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Where did “Fake News” come from?

The concept of fake news — that is to say, information reported to have come from a trustworthy or fact-based source that, in reality, does not — must have existed for as long as the concept of “news” has existed as well. In fact, the earliest recorded fake news was back in the 13th century BC, when Rameses the Great greatly exaggerated his and his army’s performance at the Battle of Kadesh. This isn’t an outlier, either: a good number of primarily historical accounts are considered fairly untrustworthy by historians, on account of how prevalent propaganda of this kind was.

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    The term itself, however, reportedly originates from US President Woodrow Wilson, who coined it in 1915. That’s not to say similar phrases weren’t slung around — U.S. Representative George W. Campbell was accusing publications of slander and falsehoods back in 1809 — but “fake news,” as a concept that’s even remotely recognizable to the concept we know it as today, seems to date to the early 20th century.

    But even that is a bit misleading — or perhaps, generous. Because while the idea of falsified news has been around for centuries, “Fake News” as we currently understand it is actually a fairly recent creation, the three-way offspring of the internet age, a worldwide explosion of nationalism, and of course the increasingly divisive political environment of the United States.

    So yeah. Now’s the part where we talk about Trump.

    Modern “Fake News”

    Unfortunately, any understanding — let alone discussion — of the modern origin of “Fake News” has to delve into the realm of current politics. So let’s go back a century or two to 2016 and the now infamous presidential bid between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. 

    And while Donald Trump was the one who popularized and distorted the term for his own purposes, it was actually Hillary Clinton who was first to invoke it — on the 8th of December, in 2016, she said:

    "The epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year. It's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences. This isn't about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk… lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities."

    She was likely talking about “Pizzagate,” the event where a man shot up a DC-based Pizza Parlor because some people on the internet had convinced him sex slaves were imprisoned in its (non-existent) basement. But while it’s a mystery if the Pizzagate shooter was listening to her plea, Donald Trump certainly was… although he may have taken a slightly different lesson away from it than his political rival had intended.

    The rise of fake news

    A month after Hilary Clinton’s words, January 2017, Trump accused CNN reporter Jim Accosta of being “Fake News” when he tried to ask the President-Elect a question. And that was the start of a now long and storied history of throwing the term “fake news” around. He called the Russia investigation a “witch hunt” and “Fake News.” He called the popular vote results “Fake News.” He called popularity polls that viewed him unfavorably “fake news.” “Fake” became the president’s favorite word, and over the next two years, he would use the term over 400 times, describing everything from politicians to news to books.

    But Trump was not the only person to start accusing things he didn’t like as being fake. Whether inspired by him, reacting to him, or completely independently of him, other politicians all over the globe have started using the “Fake News” phenomenon to their own ends. Misinformation was a key element of the Brexit vote in 2016. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has drafted a bill that would reportedly “quell fake news,” but critics claim it will silence dissent. Russian President Vladamir Putin has claimed that foreigners have tried to spread “Fake News” about COVID-19 within his country’s borders

    So to answer the question at the very top of this article — “What is Fake News?” — the answer is quite simple: it’s actually two things. Fake news is a series of lies and misinformation designed to manipulate hearts and minds. While “Fake News” is a label used to discredit a fact that powerful people don’t like. Easy, right? 

    Unfortunately, while defining fake news is easy… the question of how to spot fake news isn’t. But a good place to start would be identifying the different types of fake news, and working from there.

    What kind of fake news is there, and how can I deal with it?

    Fake news doesn’t just fall out of the sky — there’s a reason why fake news exists. Both real fake news and the title “Fake News” has a purpose that it’s trying to accomplish, and identifying that purpose is perhaps the most clear-cut way to identify what kind of fake news you’re dealing with… if any at all.

    Propaganda

    Political fake news is perhaps the most common kind out there. It’s when one political group decides to make up and report some falsehood — either to make their own party look good, or to make some other party, organization, group, or agenda look bad. Unfortunately, since fake news is so easy to make and so hard to catch, propaganda like this has become a problematic cornerstone of modern politics.

