Does fake news exist?
The term “fake news” gets bandied about a lot, but like other terms, such as “political correctness”, “conservative”, “liberal” and “terrorist”, the definition is vague and when you see it in print, it is often not immediately clear what the writer means by it.
Is there such a thing as “fake news” and if there is, does it differ from related terms like “media spin”, “disinformation”, “misinformation” etc?
Some people vehemently deny that there is such a thing as fake news, and insist that it is merely media spin, but reports like this one show some of the characteristics of fake news EXPOSED: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA | News24:
News24’s investigation into the owners of Mzansistorie.com and Allnews.co.za started earlier this year as part of a much broader investigation into the originators, enablers and funders of fake news websites in South Africa.
Ironically, it was the very fact that Ramatseba wanted to make money from his website that revealed his identity. It was also the same social media used by Ramatseba to distribute his fabrications that proved instrumental in identifying him.
In this case the primary characteristic of fake news is the desire to make money. The article gives a detailed picture of how and why fake news is produced and propagated.
I suspect that some popular news tropes, like “white genocide” and “Russian interference in US elections” are based on this. If you want something to attract lots of clicks, post a fabricated or exaggerated story that plays on or feeds people’s fears, and you will get lots of clicks and lots of lovely lolly rolling in.
People often assume that the motive is ideological. “The Russians” are trying to influence US elections, and everyone knows that the Russians are linked to Putin. But perhaps most of it is Russian internet entrepreneurs harvesting clicks and making money by playing on US political rivalries and fears of “the other side”.
In South Africa, the irony is apparent when it turns out that it is black people like William Mahlatse Ramatseba who are seeking to capitalise and make money out of white people’s fears and racism towards black people, and it is White Monopoly Capital organisations like Bell Pottinger that profited by stoking fears of “White Monopoly Capital” among black South Africans, for profit, of course Deal that undid Bell Pottinger: inside story of the South Africa scandal | Media | The Guardian:
Bell Pottinger was accused of stirring up anger about “white monopoly capital” in South Africa. Material including a video interview with Ajay Gupta, which had never been publicly circulated, was leaked onto South African media.
Bell Pottinger was accused of inciting racial tension, and operating fake Twitter accounts to mount racially driven campaigns.
Fake news certainly does exist, and it is different from old-fashioned media spin.
But fake news does sometimes get mixed up with media spin. Take the News24 headline above: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA. The words “to divide SA” are misleading, because they don’t quite fit with what the rest of the article says. If we read the body of the article “to make money” would have been a more accurate reflection of the content, but in a society where making money is seen as a good activity, and dividing people as bad, “to divide SA” might attract more readers (and thus make more money), than using a more accurate description. It’s true that the overall effect would be to divide people, so it’s not exactly fake news. But the spin is to create the impression that that was the intention, while the body of the article shows that the intention was to make money. See how complicated it gets?
And in a country where some people are talking of making “entrepreneurship” a school subject, nobody wants to call William Mahlatse Ramatseba what he is, an entrepreneur.
Concerning the “white genocide” trope, one finds things like this:
But clicking on it reveals that there is no such site. Perhaps it is a fake news site that has since been taken down, but I saw that site referred to in an an answer on the Quora website that got 68 upvotes. Fake News works because there are people who want to believe it.
Having said all this can one make some tentative definitions of these terms?
Here is my attempt:
- Fake News — articles purporting to be news that are completely or partly made up. Their main purpose is clickbait, with the primary aim opf making money for those who post them. Those who promote fake news don’t care whether those who read them believe the stories or not. The important thing is that they click on the links to bring revenue to the fake news vendors.
- Disinformation — articles purporting to be news, but which, like fake news, are completely or partly made up. But unlike fake news, where the intention is to make money, in the case of disinformation, the intention is to get people to believe the false story. So Fake News stories manufactured as clickbait may be propagated as disinformation by those who want others to to believe them. The primary intention in disinformation is to deceive.
- Misinformation — false information that is spread unintentionally by people who do not know it is false. This may be either fake news or disinformation that is passed on by those who believe it, or simply something that was misheard or misunderstood.
- Spin — genuine information that is presented in such a way as to create a false impression, or to manipulate people’s opinions about it.
Thoughts? Comments? Can anyone think of better definitions?