life + learning banner

What is "Fake News" and Why is it so Dangerous?


Life + Learning

  • Fake News

Kevin Swayze | January 4, 2021

A harsh truth about Fake News:  it’s nothing new.  “Dirty tricks” to confuse and persuade have been around for millennia.

Fake News is a catch-all description of what some people have called weaponized lies. Three general categories:

  • Misinformation, defective information or mistakes
  • Disinformation, such as hoaxes,
  • Malinformation and stories intended to damage institutions and individuals

Humans have an instinctive desire to be in a group; a desire to belong. We’re wired to react emotionally, not rationally.  We find comfort in similarity and alert to things out of the ordinary.  So we're easily distracted by the unusual, unique or unexpected. And angered when threatened.

That’s probably why MIT researchers found fake news spreads faster than truth.

  • False claims were 70 percent more likely than the truth to be shared on Twitter.
  • True stories were rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top 1 percent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people.
  • And it took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.” – source New York Times in a March 8, 2018 story on the study originally posted in Science

Misinformation isn’t just about facts.  It’s about storytelling, says the Poynter Institute, a journalism advocacy group in the U.S.

Effective storytelling doesn’t focus on “facts.”  It plays on the emotions of the target audience.  If you see something and it emotionally grabs you, angers you, then it may be fake news.  Be wary. Verify.

Many Americans Believe Fake News Is Sowing Confusion: Pew Research Centre study Dec. 15, 2016 – after the 2016 U.S. elections.

  • 64% of the 1,002 people surveyed said fabricated news stories cause a great deal of confusion about the basic facts of current issues and events.
  • 39% feeling very confident that they can recognize news that is fabricated and another 45% feeling somewhat confident.
  • 23% say they have ever shared a made-up news story, with 14% saying they shared a story they knew was fake at the time and 16% having shared a story they later realized was fake.

Humans like telling stories and creating myths – and have been sharing Fake News for millennia. Here’s “A Short Guide to the History of ’Fake News’ and Disinformation,” from the International Centre for Journalists.

Even if fake news is debunked, people are still likely to feel its accurate, according to a study by researchers from the University of Regina and Yale University. They call it an “illusory truth effect” for fabricated facts, in a study reported in Journal of Experimental Psychology General.

Tools to fight Fake News

Think like a purveyor of #fakenews by playing the “Bad News” game.

The video “Deep Fakes” created by computer artificial indigence is in a Facebook feed near you.  Deep fakes are not going away and they’re getting harder and harder to spot.  This New York Times video offers a primer on deep fakes.

Consider this Fake News checklist from International Federation of Library Associations:

  • Consider the source
  • Check the Author
  • Check the Date
  • Check your biases
  • Read beyond the headlines
  • Supporting sources?
  • Is it a joke?
  • Ask experts (like your local librarian)

And check out these other resources to fight fake news as well:

But it's not all bad news! In some places, the truth seems to be winning. Here are some highlights from Finland's fight against fake news:

  • How Finland is fighting fake news - in the classroom
  • Finnish fact-checking organization Faktabaari (FactBar) adapts professional fact-checking methods for use in Finnish schools, and says good research skills and critical thinking are key.
  • Finland tops a 2018 list of European countries deemed the most resilient to disinformation, the Media Literacy Index, compiled by the Open Society Institute in Sofia.
  • Download for educators teaching media literacy