Edson C. Tandoc Jr.
Fake news has attracted a lot of scholarly attention. A quick search for the term on Google Scholar yields more than 30,000 results published between 2016 and 2019, with most studies examining how fake news is characterised, created, circulated, and countered (Bente 2018). Fake news articles range from something as harmless as reporting that an 83-year-old woman had trained 65 cats to steal valuable items from her neighbours (Palma 2017) to something as serious as spreading false information about kidnappers descending on small villages in India, which triggered a spate of mob killings perpetrated by angry residents (Frayer 2018). Social media companies, which have borne much of the blame for the spread of fake news through their platforms, have taken actions, such as limiting how often a message can be forwarded, deleting accounts that share fake news, and partnering with third-party fact-checkers to debunk fake news (Dixit 2019; Frenkel 2018). Governments around the world have also passed legislation to combat the spread of fake news (Funke 2018). For example, Singapore passed a law empowering ministers to require individuals, social media companies, and even internet service providers to correct or take down fake news posts that threaten public interest (Singapore 2019). But what, to begin with, is fake news?
Defining fake news
Fake news is not a new term. Studies in the past used the term to label a range of messages, such as news satires and parodies. For example, studies had labelled political satires on television, such as The Daily Show, which rose to popularity in the early 2000s, as fake news programmes. These programmes engage in political commentary based on facts, often delivered with humour or exaggeration, using formats and techniques associated with real television news programmes, such as using a news anchor and doing live reports. However, some scholars questioned early on whether this was an appropriate label for such programmes. In an analysis of The Daily Show, Baym (2005, 268) argued that the combination of comedy and political commentary in the programme constituted instead ‘a new form of critical journalism, one which uses satire to achieve that which the mainstream press is no longer willing to pursue’. Others also used the term to refer to news parodies, such as The Onion, a popular website that publishes mostly fictitious entries written in news formats. In parodying news, these sites call attention to the excesses of real news organisations, such as engaging in sensationalism and clickbaiting. Thus,
Berkowitz and Schwartz (2016, 13) argued that ‘fake-news organizations have come to serve as a Fifth Estate watching over the mainstream journalism institution’.
The 2016 United States presidential election saw a resurgence of the ‘fake news’ term but applied to a different set of messages. A quick look at Google Trends, which tracks how frequently a search term is sought via its search engine in comparison to the total search volume within a particular span of time, shows that searches for ‘fake news’ started to increase in October 2016, when the United States presidential campaign was in full swing. News reports documented cases of viral social media posts about the campaign, propagating lies while disguising themselves as real news articles. A famous example is a fake news article that wrongly reported that Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic church, had endorsed then-candidate Donald Trump (Silverman 2016). Not all fake news posts are political. Others are downright ridiculous. For example, one of the most viral fake news posts in 2016 was about a woman who supposedly defecated on her boss’s desk after she won the lottery (Silverman 2016).
Contemporary use of the term fake news applies it to falsehoods packaged to look like news to deceive people. For example, Allcott and Gentzkow (2017, 213) defined fake news as ‘news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false, and could mislead readers’ while Rochlin (2017, 388) defined it as ‘a knowingly false headline and story [that] is written and published on a website that is designed to look like a real news site, and is spread via social media’. Tandoc et al. (2017) reviewed the different ways the term has been used in communication studies and identified two main components of fake news definitions: the level of facticity and the main intention behind the message. Facticity refers to ‘the degree to which fake news relies on facts’ while intention refers to ‘the degree to which the creator of fake news intends to mislead’ (Tandoc et al. 2017, 147). For example, in terms of facticity, political satires tend to be high while news parodies tend to be low; both, however, have low levels of intention to deceive. Satires and parodies depend on the audiences’ acknowledgement of their news formats being fake for the humour to work; they also often come with disclaimers that they do not produce real news (Tandoc et al. 2017; Rashkin et al. 2017). Thus, Tandoc et al. (2017) argued that satires and parodies do not fall under the contemporary definition of fake news, echoing earlier questions about the use of the term to refer to these messages (Baym 2005; Berkowitz and Schwartz