What is the story behind fake news?

Fake news. What do we mean by that expression? Is it just a social media clickbait to earn easy advertising money? Is it a label on fabricated journalist-styled content to drive public opinion in a certain direction? Or is it a strategy some people use, trying to downgrade statements they don’t agree with? Or maybe all of this?

The usage of the term fake news got a boost during the 2016 presidential election in the USA but is far from new. In fact, false and fabricated news have been used for thousands of years. However, modern fake news travel at the speed of light via social media with enormous impact and is therefore different from the fake news of the past.

Fake news factories
In mid-2016, in the final phase of the USA elections, the news site Buzzfeed first reported on how strange and obviously made-up stories started to flood social media. The theme was always the same, sensational news with headlines to stir up feelings such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President”. These articles often went viral, spread by unconcerned people via social channels.

Buzzfeed started to investigate the stories and found that they originated from at least 140 phony websites based in Veles, Macedonia. The websites were run by teenagers with the sole purpose of making money through advertising revenues from Facebook and Google. They had no particular interest in the American election or Trump, but used the public interest in these topics to make money. Wired has reported of these young Veles “entrepreneurs” earning tens of thousands of dollars from ads on their fake news websites.

Learn more about fake news

Usage of fake news skyrockets
After Trump won the 2016 election, the new president frequently started to use the term fake news. He was not the first politician to use it, but he certainly made it his hallmark. On his preferred social media channel Twitter, Trump started labeling news he didn’t agree with as fake news. And at a now well-known White House press conference, fake news was used as an insult toward CNN’s reporter Jim Acosta.

Today the term fake news is so frequently used, or perhaps over-used, that some experts argue that it has become obsolete. Not only fabricated articles of doubtful origin, but a variety of other falsifications, misinformation, mistakes and even news with which people don’t happen to agree, are labeled fake news. As a telling example, a Google News search shows 224 million results, which in itself is a measure of how widely spread it is.

Dealing with fake news
It’s one thing to spread fake news for your own benefit, but when people start using it intentionally to move people in a certain political direction, democracy can take a hit. Since 2016 fake news has become so common that everyone must be aware of what impact it can have on the public conversation. Fake news factories of various origin, or individual “trolls”, repeatedly use fake news to drive their cause. Whatever the reason, everyone needs to be source critical to avoid being misled. It’s good practice to fact-check news and articles if you are in doubt. Factlab is a great resource to see if a seemingly factual statement is correct or not.

Download our checklist “12 ways to identify fake news”

Hands on advice
With our handy checklist you get hands on advice in how to spot fake news. You will learn:

  • What are common warning signs?
  • How can format and quality help you identify fake news?
  • How do you develop a source critical approach?
  • How and where can you fact check an article?