When an explosive story about Joe Biden’s son began ciruclating last week, social media sites restricted its spread to fight misinformation. What is fake news – and why is it a problem?
What is fake news?
Put simply, fake news consists of reports on stories that have no basis in fact. Much like real news, fake news stories cover an enormous range of topics – politics, health, entertainment, arts and culture.
In the past, most media with global reach consisted of several major newspapers and networks with the resources to gather information directly. The rise of online media has changed this: information can now spread quickly and without being fact checked, meaning fake news can spread faster than ever.
How long has it been around?
Fake news is nothing new. Around 2,000 years ago, to get the public on his side in a civil war, Roman Emperor Octavian launched a “fake news” war on Mark Anthony. It claimed that Anthony had no respect for Roman values, that he was unfaithful and always drunk.
Fake news became more popular in the 15th century after the invention of the printing press. In the 19th century, editors discovered that sensational stories sold more newspapers. In 1835, the New York Sun published a story about life on the Moon. A century later, the radio became notorious for a programme about an alien invasion.
Are there different kinds of fake news?
Yes! They range from stories that are unintentionally deceptive to news that is 100% false. False connection stories are articles that do not match their headline or image, often created to reel in readers with engaging visuals. Satirical stories are also a kind of fake news, although they are not designed to cause harm.
However, much fake news is deliberately harmful. This includes imposter content, where genuine sources are impersonated – and manipulated content, when information or images are altered.
Why do people create it?
In those cases where fake news is produced deliberately, there are several reasons. The first is money. Modern media is based on an advertising model that relies on getting people to click to view content. Fake news can be more sensational than reality, leading to more clicks. In this way, the creation of such false content can be very profitable.
Others create fake news for political reasons. Much as Octavian did with Anthony, people can use news stories to spread negative information about political opponents.
How do we fight it?
As an individual, the best way is to read critically. When looking at an article, check the sources, read about the website and author, explore the subject to see if other outlets are reporting it and be sceptical of unusual stories.
Social media sites are also trying to prevent the spread of fake news. Facebook has released a feature called a “circuit breaker”. It works by interrupting the algorithm that amplifies posts more likely to produce a reaction. Now, before users share an article, they may see a warning. For example an alert shows when the article mentions Covid-19 or the US Election.
What is the future of fakes?
Over the centuries, technology has been the driving force behind the rise of fake news – from the invention of the printing press, to photography, to social media.
Now, new deepfake technology is transforming fake news once again. It uses artificial intelligence to create a digital version of someone that can then be manipulated to create potentially damaging fake footage of that person without their knowledge.
Deepfake technology is still new, but as it develops, we may have to devise completely new methods for spotting fake news.
- Do you think there should be a law banning fake news?
- Make a poster to help fight fake news. Come up with five tips and present them in a way that is sure to be eye-catching.
- Printing press
- Invented in Germany around 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg, the printing press made mass printing of books possible for the first time.
- Satire is the use of humour or exaggeration to expose and criticise people’s views. It is used in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues. A famous satirical news outlet is the Daily Mash.
- Imposter content
- Sometimes, fake news sites will use the name of a famous news outlet. One way to check a story comes from the real source is to check the URL. The most trusted URLS end with “.com”, “.co.uk”, “.net”, “.gov”, “.org”, “.mil” and “.edu”.
- A process or set of rules to be followed by a computer that control its actions.
- Since the outbreak of the pandemic, false information about the virus has exploded on social media.
- US Election
- Fake news shot to world fame during the 2016 presidential election campaign when a group of Macedonian teenagers discovered they could make money from advertising by writing extraordinary and false stories about the candidates.