Before the 2016 US presidential election, few people had heard of the term ‘fake news’. Sure, almost all voters were aware that some news was more accurate — or less sensationalist — than other news, but the idea of something entirely untrue being pushed into the public domain, with the purpose of swaying votes and opinion, was a new and scary concept.
Fake news, by definition, is information that is a deliberate form of misinformation or a hoax, with the intention of political or financial gain. Fake news is often sensationalist, exaggerated but still carries some element of believability.
But even though the term ‘fake news’ has entered the popular lexicon, identifying exactly what it is isn’t always straightforward.
The idea of something entirely untrue being pushed into the public domain, with the purpose of swaying votes and opinion, was a new and scary concept.
Vincent O’Donnell, an honorary research associate in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University, says what distinguishes ‘fake news’ from simply sloppy or sensationalist reporting is motivation.
“If your motive is anything other than to inform and educate, and your motivation is to cause political or social mischief - you don’t care about accuracy - that is fake news,” says O’Donnell.
“I can’t think it’s ever been this pernicious before."
O’Donnell says that journalists usually undertake rigorous training and education, not just in writing, but reporting facts and the ethics involved. But thanks to social media, everyone can now publish information and claim it as fact.
“A journalist knows their role as a teller of truth. But there’s a new cohort of communicators who don’t have that background and who use it to advance certain opinions, regardless of their validity. There is a storm of misinformation.”
Fake news is not a totally new concept but its popularity, reach and potential consequences has changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to social media. O’Donnell says the speed and the sheer volume of people that can be reached has caused significant problems across the world, both politically and socially.
In South Sudan this year, after the fledgling country’s president sacked his military’s chief-in-staff, fake news outlets on Facebook grabbed onto this fragile political issue and published ‘fake news’ claiming that the military was planning a coup, while another piece of ‘fake news’ claimed that the president had been shot dead. This sent millions of people into panic.
O’Donnell has likened fake news to fake medicine. He wrote in The Conversation that: “If prescription drugs contained as much fake content as the news coverage of the 2016 US presidential election, there would be wide demands for government action. But, it was only news”.
“However, ‘fake news’ can be as poisonous to the body politic as fake pharmaceuticals are to human life.”
Fake news is not a totally new concept but its popularity, reach and potential consequences has changed dramatically in recent years, thanks to social media.
“Because of its use by Trump and his supporters, the concept has become a core political issue, now impacting on the freedom of the media in the US and elsewhere,” he explains.
“Questions around the veracity and authenticity of journalism have become central to concerns about the health of journalism and the Fourth Estate more broadly.”
Can we eliminate ‘fake news’?
As to what to do about fake news, there is no universal ‘fix’ that experts support. Some people argue that because fake news has the ability to cause serious harm — to people’s reputations, to political outcomes, to truth and trust and democracy — that governments should step in and legislate the media, to licence journalists and editors. This would hold them accountable to the public in a way that transcends market forces.
But many others, including Canadian journalist and academic Christopher Waddell, strongly disagree, arguing it is more likely to be bloggers and other non-traditional journalists that are the ones who are creating and distributing fake news.
O’Donnell concludes that despite the negatives, there is one key upside to what feels like a landslide of fake news that has been infecting western democracy for the past year.
“The big positive is if people are aware of it and are alert to it, it makes them more sceptical and questioning,” O’Donnell says. “If you read a story and you can’t believe it, then it’s almost certainly fake news.”
The legal drama series 'The Good Fight' tackles the issue of fake news. Watch the latest episode on SBS On Demand below.