Fake news

From New World Encyclopedia

Fake news, also known as junk news or pseudo-news, is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media. The term Fake news is a neologism used to describe fabricated news, stories that are not true. This type of news, found in traditional news, social media, or fake news websites, has no basis in fact, but is presented as being factually accurate. Fake news is written and published usually with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership. Digital news has brought back and increased the usage of yellow journalism. Such news is then often reverberated as misinformation in social media but occasionally finds its way to the mainstream media as well.

Fake news undermines serious media coverage and makes it more difficult for journalists to cover significant news stories. Many news organizations claim proud traditions of holding government officials and institutions accountable to the public. The proliferation of fake news raises the issue of holding the media itself accountable. As powerful influences of public opinion, purveyors of news have a responsibility to act in the interest of the betterment of human society rather than seeking financial or other gain for themselves.

Three running men carrying papers with the labels "Humbug News", "Fake News", and "Cheap Sensation".
Reporters with various forms of "fake news" from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper


Fake news is a neologism often used to refer to fabricated news, stories that are just not true. This type of news, found in traditional news, social media, and on fake news websites, has no basis in fact, but is presented as being factually accurate. It is a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate disinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional news media (print and broadcast) or online social media.[1]

Fake news can be characterized as "stories that are probably false, have enormous traction [popular appeal] in the culture, and are consumed by millions of people." They are "stories that are fabricated out of thin air. By most measures, deliberately, and by any definition, that's a lie."[2]

In some cases, what appears to be fake news may be news satire, which uses exaggeration and introduces non-factual elements that are intended to amuse or make a point, rather than to deceive. Fake news may be distinguished not just by the falsity of its content, but also by its intent and purpose, by the "character of [its] online circulation and reception."[3] Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead, usually in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically,[4][5] often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership.

Seven types of fake news can be identified:[6]

  1. satire or parody ("no intention to cause harm but has potential to fool")
  2. false connection ("when headlines, visuals or captions don't support the content")
  3. misleading content ("misleading use of information to frame an issue or an individual")
  4. false context ("when genuine content is shared with false contextual information")
  5. impostor content ("when genuine sources are impersonated" with false, made-up sources)
  6. manipulated content ("when genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive", as with a "doctored" photo)
  7. fabricated content ("new content is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm")

Identifying fake news

Infographic How to spot fake news published by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions

The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) published a diagram (pictured at right) to assist people in recognizing fake news, with the following points:[7]

  1. Consider the source (to understand its mission and purpose)
  2. Read beyond the headline (to understand the whole story)
  3. Check the authors (to see if they are real and credible)
  4. Assess the supporting sources (to ensure they support the claims)
  5. Check the date of publication (to see if the story is relevant and up to date)
  6. Ask if it is a joke (to determine if it is meant to be satire)
  7. Review your own biases (to see if they are affecting your judgment)
  8. Ask experts (to get confirmation from independent people with knowledge).


Fake news, or its equivalent by any other name, is not a new phenomenon. History records numerous instances of false rumors and lies being spread about rivals and enemies. For example, colonial America, the American Revolution, and the early American presidents alike suffered numerous attacks and false portrayals in print, a problem exacerbated by the emergence of the free press intended to create a better informed public.[8] This problems, however, existed long before the invention of the printing press, as can be seen in the following historical examples.


In the thirteenth century B.C.E., Rameses the Great spread lies and propaganda portraying the Battle of Kadesh as a stunning victory for the Egyptians; he depicted scenes of himself smiting his foes during the battle on the walls of nearly all his temples. The treaty between the Egyptians and the Hittites, however, reveals that the battle was actually a stalemate.[9]

During the second and third centuries C.E., false rumors were spread about Christians claiming that they engaged in ritual cannibalism and incest.[10] In the late third century C.E., the Christian apologist Lactantius invented and exaggerated stories about pagans engaging in acts of immorality and cruelty,[11] while the anti-Christian writer Porphyry invented similar stories about Christians.[12]


Blood libels against Jews were a common form of anti-Semitic fake news during the Middle Ages. These were sensationalized allegations that a person or group engaged in human sacrifice, often accompanied by the claim that the blood of victims, often children, was used in various rituals and/or acts of cannibalism.

