Fake news isn’t new. It wasn’t a creation of the 2016 presidential election campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, it has been used – or abused – for various purposes throughout human history. Even Thomas Jefferson hired a ‘scandalmonger’ to publish false stories about John Adams back in the 1796 presidential election.
What has changed, however, is how fake news is created and consumed via social media. We now live in an age when the internet allows us immediate and unfettered access to infinite amounts of information. Unfortunately, the internet also affords us unfiltered access to unlimited amounts of both misinformation and disinformation.
This easy access to ‘facts’ has the potential to instil in us a kind of intellectual arrogance. We might not know the answer to every question, but we are comforted by our certainty that we can simply look it up online. We are also confident that we can successfully navigate the ‘facts’ we surface online and parse what is ‘fake’ and what real.
Unfortunately it’s this very confidence that makes us susceptible to fake news.
We recently researched this issue in Canada with H+K’s Perspectives+ online research panel, and found the overwhelming majority believed they could tell the difference between fake news and real news. Yet, an almost equal number expressed concerns that others could not do the same. Put another way, I know I can spot fake news but worry you can’t – and vice versa.
More troubling, only half of respondents said that they double-check or fact-check a story they think might be fake news. This means that even when we suspect that a story could be false only half of us bother to confirm the suspicions. Whether right or wrong, it seems people are relying on gut, rather than Google, as much as ever before.
Our research uncovered other troubling paradoxes about the consumption of ‘fake’ news. It also showed, for example, that while only one in five characterized “fake news” as “most stories on social media”, a large majority of respondents believe that where they are most likely to be exposed to “fake news” is on social media.
Moreover, our research found that those who said they got all or some of their news from social media, such as Facebook, were more likely to think that social media are the main source of fake news. This means there are people who choose to get their news from a source that they themselves believe is the main source of fake news.
This is made worse by the fact that we find ourselves in peculiar times. The news stories regularly appearing in mainstream media outlets, such as CNN or the New York Times, are unlike anything we’ve seen before. Much of the news we now see is both literally and figuratively unbelievable, which makes fake news seem more believable.
As others have noted, when the news stories coming out of Washington make the storylines of television shows like House of Cards and Scandal seem tame by comparison, how can we trust our ability to tell the difference between fact and fiction? The risk is we will accept fake news as being real and reject real news as being fake.
In this uncertain environment, reasonable people can even disagree about the meaning of the term ‘fake news’. Should the term cover stories based on unnamed sources? What about breaking news stories based on unverified accounts? Should it include stories based on opinions that are presented as facts or paid or even branded content from companies?
Our Perspectives+ survey found that a majority of Canadians characterized ‘fake news’ as ‘stories designed to hurt a political opponent’ – including stories which lacked proper background, context, or other relevant information. A majority were also quick to identify stories that were based on ‘opinions and/or unconfirmed reports’ as being ‘fake’.
Far fewer than half classified stories based on ‘anonymous sources’, ‘most stories posted on social media’, stories which are ‘disputed by those mentioned in them’, and/or ‘branded media stories’ – which would including paid content sponsored by a company or other third party – as being ‘fake’. This confirms a potentially wide divergence of views.
In an ideal world, a decision about whether a story is ‘real’ or ‘fake’ news shouldn’t be based on an individual’s subjective assessment. The determination of what constitutes ‘fake’ news should be based on objective criteria. Does the story accurately reflect a set of facts? Can those facts be verified? Is it intended to mislead or disinform?
Absent a consistent definition of what constitutes ‘fake’ news, and absent a commitment to check or confirm stories that we suspect could be false, the risks that misinformation and disinformation will win the day are grave. Just as we tell our kids, no matter how smart we think we are, at the end of the day we all need to do our homework.