Fake news: how much of a threat is it really?

Ever since the term ‘fake news’ first came into public attention in 2016, it’s been lurking in the political background. And with little surprise: it was only last month that the alt-right website ‘DataBattle’ had all its videos stripped from YouTube, as well as being banned from both Facebook and Instagram.

The reason, according to each company, was that the website was disseminating fake news. This was discovered after Instagram users started to flag DataBattle posts that they thought contained false information through a new feature in the app which allows Instagram’s fact-checking partners to verify the claims.

With stories such as these, it might be hard not to think that fake news still poses a threat as to how we can know the truth of events. Indeed, given that the US is beginning to turn its attention to another presidential election, the worry that fake news is going to tamper with the election’s outcome is growing.

But contrary to popular belief, fake news isn’t as prevalent as people might think. Cases such as DataBattle are very much isolated cases: there is actually very little fake news, and what little there is, is often circulated around small groups of people, most of which are already biased towards the material.

Even on the rare occasions where fake news does manage to reach a wider audience, it is soon identified as being fake – the banning of DataBattle here is a case in point.

Nor could fake news have had a long lifespan: after repeated use, the patterns by which fake news operates become more obvious simply because it does not correlate to reality. And so when people are confronted with so much contradictory information, the presence of fake news is obvious. The only difficulty comes when we try to discern the fake from the genuine, and one of the ways of clarifying this is that fake news is often far less subtle in how it reports.

Once again, Donald Trump is a prime example of what is meant here: he is loud, very quick to to assert the truth of his position and even quicker to denounce any opposition. The same can be said for people like Alex Jones or certain tabloid newspapers, where brash and brazen headlines are often indicative of fakery.

Another reason why fake news has a short lifespan is that it relies on a very unstable premise: that the public is easily swayed. This may seem a surprise given the rise of populism in current politics, but it is not simply the case that people can be convinced into believing something just because it tells them what they want to hear.

There are more individuals than there are sheep, and there are innumerable studies which demonstrate people are not as susceptible to confirmation bias or herd mentality than is often imagined.Everything said so far has been fake news.

Almost everything: what was said about Instagram’s fact-checking feature is a real thing in the app; but far from being a success story, it has been criticised for not going far enough with its efforts. But DataBattle does not exist, and far from dying out, fake news is very much alive and kicking.

So why try and write a fake news article? Well, depending on how convincing it was, it was attempting to show that fake news can be versatile; and that it isn’t as obvious as a lie about the EU on the side of a bus.
Part of the reason why fake news is so difficult to spot comes down to the definition of fake news itself. It is a relatively new term in our language, and what it exactly refers to is ambiguous. When a piece of writing or a statement is called ‘fake news’, it might equally be called a mistake, a case of ‘false reporting’.

A journalist may make a genuine mistake in reporting the facts, but that does not then not make it ‘fake news’: what was reported was false news posing as the truth, therefore a fake. This is a very kind example of what can be meant by ‘fake news’, more often it is used to mean to deliberately deceive people into thinking in a certain way about an event, organisation, people, etc.

But again confusion arises because words with similar connotations can also be used interchangeably, such as ‘biased writing’, ‘rumour’ and ‘disinformation’. Here each word means something slightly different from ‘fake news’, but that does not mean fake news does not include some or all of their uses.

Likewise, just because ‘fake news’ as a term only started being used in 2016, we should not assume that fake news has only existed since Trump’s election or the Brexit vote.

The chances are that fake news has been around since news itself, only fake news was not called ‘fake news’. But as long as the motive to spread information has existed, there has probably been a counter motive to spread disinformation. As news reporting evolved, so surely must have fake news to suit someone’s interests somewhere; and the internet has been key to the success of fake news by providing very fertile ground to make the circulation of fake news far wider (often through things such as clickbait or eye-catching headlines), and finding a mass network of readers.

But what is it about fake news that makes it convincing? For fake news must be convincing enough so the public does not reject it out of hand as ridiculous. Of course, there is an assumption there, in that there are those who will believe anything they are told if it suits their worldview.

The key ability to look convincing is to weave truth and lies into one. It is much easier to make someone believe a lie when it is presented alongside something that is true. So while true that Instagram has a fact-checking feature, it is false that it is effective. While it is true that alt-right websites have been banned from posting on social media, DataBattle as an exemplar does not exist.

Another feature of fake news is its ambiguity: where statements of fact are actually veiled opinions and the information given is vague. Phrases such as ‘the patterns by which fake news operates’ do not really tell the reader anything substantive, and when something like ‘innumerable studies’ are used, it presents itself as an authority on the subject without disclosing its source. As per the latter point, I recognise I am also guilty. So even what I am saying now about fake news shouldn’t be immediately trusted.

Given that there are more elections on the political horizon, it is becoming increasingly necessary for people to be able to differentiate real and fake news. It is almost certain that there is someone out there who wants to manipulate the way you vote, and so far fake news has been very successful in doing that.
As it stands, there is very little to stop fake news being used again.


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