Situating fake news
The rise of fake news is also marked by several related terms, such as misinformation and disinformation. Singapore’s anti—fake news law refers to ‘online falsehoods and manipulation’ (Singapore 2019).
Wardle (2017) distinguished between misinformation and disinformation. While these two terms both refer to the dissemination of false information, misinformation refers to inadvertent sharing while disinformation refers to intentional dissemination of false information (Wardle
2017) . Such distinction makes the role of intentionality particularly salient. For example, studies on fake news identified two main types of intention: financial and ideological. The now-infamous teens in a small town in Macedonia who operated websites that pushed fake news stories were motivated by making money from the ad revenues their websites were getting from pushing out outrageous and false content online (Subramanian 2017). Writing fake stories required no legwork and, hence, no substantial operational costs. Other creators of fake news were clearly motivated by ideological reasons, such as influencing voting decisions and, hence, electoral outcomes (Albright 2016).
It is important, however, to distinguish between motivations for creating fake news stories on one hand and sharing fake news stories on the other. Studies have documented that some people share fake news not primarily to deceive others. Some people share fake news to humour friends, warn loved ones, or show others they care, without necessarily realising they were sharing something that was false; others share fake news hoping someone will confirm or debunk it for them (Tandoc et al. 2018). Therefore, while a piece of fake news can be categorised as a form of disinformation — intentionally created with the main purpose of deceiving others either for profit or for propaganda — based on the intention behind its production, its subsequent spread through social media users might be unintentional.
Fake news is just one type of online falsehood, and a way to distinguish it from other types is through its format (see Figure 10.1). Fake news takes some of its power to deceive from being able to masquerade as real news through the use of formats associated with real news, such as the use of an inverted-pyramid style, a headline, and a byline (Tandoc 2019). For example, Waisbord (2018, 1866) referred to fake news as ‘fabricated information that astutely mimics news and taps into existing public beliefs to influence electoral behaviour’. The news format functions as a heuristic that affects online readers’ credibility assessments (Sundar 2008). Such mimicry is not only limited to the article; fake news producers also create websites that mimic the layout of real news sites and, in some cases, even mimic the URLs of legitimate news sites, just changing a letter or a word. Furthermore, the fake news ecosystem also seems to mimic that of real news. Equipped with bots, fake news creators create a synthetic network of fake news websites so that when a user searches online a piece of fake news she had come across, the user is bound to find the same fake news reported elsewhere, mimicking widespread news coverage of real events (Albright 2016).
But fake news as a term has also been weaponised by some political actors to use against real journalists. Numerous cases have been documented of politicians around the world labelling a legitimate article they disagree with or that paints them in a negative light as fake news and the news outlet and journalists behind the article as fake news producers (Holan 2017; Farhall et al. 2019; Tandoc, Jenkins et al. 2019). Thus, Egelhofer and Lecheler (2019, 97) also distinguished between fake news as a genre, which refers to ‘the deliberate creation of pseudojournalistic disinformation’, and fake news as a label, which refers to ‘the political instrumentalization of the term to delegitimize news media’. Because of this politicised used of the label, others have proposed other terms to replace ‘fake news’, such as junk news’ (Howard et al. 2017). In October 2018, the UK government also banned the use of‘fake news’ in policy documents and official communication, arguing that 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’ (Murphy 2018, para. 2).
Intention to deceive
Figure 10.1 Elements of ‘fake news’
Others, however, argued that the term fake news has conceptual utility and refers to a form of falsehood that is distinct based on its mimicry of an artifact imbued with social legitimacy (see, for example, Mourao and Robertson 2019). While it has been misused by political actors with vested interests, fake news as a term has conceptual use: first, it is a term now routinely used in normal conversations and therefore has implications on how different stakeholders understand the phenomenon it supposedly denotes; second, it refers to a specific type of online falsehood that leeches on a journalistic format and therefore might require specific responses and interventions; and third, it also makes the problem more salient for journalists, who now find themselves revisiting assumptions and conventions that have dominated traditional newsworks (and their potential vulnerabilities) (Carlson 2020; Tandoc, Jenkins et al. 2019). We cannot drop a term that clearly refers to a particular phenomenon just because a few actors have misused it.