By Daniel J. McLaughlin
Fake news is an insidious problem in our digital world. It can be dangerous, feeding misinformation to the uninformed and poisoning their minds. It can affect public opinion, and more importantly, it can impact the outcome of an election.
There are different types of fake news - the elaborate deception, crafted by pranksters and those with questionable intentions, and genuine mistakes from reporters. The definition of fake news has evolved as its modern-day usage grows. Under the Donald Trump presidency, it has become doublespeak for negative coverage - in the same way that "alternative facts" are an innuendo for outright lies.
The Daily Telegraph lists multiple variants of fake news: commercially-driven sensational content, with the key goal to drive web traffic and generate advertising income; state-sponsored misinformation (see: Russia's interference in the 2016 US presidential election); satire or parody; and highly-partisan news sites.
It is, however, nothing new. A headline from the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune in 1890, for instance, proclaimed: "Secretary Brunnel Declares Fake News About His People Is Being Telegraphed Over The Country". In the following year, the Buffalo Commercial newspaper published a leader comments saying the public had no "appetite for 'fake news' and 'special fiend' decoctions such as were served up by a local syndicate a year or two ago". While fake is a relatively recent addition to the dictionary (by lexicographers' standards anyway), originating in early 19th century England, the similar "false news" from as far back as the 16th century, according to the American dictionary Merriam-Webster.
Fake news did not magically appear out of nowhere - it has been around for centuries - but it has gained a higher popularity. It was named 2017's Word of the Year by Collins Dictionary. It defines fake news (n) as "false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting". The usage of "fake news" has been climbing gradually since 2015, but it increased by 365 per cent since 2016.
Harvard University examines why fake news goes viral. Eye-popping headlines on social media, it notes, make it easier for users to share content than evaluate or even read it. "This creates a viral storm of soundbites without substance," it argues. Another contributing factor is confirmation bias. People are more likely to "accept information that confirms their beliefs and dismiss information that does not".
"Sensationalism starts with the headline," according to Digital Trends. It cites a study by the American Press Institute which found that only four in 10 Americans delve deeper into a news story beyond the headline. Another study by Columbia University and the French National Institute showed that 59 per cent of the stories shared on social media did not receive clicks - this means that people were sharing them based on the headline alone, and not the content within.
Reading beyond the headline is the first simple step, but what should you do when you reach the content itself? Check the sources that the article is using - if they are using any sources at all. All it requires is a quick Google search to find out whether the sources they use are respectable.
Digital Trends explains: "If a site publishes a story about a new tax that Congress is debating, one would expect the reporter to cite Senators and Representatives arguing for or against it, or economists who can explain the ramifications of said tax."
Fake news is meant to deceive readers, but it can be spotted with a bit of time and consideration. Always be sceptical of what stories appear on your social media feed; and if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. Do not take things at face value and share responsibly. Fake news can be so last year with a bit of healthy scepticism.