In 2017, the Collins Dictionary selected “fake news” as its word of the year. This was a nod to the popularization of the term in the United States during that time, and to broader concerns that the U.S. was entering a “post-truth” or “post-fact” era where inaccurate information was overloading the system, disrupting everything from journalism to business to politics.
However, the term “fake news” is highly problematic. First, its common use is highly imprecise: It covers a spectrum from simple and accidental mistakes to negligent behavior to planned and strategic manipulation. Second, the term carries a particular cultural meaning that was intentionally crafted to discredit journalistic outlets — regardless of how broadly (and imprecisely) the term is applied.
Scholars and linguists alike have thus cautioned against using the term “fake news,” and to instead draw upon more-specific terms to cover the associated issues. Chief among these are “misinformation” and “disinformation,” which similarly comment on the (in)accuracy of information while being cognizant of the intent (or underlying motivations) of the communicator. While intent can be difficult to ascertain, the distinction is nevertheless useful in separating sloppy and accidental work from bad-faith efforts designed to confuse audiences, all the while carrying less of the cultural baggage connected to the term “fake news.”
Misinformation refers to information whose inaccuracy is unintentional. As media scholar Caroline Jack notes, journalists (and people in general) often make mistakes in the course of reporting new information. This may result from the journalist’s lack of understanding of a topic to their misinterpretation of a source’s claim (or failure to independently verify it) to their inability to disentangle conflicting information.
In all of these cases, the journalist may have made a simple error or been naive. At worst, they were negligent in not double-checking some information they opted to publish. However, the key for categorizing something as misinformation is that the journalist did not intend to deceive but simply made an error. Ideally, and under most journalistic codes of ethics, such errors will be quickly and clearly corrected.
An illustrative example of this was when the Chicago Daily Tribune famously misreported in an early edition that Governor Thomas Dewey had beat incumbent President Harry Truman in the 1948 U.S. presidential election. The deadline for the early edition forced the newspaper to be printed before many states had reported results from their polling places. The Tribune therefore relied on the conventional wisdom of the day — many polls indicated Dewey would win by a wide margin — and the assessment of one of its veteran political analysts, and boldly proclaimed Dewey’s victory. When the Tribune realized that the race was far closer than anticipated, it changed the headline of the late evening edition to reflect the closeness of the race. (By that point, however, more than 150,000 copies of the paper had already been printed with the erroneous headline.) Truman eventually won with a narrow margin, leading to much embarrassment for the Tribune.
More recently, major journalistic outlets have erroneously misidentified the perpetrators of attacks. For example, the New York Post famously featured, on a large cover photo and story, two individuals that were said to be the duo behind the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The assertion, which came out of a crowdsourced investigation led by online sleuths on Reddit, turned out to be false. The Post also played a role in unintentionally promoting false rumors by retweeting claims that the New York Stock Exchange trading floor had been flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. While these examples should not be simply excused as inconsequential mistakes — they can and do cause real-world harm to both the subjects of a story and to audiences — it is crucial to distinguish that they are not malicious errors designed to sow confusion. They were instances of sloppy journalism.
As these examples also show, misinformation is most often produced during periods of unfolding crisis or fast-moving developments. Journalistic outlets have a duty to keep people informed, especially when their safety or well-being may be placed at risk (e.g., as news about a bombing begins to break). They thus face pressure to report and publish quickly, which increases the likelihood of making errors. This is doubly true when they compete for audience attention during those news-breaking stages, and are thus incentivized to “scoop” competing outlets by being the first to report a story.
Disinformation refers to information that is deliberately false or misleading. In these cases, the would-be journalist (and, more often, communicators operating outside of the journalism industry) are not simply making errors in the heat of the moment. Instead, they are seeking to sow confusion or promote a particular narrative that they know to be untrue (or, at best, only partly true).
For example, in the aforementioned case of news organizations misinforming the public about the New York Stock Exchange trading floor being flooded, the false information was deliberately seeded by individuals doing it “for the lulz.” Put another way, those individuals had the intent to sow confusion — the confusion was their source of amusement — and they thus sought to disinform others by leveraging the naivete of some journalists (who were then retweeted by other journalists who trusted them, creating a cascade).
There are far more malicious examples of disinformation, however. For example, in September 2014, a number of sock puppet (fake) Twitter accounts began systematically spreading false reports about an explosion and toxic fume hazard at a chemical manufacturing plant in Louisiana. The coordinated effort also included stories appearing in spoofed (fake) versions of local news websites, fabricated YouTube videos, and even text messages that were sent to some local residents. No explosions had actually taken place, though. Researchers later traced those efforts to a state actor: a Russia-backed organization called the Internet Research Agency. Many intelligence services have identified the Internet Research Agency as being behind a number of efforts to destabilize U.S. politics by flooding social media with disinformation.
Disinformation is not limited to complete fabrications that lack any factual basis, though. It also includes the notion of enrichment, wherein information is selectively (and, again, intentionally) added or omitted in order to alter the meaning of a message. This may include intentionally decontextualizing information — which is a separate matter from failing to offer full context due to space constraints — as well as intentionally casting information in a misleading (or unfair) light. Enrichment is more commonly found in disinformation produced by pseudo-journalistic outlets (especially highly partisan ones) than complete fabrications because it is easier for those would-be journalists to deny intent.
The term “fake news” is thus designed to lump together both intentional and unintentional errors in order to discredit the institution of journalism. Put another way, it is designed to blur lines in order to more easily ascribe malicious intent to journalists — and especially those who publish information that is critical of the accuser.