    This kind of fake news generally comes from people and groups affiliated with a political party, but it can also come from outside sources who are looking to stir the pot — people like trolls, or agents of foreign nations. 

    In theory, identifying propaganda is easy: we do live in the information age, after all. Any claim can be verified by third parties with a quick google search, and there are fact-checking sites like Snopes.com and FactCheck.org that exist to give you an unpolitical, unbiased truth behind many of the claims that often run rampant on social media and the more politically biased news organizations, like Fox News and Mother Jones. 

    Another way to identify propaganda is to take note of the content of the piece in question: propaganda may contain a fact or two, but oftentimes these facts are merely an introduction to a more emotional plea that has either no grounding in reality, or an extremely selective grounding. For example, this article has one fact at the start (which is incomplete and missing key elements from the report they’re citing) and is followed entirely by emotional pleas, conjecture, and situational data that is taken out of context. The writer of this piece had a clear objective, and focused more on selling that objective than exploring and communicating a fact. 

    But the problem with propaganda isn’t that it’s hard to identify, rather, that it’s unpleasant. Propaganda isn’t used these days to sway people from one aisle to the other — most people are rather stubborn in their beliefs and very few are unopinionated. Rather, modern propaganda is usually trying to validate pre-existing beliefs and spur action from the people who already agree with it. Edgar Maddison Welch, the Pizzagate shooter, was already a fan of Alex Jones and other right-leaning conspiracy theories when he decided to take action against the pizza shop in question. The propaganda he absorbed didn’t change his mind, it merely directed his energy.

    This is complicated further by the increasingly prevalent belief that more and more news outlets are outright untrustworthy, oftentimes because many people now feel empowered to dismiss facts they don’t like as simply not true. While some skepticism is certainly healthy, it’s very easy for people to ignore overwhelming evidence against their beliefs and focus on the small and comparatively weak evidence that supports what they want to believe. This is called Confirmation Bias, and it’s a widely acknowledged facet of our psychology as well as the cornerstone of all modern propaganda. 

    So identifying propaganda isn’t merely about questioning everything you read and looking for secondary or third sources: it’s about identifying your own internal biases and recognizing when those are being used to play you. Once you have that kind of confidence in your own thought processes and a willingness to reevaluate fundamental views to better reflect reality, you’ll find it’s a lot easier to identify this kind of fake news wherever you encounter it.

    Clickbait

    Clickbait is a kind of fake news that exists for one reason: to be clicked on. 

    Now, every website wants to encourage clicks — this very blog article used marketing and design conventions to try to get you to read it — but clickbait distinguishes itself for being deceptive, sensationalized, or both. We never pretended this article was anything that it wasn’t in order to get people to click it: it exists to inform and educate people who are curious about this topic, so that’s how we present it. Clickbait has no such reservations, and it will say and show anything in order to get people to investigate further. 

    Clickbait is perhaps the most refreshingly straightforward kind of fake news to identify. It wears itself on its sleeve.

    An example of clickbait — “Man Tries to Hug a Wild Lion, You won’t Believe What Happens Next!”Source: Earth Porn

    Emotional pleas, mysterious headlines, captivating premises, and eye-catching imagery: all of these are the tool of the clickbait. It’s so prevalent (and so irritating) across social media that some people have even started to actively crusade against it, often with hilarious results

    Emotional pleas, mysterious headlines, captivating premises, and eye-catching imagery: all of these are the tool of the clickbait.

    But while clickbait can be relatively harmless (you’re not really in any danger of being radicalized by learning what happened when a man hugged a wild lion), frequently, it’s the opposite. Since clickbait is more like a method of delivery than a “genre” of news itself, clickbait is often used in conjunction with propaganda to get more people to read whatever is being evangelized. So while it might be kind of fun learning what happens when a man tries to hug a wild lion, it’s a whole lot more startling when you see something like “DC-Based Restaurant has a Shocking Secret the Clintons Don’t Want You to Know!”

    See what we mean?

    A good news article should treat its title as a thesis statement — a summary of events that you can then click on to learn about in more detail. If a headline doesn’t do that job and instead tries to lure you in with obvious yet enticing bait… then that’s a good sign that whatever’s inside might not be entirely credible. It certainly betrays a lack of necessary professionalism. 