For example, in 1475 a fake news story in Trent, Italy claimed that the Jewish community had murdered a two-and-a-half-year-old Christian infant named Simonino. The story resulted in all the Jews in the city being arrested and tortured; fifteen of them were burned at the stake. Pope Sixtus IV himself attempted to stamp out the story; however, by that point, it had already spread beyond control.[13]

Early modern period

After the invention of the printing press in 1439, publications became widespread but there was no standard of journalistic ethics to follow. It took until the seventeenth century for historians to begin the practice of citing their sources in footnotes.

In the American colonies, Benjamin Franklin wrote fake news about murderous "scalping" Indians working with King George III in an effort to sway public opinion in favor of the American Revolution.[13]

During the era of slave-owning in the United States, supporters of slavery propagated fake news stories about African Americans. In one instance, stories of African Americans spontaneously turning white spread through the south and struck fear into the hearts of many people.[13]

Rumors and anxieties about slave rebellions were common in Virginia from the beginning of the colonial period. One particular instance of fake news regarding revolts occurred in 1730. The serving governor of Virginia at the time, Governor William Gooch, reported that a slave rebellion had occurred but was effectively put down, although this never happened. After Gooch discovered the falsehood, he ordered slaves found off plantations to be made prisoner and punished.[14]

Nineteenth century

A "lunar animal" said to have been discovered by John Herschel on the Moon

One famous instance of fake news in the nineteenth century was the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The New York Sun published articles about a real-life astronomer and a made-up colleague who, according to the hoax, had observed bizarre life on the moon. The fictionalized articles successfully attracted new subscribers, and the penny paper suffered very little backlash after it admitted the next month that the series had been a hoax.[15] Such stories were intended to entertain readers, and not to mislead them.[16]

From 1800 to 1810, James Cheetham made use of fictional stories to advocate against Aaron Burr.[17] His stories were often defamatory, and he was sued for libel.[18]

Yellow journalism peaked in the mid-1890s during the circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. Pulitzer and other yellow journalism publishers even goaded the United States into the Spanish–American War, which was precipitated when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba.[19]

Twentieth century

Fake news became popular and widespread in the early twentieth century. During the First World War, an example of anti-German atrocity propaganda was that of an alleged "German Corpse Factory" in which the German battlefield dead were rendered down for fats used to make nitroglycerine, candles, lubricants, human soap, and boot dubbing.[20] Unfounded rumors regarding such a factory circulated in the Allied press starting in 1915, and by 1917 the English-language publication North China Daily News presented these allegations as true at a time when Britain was trying to convince China to join the Allied war effort. This was based on new, allegedly true stories from The Times and the Daily Mail that turned out to be forgeries. These false allegations became known as such after the war, and in the Second World War Joseph Goebbels used the story in order to deny the ongoing massacre of Jews as British propaganda. The story also "encouraged later disbelief" when reports about the Holocaust surfaced after the liberation of Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.[21]

After Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in 1933, they established the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda under the control of Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.[22] The Nazis used both print and broadcast journalism to promote their agendas, either by obtaining ownership of those media or exerting political influence.[23] Throughout World War II, both the Axis and the Allies employed fake news in the form of propaganda to persuade the public at home and in enemy countries.[24] The British Political Warfare Executive used radio broadcasts and distributed leaflets intended to discourage German troops.[22]

During 1932–1933, The New York Times published numerous articles by its Moscow bureau chief, Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer prize for his series of reports about the Soviet Union. However, the depiction of Russia as "a socialist paradise" was fake news fed to Duranty by Stalin. [25]

Orson Welles explaining to reporters about his radio drama "War of the Worlds" on Sunday, October 30, 1938, the day after the broadcast

"The War of the Worlds" is a 1938 episode of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. Directed and narrated by actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, the episode was an adaptation of H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds (1898), presented as a series of simulated news bulletins. Although preceded by a clear introduction that the show was a drama, it became famous for allegedly causing mass panic, although the reality of the panic is disputed as the program had relatively few listeners. An investigation was run by The Federal Communications Commission to examine the mass hysteria produced by this radio programming; no law was found broken.[26] This event was an example the early stages of society's dependency on information from the media. Fake news can even be found within this example: the true extent of the "hysteria" from the radio broadcast was been falsely recorded. The most extreme case and reaction after the radio broadcast was a group of Grover Mill locals attacking a water tower because they falsely identified it as an alien.[27]

Contemporary impact

In the twenty-first century, the impact of fake news became widespread, as well as usage of the term. Thus proliferation of fake news has been considered a form of psychological warfare and a threat to democracy.