While the term may seem new to popular communication (or at least newly rediscovered in it), the denouncing of media and journalism through derogatory language is part of a long-standing strategy observed both within and beyond the United States. Allegations that the press are liars have been used as a political device by numerous leaders (especially in autocratic regimes) to silence oppositional and independent voices. Indeed, the very inception of the press was marked by allegations from political and religious leaders that ‘the public’ should not be allowed to publish unfiltered information and opinion, and that ‘the public’ would only be harmed by lower barriers to publication. Newspapers in particular were often charged as being full of lies, bias, and distortion — or, more simply, as being vehicles for “fake news.”
However, the resurgence of the term is of particular concern to free press advocates who have observed important social consequences. Legally, the popularization of the term is credited with facilitating the passing of so-called “fake news” laws that give autocratic and pseudo-democratic states more power in regulating news media. Politically, the term is credited with increasing polarization and the fragmentation of audiences, which may now gather in echo chambers to avoid what it considers “fake news.” Socially, it has resulted in more acts of violence against journalists by regular citizens. This last change has been so pronounced even in the United States that global organizations like Reporters Without Borders have begun tracking domestic attacks against U.S. journalists.
Additionally, the term “fake news” is today applied in a wide array of contexts — many of which do not involve journalism at all. For example, it is not uncommon to see the term used to marginalize dissenting opinions, as with a political candidate who might charge their opponent with promoting “fake news” when they simply assert that their health care policy is better. It is even sometimes used in day-to-day disagreements between friends, like when one asserts that their preferred team is better. (“That’s fake news!”) Scholars have argued that the term has been deliberately seeded in such a wide array of contexts in order to equate any form of inconvenient information with journalism and, in turn, make it easier to discredit journalism via the rhetorical device of “fake news.”
The strong resurgence of the term in recent years has been led largely (but not exclusively) by conservative commentators. It has been used most vociferously (and effectively) by former U.S. President Donald Trump who, in 2018, awarded what he called the “fake news award” to traditional U.S. media outlets.
Trump’s repeated claims that major news outlets lied about numerous aspects of his political and personal lives even as he made a range of demonstrably false claims at an unprecedented rate (for a high-ranking elected leader) has been linked to the notion of gaslighting. As media scholar Caroline Jack argues, this rhetorical and psychological strategy relies on the intentional orchestration of deceptions and biased narrations to not only confuse individuals but further distort audiences’ trust in their own perceptions and memories. The term “gaslighting” is also not new — it has been traced to a 1938 theatrical play — but it is useful in conceptualizing attempts by political actors to use misdirection, denial, and disinformation to help sow confusion and undermine trust in institutions.
More broadly, the use of systematic campaigns to confuse the public and undermine trust in institutions has occurred multiple times throughout history and across different international contexts. (These are different from propaganda, which is a more common effort to strategically use information to increase trust in institutions or build support for (or against) a cause.) For example, the former Soviet Union used the term dezinformatsiya to conceptualize coordinated state efforts to disseminate false or misleading information to journalistic media (among other forms of media) in targeted countries or regions. This was just one of their activnye meropriyatiya, or ‘active measures,’ employed by the state to strategically undermine and disrupt governance by opposing nation-states while strengthening the positions of allies. These measures included spreading disinformation through multiple channels (e.g., through fake grassroots campaigns, a practice also known as astroturfing) to widen existing domestic rifts, stoke existing tensions, and complicate international relations.
More recently, scholars have used the term xuanchuan (a nod to an existing Chinese term) to describe the use of coordinated posts on social media to flood conversational spaces with a mix of positive messages, negative messages, and attempts to change the subject as part of a broader misdirection strategy. Under this approach, the goal is not to simply promote false information but rather to overwhelm the system with information, making it harder for individuals to come across certain kinds of information. For example, analysts have pointed to China’s so-called “50 Cent Army” (or “50 Cent Party”) — groups of online commentators thought to number in the millions who are regularly employed by Chinese authorities — as an example of the mobilization of large groups to systematically promote echo chambers, hijack hashtags, and steer public discourse away from sensitive topics.
It is important to note that although they can be useful in capturing specific approaches to seeding mass confusion, terms like ‘dezinformatsiya’ and ‘xuanchuan’ can also promote negative stereotypes and limit conversation. For example, there are also related non-state efforts to disrupt specific social campaigns, as when K-Pop fans banded together to hijack hashtags used to coordinate white supremacist activity. These terms should thus be used with care due to the cultural associations they elicit. Easier and cheaper access to powerful computers and high-speed internet connections have made it easier for individuals and small teams around the world to automate the production and amplification of disinformation in digital environments.
The resurgence of the term “fake news” and high-profile, coordinated disinformation campaigns have helped promote a rise in civic and governmental attempts to counter online misinformation and disinformation. In particular, several fact-checking organizations have emerged in recent years. These organizations aim to authenticate statements made by institutional sources (e.g., elected leaders), debunk social media hoaxes, and assess the legitimacy of particular information sources. However, several scholars have found that such interventions have made little headway in combating large-scale disinformation campaigns or restoring trust in journalistic institutions. Thus, journalistic outlets are still seeking effective solutions to countering disinformation, all the while struggling to adapt to a fast-paced environment that makes it easier for them to produce misinformation themselves.
“Fake news” is a highly problematic term that was crafted with the intention of discrediting journalism and blurring the lines between professional news products and general information. Its popularization has been credited with reducing trust in journalism and increasing violence against journalists.
The terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” help to capture the range of inaccurate information in an accessible way. Misinformation refers to information whose inaccuracy is unintentional (e.g., getting some information wrong during a breaking news event). Disinformation refers to information that is deliberately false or misleading (e.g., an individual fabricating a statement or altering the meaning of a statement by intentionally omitting information in a selective way).
Coordinated campaigns to disinform audiences have been credited with promoting polarization, stoking domestic tensions, and undermining trust in a range of democratic processes. Such campaigns have been enacted by both state and non-state actors.