers often quickly realize that the content of the article does not match the headline. Their titles are referred to as “clickbait headlines.”
- Viral posts: There’s a plethora of new articles and content on social media networks. As a consequence, users often do not take the time to authenticate posts. Because large social networks favor shares, likes, and followers, popular posts are shown more often in a user’s threat – even if that content is fake news.
- Satire: Satirical news pick up on current affairs and news items and mix them with fictitious, and often absurd events. Satire is often employed to raise awareness of social issues or criticize political wrongdoing. But there’s always the danger that humorous components go undetected and the pieces are considered to be true.
How to detect fake news?
Although lots of fake news appears believable at first, it’s also easy to debunk. If you follow a few of the methods described below regularly, it should become easy to distinguish real from fake news.
Check the sender
Verify the social media profile of a sender before you share a post. Ask yourself the following questions:
- How old is their social media account?
- Does the account have a blue verification mark?
- How many followers and friends does the account have?
- Which types of content are predominantly shared?
A new social media account with few friends/followers sharing sensational content could point to a social bot or internet troll.
Verify photos and videos
Visual content can be quickly taken out of context. Watch out for location markers such as advertising signs, road signs, or car license plates, and check whether they match the image’s location. Another useful tool is a reverse image search using URL tools such as Tineye or Chrome extension Reveye. These can be used to verify when and in which context a picture was published for the first time.
Videos are more difficult to authenticate. Intelligent computer editing software allows users to create deepfake videos, which replaces faces in original videos. The YouTube DataViewer by Amnesty International can be used to find an original video.
Check the imprint or authors
Some websites contain imprints or information on copyright and authors. If this type of information is missing you should not trust the source of shared content.
Check the URL
Some types of fake news take on the design of well-known media brands to evoke trustworthiness. In this case, it’s advisable to verify a URL in a browser. Sometimes the only difference is a hyphen or the domain ending such as .net instead of .com.
Always check the date of a news piece and whether alternative media sources are reporting on the same issue. If no alternative trustworthy sources are available, it’s most likely fake news.
Examples of fake news
While some pieces of fake news are relatively harmless, others can cause significant damage because they foster anti-democratic thinking. Experts anticipate that fake news in combination with social bots have had a major influence on world events including the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote in 2016 and the United States presidential election in 2017. Here are three examples of “successful” fake news which influenced public opinion globally:
- AIDS conspiracy: Even before the digitalization of information, blind media trust was used to spread wrongful information. On behalf of secret services by the GDR and Soviet Union, West German media in the 1980s spread the news that the AIDS virus had been created by US secret service CIA. This is called a disinformation campaign.
- The Bitcoin scam: As cryptocurrencies gained popularity in recent years, the number of scams and fraudulent practices have increased. Alleged bitcoin trading platforms advertised their services using fictitious reviews by famous people to grow public trust. The reviews suggested high gains to potential investors.
- Fake news on immigration crisis: During the immigration crisis, many items of fake news were being spread to polarize the European public. In February 2017, for example, British newspaper “Daily Express” published an article claiming that Germany hoped to bring in 12 million migrants. This was later revealed untrue by the German investigative newsroom correctiv.org.
What are the consequences of fake news on society?
Once celebrated as a democratic medium, the World Wide Web has gained a bad reputation when it comes to the reliability of information. That’s because anyone can create, share, and manipulate information online. And with a growing majority of people using online media as their primary source, fake news presents a huge challenge. On the one hand, democracy thrives because of freely accessible information, which helps us understand political, societal, and economical connections. On the other hand, fake news fosters mistrust and skeptical thinking, and hinders discussions or conflict resolution.
What are social media networks doing about fake news?
More and more social media channels are reacting to demands for improved control measures when it comes to the spreading of fake news. However, each platform deals with fake news differently.
Twitter, for example, in May 2020, fact-checked a tweet by US president Donald Trump who shared non-verifiable claims about US postal votes.
In connection to the coronavirus crisis and many conspiracy theory videos emerging online, YouTube adjusted its community guidelines. These enable the platform to delete videos with fabricated content.
Facebook, on the other hand, works with around 50 independent fact-checking organizations such as The Pulitzer Center, American Journalism Project, or World Association of News Publishers. Posts that are found to be fake according to Facebook criteria are marked and become less visible in the news feed, and posts and adverts by politicians are being checked and verified too.
In June 2020, the EU Commission released new guidelines to fight misinformation through social media networks. As part of this guidance, social networks should share monthly reports on content and reach of fake posts and fake user accounts. Social media platforms are encouraged to fight actively misinformation by fact checking content.
Find out more about the dangers of social media in our dedicated article on the topic.