    So next time you see clickbait, just remember that whatever’s waiting for you when you click shouldn’t be taken as gospel. In fact, you should take it with a bucket’s worth of salt. Especially if you start to think it’s a good idea to start hugging wild lions. 

    Because — spoiler alert — the guy was a professional zoologist who had been working with those lions for years. So he was kind of cheating.

    It’s also worth remembering that clickbait is a popular tool by hackers and criminals who are looking to phish you — that is to say, lure you into clicking something that’ll try to infect you with malware. That means it’s sometimes safer to avoid clickbait altogether — unless you have a powerful antivirus like AVG AntiVirus FREE to keep you safe.

    Satire

    Sometimes, fake news isn’t fake because it’s malicious. Sometimes it’s just trying to be funny. 

    Satire, which includes the work of The Onion and The Daily Mash, is generally comic material that’s presented as a genuine news source. You’ve probably seen them from time to time on social media sites, or occasionally on media-sharing sites like Reddit or Imgur.

    An example of an satirical article, which reads “Spotify Celebrates 100th Dollar Given To ArtistsSource: The Onion

    How social media differs from fake news is that while the presentation is supposed to feel authentic, that’s part of the joke: satire sites are never trying to trick people into thinking what they’re writing is real — they use comic exaggeration, overwhelming sarcasm, and irrelevant humor to underline the satirical nature of their work. While that work is often used to make an observation about the real world — for example, to draw attention to how little Spotify pays artists — that hardly constitutes a credible source of news, and it doesn’t pretend to be.

    That hasn’t stopped some people from mistaking satirical sites for genuine news, however. In November of 2012, Chinese news site People's Daily Online reported that Kim Jong-un was voted the “sexiest man alive.” Another news outlet, this time from Iran, unironically reported on the Onion’s claims that Rural Whites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama. And according to a poll run by The Conversation in 2019, a shocking number of people can be duped into believing satirical news. 

    With the line between “satire” and “propaganda” blurring in recent years, there have been calls for satirical sites to be more forthcoming with the satirical nature of their work, by including something like a label or a disclaimer. So far, there hasn’t been much progress in that direction, so the best way to check if the alarming headline you’re looking at on Facebook is satirical or not is simply to check who the reporter is, and then do a quick Google search. If they’re satirical, Google will tell you, and you can enjoy that content as a piece of humorous fiction, rather than a terrifying fact.

    The best way to check if the alarming headline you’re looking at on Facebook is satirical or not is simply to check who the reporter is, and then do a quick Google search.

    Biased news

    Not quite propaganda but not quite trustworthy, biased news is any news that’s being delivered by a news site or reporter with a clear ideological leaning. 

    The fact that news sites can be biased shouldn’t exactly be news: in fact, many news sites revel in their affiliations, and proudly align themselves with particular movements or politicians. In fact, political bias in news outlets is so common, it can be tracked and graphed, as the wonderful folks over at Ad Fontes Media do.

    A super complicated graph about where news outlets fall on the political/trustworthy spectrum. Just click the link above and you’ll see it.Source: Ad Fontes Media

    Biased news and propaganda can have a lot in common: both are looking to either sway people who are undecided or reinforce the beliefs of people who are already in their camp. Both twist facts and distort claims with commentary not supported by facts, or with facts that have been cherry-picked to support their views. And both will claim to be the absolute truth. In fact, the distinction between “propaganda” and “biased news” is generally a matter of degrees: how much misinformation is being presented? How much of the article is merely commentary and not irrefutable fact? How much are they willing to hand-wave from their “side,” vis how much they’re willing to attack and demonize their ideological counterparts?

    If you’re lucky, “biased news” will deliver the facts, and then afterward tack on biased commentary. In this case, you can generally just separate the wheat from the chaff and still learn something from biased news. However, “commentary” is far from the only thing that can make news biased: phrasing and context can also seriously warp how a real-life story is perceived.