The opening of the Internet to the public in the 1990s was meant to allow greater access to information. Over time, however, the Internet grew to unimaginable heights with information coming in non-stop from sources all over the world. This allowed it to be a host for unwanted, untruthful, and misleading information by anyone, disseminated almost instantly via social media.[28]

Author Terry Pratchett, who had a background as a journalist and press officer, was among the first to be concerned about the spread of fake news on the Internet. In a 1995 interview with Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, he suggested that anyone could make up a treatise and put it online, without any peer review or checking of historical sources: "There’s a kind of parity of esteem of information on the net. It’s all there: there’s no way of finding out whether this stuff has any bottom to it or whether someone has just made it up." Gates was optimistic and disagreed, saying that "electronics gives us a way of classifying things" and the "way that you can check somebody’s reputation will be so much more sophisticated on the net than it is in print." However, Pratchett was correct in his prediction of how the internet would propagate and legitimize fake news.[29]

Twenty-first century fake news is often created with the intention of increasing the financial profits of the news outlet. For media outlets, the ability to attract viewers to their websites is necessary to generate online advertising revenue. Publishing a story with false content that attracts users benefits advertisers and improves ratings. Easy access to online advertisement revenue, increased political polarization, and the popularity of social media, primarily the Facebook news feed, have all been implicated in the spread of fake news.[1] Facebook users play a major role in feeding into fake news stories by making sensationalized stories "trend."[30]

Another issue in mainstream media is the use of the filter bubble, a "bubble" that gives the viewer a specific piece of the information based on individual search histories and other data. Such curated content provides customized information that may create fake or biased news because only part of the story is being shared, the portion the viewer likes.[31]

In addition to the explosion of fake news, the twenty-first century also saw an increase in popularity of satirical news, whose purpose is not to mislead but rather to inform viewers and share humorous commentary about real news and the mainstream media.[32] American examples of satire (as opposed to fake news) include the television show Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Onion newspaper.[33][34]

Before the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign involving Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, fake news had not impacted the election process and subsequent events to such a high degree.[35] Subsequent to the 2016 election, the issue of fake news turned into a political weapon, with supporters of left-wing politics saying that supporters of right-wing politics spread false news, while the latter claimed that they were being "censored."[35] The phenomenon affects both sides, with fake news stories from the left-wing abounding about President George W. Bush, for example.[36]

Fake news has been used for political purposes in other countries. For example, during the 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests, the Chinese government was accused of using fake news to spread misinformation regarding the protests. This included describing peaceful protests as "riots" with "radicals" seeking independence for the city.[37]

Use of the term by Donald Trump

President Donald Trump claimed that the mainstream American media regularly reports fake news, particularly news that portrayed him in a bad light.[38] In September 2018, National Public Radio noted that Trump had expanded his use of the terms "fake" and "phony" to "an increasingly wide variety of things he doesn't like."[39]

His use of the term increased distrust of the American media globally, particularly in Russia. His claims gave credibility to stories in the Russian media that label American news, such as reports of atrocities committed by the Syrian regime against its own people, as nothing more than fake American news.[40]

On the Internet

When the Internet was first made accessible for public use in the 1990s, its main purpose was for the seeking and accessing of information. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, imagined it as "an open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries." However, in 2017, he noted three significant trends that must be resolved if the Internet is to be capable of truly "serving humanity": fake news, and the surge in the use of the Internet by governments for both citizen-surveillance purposes and for cyber-warfare purposes.[41]

In the mid 1990s, Nicholas Negroponte anticipated a world where news through technology become progressively personalized. In his 1996 book Being Digital he predicted a digital life where news consumption becomes an extremely personalized experience and newspapers adapted content to reader preferences. He forecast that the interactive world, the entertainment world, and the information world would eventually merge. A digital optimist, he believed that computers and the internet would make life better for everyone.[42]

