Skip to main content
Humanities LibreTexts

12.1: Misinformation and Fake News

  • Page ID
    103180
  • This Week's Content

    I'll be honest - there is so much information out there on this topic, it was hard for me to narrow down what I thought were some of the best sources so you can get a well-rounded picture of misinformation and fake news. I've picked sources that I found interesting and informational. I'll include a "Further Reading" list at the end of the reading section in case you want to explore more on your own.

    Types of Misinformation

    There are different types of misinformation and different reasons for spreading it. I want to start this week with a few definitions so we're all on the same page.

    Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, an assistant professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, Melissa Zimdars, started an online resource with tips on spotting fake news and misinformation. This resource also included a vast list of websites. She and her students tagged each website with labels identifying the type of content it shared. These are the tags she identified and act as good definitions for the kinds of misinformation that are out there:

    • Fake News: Sources that entirely fabricate information, disseminate deceptive content, or grossly distort actual news reports.
    • Satire: Sources that use humor, irony, exaggeration, ridicule, and false information to comment on current events.
    • "Extreme" Bias: Sources that come from a particular point of view and may rely on propaganda, decontextualized information, and opinions distorted as facts.
    • Conspiracy: Sources that are well-known promoters of kooky conspiracy theories. Examples: 9/11 conspiracies, chem-trails, lizard people in the sewer systems, birther rumors, flat earth ‘theory,’ fluoride as mind control, vaccines as mind control etc.
    • Rumor: Sources that traffic in rumors, gossip, innuendo, and unverified claims.
    • State News: Sources in repressive states operating under government sanction.
    • Junk Science: Sources that promote pseudoscience, metaphysics, naturalistic fallacies, and other scientifically dubious claims.
    • Hate News: Sources that actively promote racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other forms of discrimination.
    • Clickbait: Sources that provide generally credible content, but use exaggerated, misleading, OR questionable headlines, social media descriptions, and/or images. These sources may also use sensational language to generate interest, clickthroughs, and shares, but their content is typically verifiable.

    It doesn't appear that the list is still being updated, but it contains 1001 websites, which is a bit alarming. Also in 2016, the Oxford Dictionaries picked "post-truth" as its International Word of the Year. Oxford defines post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” I find that pretty scary. You'll often hear people say, "We're living in a post-truth era."

    So how did we get here? This TedEd video by Damon Brown helps explain it:

    how to choose your news fromTED-Ed - image links to video

    How Does it Happen?

    There is evidence that Russian operatives interfered with the 2016 presidential election, and the US Office of National Intelligence says it's not just Russia, but several other countries that continued to sow doubt in the 2020 election season. See the August 2020 press release from the NCSC Director. But, it's not only foreign actors who are spreading misinformation and fake news. The New York Times has done an excellent job with its video coverage in explaining how it's happening.

    This article from the New York Times describes how one Maryland man fabricated stories from his own home on a regular basis and made a lot of money doing it.

    Reading One: From New York Times: From Headline to Photograph, A Fake News Masterpiece by Scott Shane

    Fake News Can't Compete with the Truth

    In 2018, researchers at MIT published some alarming findings after studying news on Twitter. They looked at a massive amount of data from nearly ten years and found that 126,000 rumors were spread by more than 3 million people. The study appears in the journal Science. It is available for free online, but is quite technical so I'm including a news story on the study instead.

    This audio file is from National Public Radio. If you'd prefer, you can also read the story transcript, it's also linked in the source citations below. The actual study is linked in the Further Reading section.

    Can you believe it? from NPR - image links to audio file

    It's Not Just Social Media

    We can't blame all of this on Social Media. These stories that are shared have to originate somewhere. In this video, Noah Tavlin explains what's known as the circular media phenomenon.

    how false news can spread fromTED-Ed - image links to video

    Conspiracy Theories: How Seemingly Outlandish Information Gets Believed

    Conspiracy theories have been around forever. Our increasingly connected society means that information and theories that were once relatively hidden and believed by a small group can now be spread rapidly to a huge number of people. Political scientist and conspiracy theory researcher, Eric Oliver says that most people can be put into one of two groups of thinkers: intuitionists or rationalists.

    The rationalists look at logic, deduction, and facts and Oliver describes this thinking as pretty transparent. But the intuitionists' thinking is much more tied to emotion. When the intuitionist is feeling scared or anxious, they go in search of answers that can explain this emotional feeling. Oliver explains his theory further in the Big Brains podcast episode: The Science of Conspiracy Theories and Political Polarization with Eric Oliver.

    This same idea is explored in this video from The New York Times opinion section. The video explores the two types of thinkers, how each type reacts to each other, and what we can do to help bridge some of the divides that have happened.