    Here’s an example from Hurricane Katrina:

    Two articles: one where an African American is said to be “looting”, and another where two white people are said to be “finding”.Source: Snopes

    See that phrasing? Swapping “looting” from “finding”? Or, how about this example:

    See that phrasing? Swapping “looting” from “finding”? Or, how about this example:Source: The Irish Times

    Reading the headline and the subhead, you would think this was some kind of targeted attack looking to suppress protesters. What they fail to mention is that the protesters were actually attacking the soldiers with rocks, and that warning shots were fired well before the protesting teen was killed. You can still argue that the response was disproportionate — but it’s hard to argue that the extra context doesn’t change the narrative. 

    So what do you do? Well, sticking to news sites that are near the top-center of the above media bias graph would be a good place to start, but bias, intentional or otherwise, could still distort facts. So here’s a checklist of things to consider when you find a news story, and you want to determine how “biased” it may or may not be:

    • Consider the source: not just who’s reporting it, but where they got their information from. Official sources, like government or company spokespeople, are all well and good, but the best and most reliable news has multiple sources from different levels, areas of expertise, and of course, political affiliation. 

    • Who’s reporting the news? There are invisible (or sometimes extremely visible) gender, race, and social biases in everything that is produced and consumed. If an article doesn’t come from a diverse enough institution or individual, consider looking for the same news reported by a different group: new perspectives can lead to new insights into the event. 

    • Look at the perspective of the news: is it being reported from the perspective of homeowners, or the homeless? Politicians, or their constituents? The victim, or the accused? The people asked to speak on a story are going to bring their own perspectives, and yes, biases to the information being offered, which will color how it’s absorbed by the reader. 

    • What goes unchallenged? What’s accepted as “fact” by the reporter, and what do they take the time to dissect and discuss? You can tell a lot about the narrative the reporter is trying to create by what they choose to stop and examine, vs what they simply let slip. This is particularly true with interviews or press events. 

    • Rely on your own memory and try to recall stories similar to the one you’re reading now. How was that reported by the site you’re on now? Did they have any kind of double standard? Did they uncritically ignore an action done by one person while persecuting another for the same, or a similar action? Consider the factors that would make the author of a piece hold someone to a different standard (background, race, ethnicity) and use that information to determine bias.

    No one said it would be easy to avoid fake news, did they?

    Poor journalism

    Sometimes, “Fake News” is neither malicious nor even intentional: sometimes, it’s just a case of a journalist doing a bad job. 

    Now, of course, all propaganda/biased news/clickbait is poor journalism, but not all poor journalism is propaganda/biased news/clickbait. Sometimes, a journalist gets some facts wrong, misquotes someone, or misremembers facts, and draws conclusions based on that false information. It’s not common, but it’s not nearly as uncommon as it should be, considering how important fact-based reporting is these days.

    Here’s a good example:

    A retweet from Donald Trump claiming that only 6% of the deaths related ot COVID-19 were actually caused by the diseaseSource: Twitter

    That is technically true… but it’s incredibly misleading. While it’s true only 6% of death certificates from the number cited above list COVID-19 as the cause of death, that’s only because death certificates list the most immediate cause of death: all 153,504 of the people mentioned in that Tweet still died due to COVID-19, if not directly due to the disease, then due to complications caused by it: that is to say, COVID-19 was the underlying cause of death. 

    The easiest way to spot poor journalism is to never rely on just one source, which is a healthy habit to get into whenever you’re looking at the news anyway: if you find a particularly eye-catching article, search for it on other, different news sources and see what they have to say. Not only will you be able to find the constants of the story and get a good idea of what actually happened, this can also help you avoid other biases and tricks that journalists might use to try to color your perspective of the event.

    A badly-written article can also be a sign that the website isn’t legitimate — which also means it could be filled with malware or malvertising, something you might not realize until it’s too late and you’ve already clicked on it. Avoid these kinds of scary mishaps with AVG Antivirus FREE, which will keep you safe from those kinds of attacks.

    “Fake News”

    Finally, we have the title itself. The accusation thrown around by so many politicians and powerful figures in this modern age. What’s the politician’s “Fake News”? 