Negroponte's prediction has indeed been reflected in news and social media feeds of modern day. However, the ubiquity of internet news and the presence of social media platforms makes it easier for false information to diffuse quickly, with the result that fake news has the tendency to become viral. False news has been found to spread online "farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information."[43] Also, it has been shown that it is people not the technology that are responsible for disseminating false news and information. The tendency for people to spread false information has to do with human behavior. People are attracted to events and information that are surprising and new, which cause high-arousal in the brain.[44] This leads people to retweet or share false information. On Twitter, false tweets have a much higher chance of being retweeted than truthful tweets. The eye-catching titles that are common in such posts discourage people from stopping to verify the information. As a result, online communities form around a piece of false news without any prior fact checking or verification of the veracity of the information.

Social media

In the twenty-first century, the capacity to mislead was enhanced by the widespread use of social media. More than half of Americans access news through social media more than traditional newspapers and magazines.[45] With the popularity of social media, fake news is omnipresent among the viewer population with the result that it spreads easily across the internet.

Many people use their Facebook news feed to get news, despite Facebook not being considered a news site. This, in combination with increased political polarization and filter bubbles, has led to a tendency for readers to mainly read headlines.[46]

Fake news websites

Fake news is often spread through the use of fake news websites, which, in order to gain credibility often impersonate well-known news sources.[47][48]

These fake news websites (also referred to as hoax news websites) deliberately publish fake news—hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation purporting to be real news—often using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect. Unlike news satire, fake news websites deliberately seek to be perceived as legitimate and taken at face value, often for financial or political gain.[47]

Such sites have promoted political falsehoods in numerous countries around the world, including Germany, France, Myanmar, Italy, China, Brazil, Australia, and India.[49]

Internet bots

Internet bots increase the spread of fake news, as they use algorithms to decide which articles and information specific users like, without taking into account the authenticity of the articles or the credibility of the sources. They can be programmed to automatically "like" or "retweet" posts, making them appear popular. Bots also mass-produce articles, and are capable of creating fake accounts and personalities on the web that then gaining followers, recognition, and authority. [50]

Internet trolls

In Internet slang, a troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or off-topic discussion, often for the troll's amusement. Whereas it once denoted provocation, the term came to be used to signify the abuse and misuse of the Internet. Internet trolls feed on attention. When interacting with each other, trolls often share misleading information that contributes to the fake news circulated on social media sites. [51]

Trolling is closely linked to fake news, as internet trolls are perpetrators of false information, information that can often be passed along unwittingly by reporters and the public alike.[52]


The spread of fake news and its impact on politics worldwide[49] has led to a number of attempts to curtail this phenomenon, by individual countries impacted by fake news as well by as organizations that fight misinformation.

In an effort to reduce the effects of fake news, fact-checking websites such as Snopes and FactCheck have posted guides to spotting and avoiding fake news websites.[47][53]

The International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) supports international collaborative efforts in fact-checking, provides training, and has published a fact-checking code of principles for "organizations that regularly publish nonpartisan reports on the accuracy of statements by public figures, major institutions, and other widely circulated claims of interest to society."[54]

Social media sites and search engines, such as Facebook and Google, received criticism for facilitating the spread of fake news. Both of these corporations have taken measures to explicitly prevent the spread of fake news; critics, however, believe more action is needed.[55] Google subsequently launched Google News Initiative (GNI) to fight the spread of fake news. It has three goals: "to elevate and strengthen quality journalism, evolve business models to drive sustainable growth and empower news organizations through technological innovation."[56]

Efforts have been made by a number of governments to address the problem of fake news. However, without a clear definition of what fake news is, or is not, there is the danger that laws against fake news are just as likely to make it possible for governments to "control uncomfortable stories" as to prevent the spread of untrue ones.[57] A somewhat different approach was taken in Taiwan, where a new curriculum designed to teach critical reading of propaganda and the evaluation of sources was introduced into schools. Called "media literacy," the course gives chidren training in journalism in the new information society.[58]

Following are the responses by several governments to the issue.