     

    Operation Infektion

    The New York Times opinion section has created an excellent 3-part video series called Operation Infektion - which explains the Russian tactic of spreading misinformation; it's a different kind of warfare that's happening not only in the United States, but around the world. I have put links to the series in the Further Readings and  Resources section of this chapter (last page in the reading). I encourage you to check it out. 

    Why Should We Care About Fake News?

    It's easy to become cynical and throw up our hands. When I'm doing library instruction for classes that are working on a specific assignment, I often hear students say things like, "You can't trust any media." This is our new reality and in order to be productive contributors to our society, we must care about these things and we must be armed with the tools to recognize when something seems off.

    Here are the reasons I think we all should care:

    Fake news creates threatening situations

    In our information rich world, you deserve accurate and comprehensive information. Encountering lies and biased information by deceptive means is frustrating, time consuming, and sows seeds of mistrust. We have seen misinformation and fake news threaten democracy (political mistrust) and even threaten public health (COVID-19 crisis). A 2019 Pew Research Study found that Americans view fake news as a greater threat than violent crime, climate change, and even terrorism. Everyone deserves the truth.

    Fake news can be physically dangerous

    We've seen how misinformation can pit people with differing views against each other. In some cases, fake news has led to physical violence. The Operation Infektion video mentioned the Pizzagate story, in which a man showed up at a Washington D.C. pizza restaurant with several loaded guns. He was acting on fake news stories and could have caused real physical harm if he hadn't have been stopped. The spreading of lies and deceit creates hostility and tensions that can lead to physical violence.

    Fake news can damage your reputation

    On a personal level, the sharing of fake news or using it to support an argument diminishes your standing and credibility among your friends, peers, and colleagues. If you encounter someone spreading fake news, don't be afraid to set the facts straight. You've learned tools in this class to help you do that.

    Fake news creates distrust in all news

    Accusations made against credible news organizations cause mistrust in those organizations. These accusations can lead to a general mistrust of all media sources, including quality media outlets with high journalistic standards. The same Pew Research Study mentioned before shows that most Americans don't blame journalists for fake news, but they do expect journalists to help fix the problem (Mitchell, A., et al., 2019). That's a tall order given the mistrust that many have of the media.

    I've heard students say in class before, "You can't trust the New York Times." Yet this newspaper has won more Pulitzer Prizes in Journalism than any other newspaper and its editorial standards are readily available.

    How to Spot Fake News

    The Crash Course series we've watched this semester and other readings and assignments have armed you with some great tools to evaluate information. There are many other resources available to help you gain these skills. I’ve selected two that I think are useful:

    Fact Checking Sites:

    CC BY-NC logoThis chapter was compiled, reworked, and/or written by Andi Adkins Pogue and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

    Original sources used to create content (also licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 unless otherwise noted):

    Brown, D. (2014, June 5). How to choose your news [Video file].  https://youtu.be/q-Y-z6HmRgI  Note: This source is not licensed under a CC, but is freely available on the TED-ed YouTube channel.

    Niu, I., Eaton, A. & Bracken, K. (2020, October 26). How homegrown disinformation could disrupt this US election [Video file]. https://youtu.be/_gNcYdvF1Co Note: This source is not licensed under a CC, but is freely available on the NY Times YouTube channel.

    Rand, P. (Host). (2019, May 20). The science of conspiracy theories and political polarization with Eric Oliver. On Big Brains [Audio podcast]. University of Chicago News. https://news.uchicago.edu/podcasts/big-brains/science-conspiracy-theories-and-political-polarization-eric-oliver Note: This source is not licensed under a CC, but is freely available on the University of Chicago News website.

    Sydell, L. (2018, March 12). Can you believe it? On Twitter, false stories are shared more widely than true ones [Audio file]. National Public Radiohttps://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=592885660 This source is not licensed under a CC, but is freely available on the NPR website.

    Tavlin, N. (2015, August 27). How false news can spread [video file]. TED-Ed.  https://youtu.be/cSKGa_7XJkg This source is not licensed under a CC, but is freely available on the TED-ed YouTube channel.

    The New York Times. (2020, October 27). What can you do about QAnon? [Video file]. New York Times Opinion Section. https://youtu.be/4lg6cZmfpeM Note: This source is not licensed under a CC, but is freely available on the NY Times YouTube channel.

    Zimdaris, M. (2016). False, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical “news” sources. https://docs.google.com/document/d/10eA5-mCZLSS4MQY5QGb5ewC3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview  Note: This source is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License CC BY 3.0

    • Was this article helpful?