    In short: it’s a weaponization of the concept of fake news to discredit reporters, stories, or entire institutions that report on things that the politician in question does not like. And it’s probably the worst kind of fake news on this list, because worse than any damage it may do to any individual is the damage it does to the institution of journalism. 

    The real danger of “Fake News” is that it normalizes the spreading of doubt and mistrust of journalists, which is especially dangerous when it comes from a government body whose role is to protect the ability of journalists to do their jobs, not publicly shame them.

    That’s not to say journalists are faultless: for many, many years, journalists have exaggerated, been alarmist, and fabricated information — which constitutes the other items on this list. But the real danger of “Fake News” is that it normalizes the spreading of doubt and mistrust of journalists, which is especially dangerous when it comes from a government body whose role is to protect the ability of journalists to do their jobs, not publicly shame them. 

    It sounds like this should be an easy fix: like all you have to do is never trust a powerful person to tell you what’s real and what’s fake. But that risks becoming a slippery slope because it can lead to a general distrust in experts or, worse, contributing to a growing movement of anti-intellectualism that’s spreading around the globe. So it’s much more productive and helpful to instead consider the motive of the authority. Certain people calling polls that don’t favor them “Fake News” is an easy enough example to cite — of course they’re not going to like those polls because they’re not in their favor, so they have a reason to want to spread doubt about them. Conversely, what motive would a medical professional have to say you should wear a mask if that wasn’t an effective way to prevent the spread of disease? I’m sure the more creative readers of this article could workshop a few — from being in the pocket of “big mask” to some grander conspiracy — but if you apply Occam’s Razor to that kind of thinking, you quickly realize they don’t have a motive. They just want to keep people safe, because it’s their jobs. 

    A little critical thinking goes a long way these days.

    So what’s being done about it?

    You should have a pretty good idea of the kinds of fake news that’s running rampant on our social media feeds and news sites, so now you must be wondering if anything is being done to curtail its spread. 

    Well, yes, but also, no. 

    Capital-F fake news is, in fact, being addressed in some forms or another, mostly by private companies and organizations. Twitter, for example, will flag tweets that share misleading information about COVID-19, or that contains blatant misinformation — something they’ve rather famously done to the United States president. Google started the Google News Initiative, and is working together with groups like First Draft to catch and stop fake news from spreading. YouTube decreases the visibility of videos that contain blatant falsehoods (as well as deepfake videos) or are damaging to public health, while boosting the visibility of trusted news sources. Over in Europe, the EU has ordered social media sites like Facebook to do a better job at policing misinformation, while vocally condemning famous perpetrators of fake news online, like Russia and China, who are frequently caught pushing “misinformation campaigns” against democratic nations. 

    So some headway is being made, but unfortunately, most fake news — from clickbait to biased news to propaganda — is protected speech in the west. So legally, the government has no power (and oftentimes, no interest) in stopping the tide of misinformation. It also limits what most companies can legally do: direct falsehoods can be stopped legally (particularly when those falsehoods are a direct threat to public health, like COVID-19 misinformation) but biased news? That’d be trickier for them to tackle, and it would no doubt earn them the ire of a good number of their users, so by and large, they don’t.

    Which means it’s up to individuals to stay vigilant and informed.

    Wrapping up

    Fake news isn’t going away. 

    In fact, judging by the current trajectory, it’s only going to get worse before it gets better. 

    It’s tempting to see the rise of fake news and to think that journalism is dead, and that you can’t trust anything you read online anymore. Which… might become true, in some hypothetical yet increasingly plausible nightmare future, but for now, that kind of thinking is a discredit to the hundreds of hard-working, honest journalists who work day and night to bring you the objective truth as best they can. Dealing with fake news is hard, that’s no lie, but substituting it for ignorance is not a solution — if anything, it would expedite the loss of what integrity remains in the journalistic process. 

    Fake news is on the rise, but for the time being, we still have all the tools we need to identify and stop it. The fight for the truth isn’t lost yet, and as long as you put in that little extra effort to stay both informed and skeptical, we might even win one day.

    But for now, we all need to look before we leap headlong into what we read online, good or bad. And that’s no lie. 

    Trust us.

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