Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What exactly is fake news

I recently added the following infographic to my page, but lost the write up I had crafted to explain the terms fully. Luckily Mommy, PhD happened to have the post open on her phone and sent me a copy of what I wrote. I'm copying the text from my lost write up and some additional information here.

I've been contemplating whether or not to discuss this topic as it's a bit outside my normal area of expertise and page focus. However, the issue of fake news has only gotten worse recently with some people calling everything they don't like fake news. There is a lot of confusion over what fake news is and what it means, so I thought it might be helpful to define what fake news actually is. I decided to take four types of misinformation and come up with clear definitions for them. Even though each might be a distinct type of misinformation, there is a lot of overlap between the types. 

Fake news is entirely made up with the intent to misinform and often has the goal of making money off of the misinformation. However, it can still be used as propaganda and use click bait titles to drive traffic to the story. However, not all propaganda or click bait is fake news. Fake news is also similar to satirical news stories like one might see in The Onion or The Science Post. However, satirical news is meant to entertain and not intentionally deceive people despite some being fooled by it. A lot of pseudoscience sites will use fake news to intentionally deceive people and scare them into buying a fake cure for the thing that they just scared them about. Science advocates have been pushing back against fake science and health news for awhile now, but it's now going mainstream.

Propaganda can come in several different forms. it can be fake news, badly reported news, or news that is one sided but accurate. The thing that makes a news story propaganda is the intent to paint a government or entity in a favorable light while leaving out any and all information that may paint that entity in a bad light. There may or may not be any truth to what is reported as propaganda, but only one side is told.

Click bait is an interesting situation. Click bait uses deceptive or sensational titles to try and draw in views. Often the title will not reflect the actual content. Click bait is often used in badly reported science (for example, students invent a nail polish that detects drugged drinks which doesn't reflect that this is still in the idea stage and not a viable product yet) and often leads to mistaken conclusions from people not versed in reading scientific papers. Legitimate news stories can use click bait and fake news stories often use click bait titles to drive traffic (for example, you won't believe what <insert product here> does to cure <insert condition/disease here>). 

The last type of misinformation is common, but quite different from the others. Sometimes legitimate sources of information will make a mistake in what they report. However, one thing that sets this type of misinformation apart is legitimate news sources will offer a retraction and explain their error. The problem here is that some people seize on an isolated incident of a legitimate source misreporting to declare everything from the source fake news. Making an error does not make a news source fake news but rather it means that humans are involved in the news process. Mistakes happen from time to time and a good source will own their mistakes. 

Sometimes an even more flimsy justification is used to declare something fake news: some people will declare something they don't agree with fake news. Since fake news has a negative connotation, calling something fake news that isn't is an attempt to denigrate the source. Trying to discredit an argument by denigrating the source is a type of logical fallacy known as Poisoning the Well. Basically poisoning the well means that you malign a source of information to try and discredit anything they say regardless of whether it is accurate or not. It's not a good way to have an open and honest dialog with anyone.

Hopefully these definitions and brief explanations help explain why fake news is different than other types of misinformation and why it can be dangerous. Additional reading on fake news and other types of misinformation can be found here and here. I'd like to thank a journalist friend of mine, Reaux Packard, for looking over my definitions and helping to make sure I'm on the right track here.