United Kingdom

Alex Younger, Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in the United Kingdom, called fake news and propaganda damaging to democracy: "The risks at stake are profound and represent a fundamental threat to our sovereignty; they should be a concern to all those who share democratic values.”[59] In January 2017, the UK House of Commons commenced a parliamentary inquiry into fake news. Damian Collins, the committee chairman, said the rise of propaganda and fabrications is "a threat to democracy and undermines confidence in the media in general."[60]


The Australian Parliament also initiated an investigation into "fake news." The inquiry looked at several major areas in Australia to find audiences most vulnerable to fake news, by considering the impact on traditional journalism, and by evaluating the liability of online advertisers and by regulating the spreading the hoaxes. [61]


China has used the spread of fake news as a reason to increase cyber governance and increasing internet censorship. Ren Xianling of the Cyberspace Administration of China recommended using identification systems so that a "reward and punish" system could be implemented to avoid fake news.[62]


In April 2018, Malaysia implemented the Anti-Fake News Bill 2018, a controversial law that deemed publishing and circulating misleading information as a crime punishable by up to six years in prison and/or fines of up to 500,000 ringit.[63] In developing its new law, the Malaysian government defined fake news as "news, information, data and reports which is or are wholly or partly false," which applies across all forms of media, and to producers and sharers both in and out of the country. The law also makes it illegal to share fake news stories. The vagueness of this law means that satirists, opinion writers, and journalists who make errors may face prosecution.[57]

Criticism of the term

Although the term "fake news" has not been around long, it has been used in so many contexts that its meaning has already been lost.[38] As a result, some chose to replace the term with alternatives.

By August 2017 Facebook had stopped using the term "fake news" and used "false news" in its place.[64]

In November 2017, Claire Wardle, co-founder of the nonprofit organization First Draft which is focused on addressing mis- and disinformation, publicly rejected the phrase "fake news," finding it "woefully inadequate." She replaced it with "information pollution" and distinguished between three types of problems:

  1. Mis-information: false information disseminated without harmful intent.
  2. Dis-information: created and shared by people with harmful intent.
  3. Mal-information: the sharing of "genuine" information with the intent to cause harm, such as some types of leaks, harassment, and hate speech online.[65]

In October 2018, the British government decided that the term "fake news" would no longer be used in official documents because it is "a poorly-defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes." This followed a recommendation by the House of Commons' Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee to avoid the term and to use "misinformation" or "disinformation" instead.[66]

Neither the words 'fake' nor 'news' effectively capture this polluted information ecosystem. Much of the content used as examples in debates on this topic are not fake, they are genuine but used out of context or manipulated. Similarly, to understand the entire ecosystem of polluted information, we need to consider far more than content that mimics 'news.'[67]


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  64. Will Oremus, Facebook Has Stopped Saying "Fake News" Slate, August 8, 2017. Retrieved February 3, 2020.
  65. Francesca Giuliani-Hoffman, 'F*** News' should be replaced by these words, Claire Wardle says CNN, November 3, 2017. Retrieved February 3, 2020.
  66. Margi Murphy, Government bans phrase 'fake news' The Telegraph, October 23, 2018. Retrieved February 3, 2020.
  67. Alex Hern, MPs warned against term 'fake news' for first live committee hearing outside UK The Guardian, February 7, 2018. Retrieved February 3, 2020.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Amarasingam, Amarnath. The Stewart / Colbert Effect: Essays on the Real Impacts of Fake News. McFarland & Company, 2011. ISBN 0786458860
  • Badsey, Stephen. The German Corpse Factory: A Study in First World War Propaganda. Helion and Company, 2019. ISBN 978-1911628279
  • Cheetham, James. Nine letters on the subject of Aaron Burr's political defection. University of California Libraries, 1803.
  • Clark, Gillian. Christianity and Roman Society. Cambridge University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0521633864
  • Dice, Mark. The True Story of Fake News: How Mainstream Media Manipulates Millions. The Resistance Manifesto, 2017. ISBN 978-1943591022
  • Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Eerdmans, 2003. ISBN 978-0802822215
  • Gwynn, David M. Christianity in the Later Roman Empire: A Sourcebook. Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. ISBN 978-1441106261
  • Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. Vintage, 1996. ISBN 978-0679762904
  • Weir, William. History's Greatest Lies: The Startling Truth Behind World Events Our History Books Got Wrong. Crestline Books, 2018. ISBN 978-0785836568
  • Young, Kevin. Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News. Graywolf Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1555977917

External links

All links retrieved February 4, 2020.


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