Fake news and information deception

What is “Fake News”?

The use of fabricated and manipulated content (especially in online contexts) has reached unprecedented levels in recent years. This information deception is harmful to us individually and on a societal level. Understanding and being able to identify fabricated and manipulated information is important because good information is necessary to make good decisions and because sharing bad information can damage the reputation of the person who shared it. You also need to know about fabricated and manipulated information in order to be a better scholar because it’s an essential part of assessing the credibility of sources

Fake news is a term used very frequently these days, but it can have many different meanings. When you hear this phrase your first association might be very different from what someone else thinks when they hear it. That’s because the term fake news is used to refer to multiple kinds of information misuse or manipulation. For now, let’s tentatively define fake news as “purposefully crafted, sensational, emotionally charged, misleading or totally fabricated information that mimics the form of mainstream news.” (Zimdars, 2020) Often this information may not be “fake” but rather true information that has been misused or manipulated.

Here’s an overview of the various types of things we call fake news:

Disinformation Content that is intentionally false and designed to cause harm. It is motivated by three distinct factors: to make money; to have political influence, either foreign or domestic; or to cause trouble for the sake of it.

Example: Pizzagate: A made up conspiracy theory that a pizzeria in Washington D.C. was a front for a child pornography ring involving the Clintons. The story led to a shooting at the pizzeria in question.

Misinformation False content but the person sharing doesn’t realize that it is false or misleading. Often a piece of disinformation picked up by someone who doesn’t realize it’s false and shares it with their networks without the intent to do harm.

Example: An article decrying the health risks of additives found in Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups shared over 100k times on Facebook, despite being false.

Malinformation Genuine information that is shared with an intent to cause harm.

Example: Mis-captioned photos of Hyde Park covered in garbage suggested protesters for climate change left all the litter. The photo was real, but showed the aftermath of a completely different event.


How confirmation bias makes us susceptible to deception

Confirmation bias – “the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs” (Britannica) – is a natural human impulse, our default setting.
We love to hear that our view is the right one, but it has a tendency to powerfully distort our understanding of available information. Sidebar quote: Confirmation bias is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs. It’s so easy to hear what we want to hear. We assume that we’ll know “fake news” when we see it, but when the information being shared confirms our existing opinions we are less likely to verify it.

This has become even more prevalent with the widespread use of social media. We tend to interact more with people who share the same views and opinions as ourselves, and so these are the people we follow on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Seeing posts and shared articles from people who already believe the same things we do creates a filter bubble — “the intellectual isolation that can occur when websites make use of algorithms to selectively assume the information a user would want to see, and then give information to the user according to this assumption” (Techopedia). Our own confirmation bias leads us to like, share, and comment on posts which reflect our own views and the algorithms catalog those actions and begin showing us only what it believes we will further interact with. The same thing can happen when we decide to only watch certain news channels or read specific publications. These information producers know their audiences and so they format their coverage of events to fit what they believe the audience will want to see.

With algorithms and our brains’ default desire to confirm our beliefs working against us, it is even more important that we approach sources with skepticism and are prepared to recognize valid and authoritative perspectives even when they do not match our own views. This is especially important because unreliable information comes in a variety of formats, some more harmful than others.


The Spectrum of Deceptive Information

Below you’ll find a summary of how various types of information exist on a spectrum depending on the degree of harm they can cause, from the low harm of a satirical article written for entertainment and a few laughs to the high harm of fully fabricated content designed specifically to deceive you. It is important to remember that these categories are fluid. While a source like The Onion can be counted on to always post satire, other sources may be a mix of well-reported articles and others which are leaning more towards manipulated/fabricated content. Being familiar with this spectrum will help you to better recognize unreliable information when you see it.

High harm Fabricated Content
New content that is 100% false, designed to deceive and do harm.

Example: DeepFakes which can be used both as recordings and in real-time to create false interactions like a recent incident involving several EU politicians and video calls with a person using a deepfake.

. Manipulated Content
When genuine information or imagery is manipulated to deceive.

Example: A video of Nancy Pelosi was altered to make her speech sound slurred prompting people to question her health and mental state.

. Imposter Content
When genuine sources are impersonated.

Example: Fake copies of The Washington Post were distributed in print and online in January 2019.

. False Context
When genuine content is shared with false contextual information.

Example: A meme circulated showing a “MRI of Love” which was actually showing an MRI of a mother and child overlaid with fMRI scans of brian activity when shown video of faces. In reality this image has nothing to do with love.

. Misleading Content
Misleading use of information to frame an issue or individual.

Example: Political news can often be misleading as it is skewed to support one party or candidate over another. For instance a graphic in the NY Times uses the lengths of gavel handles to represent numbers of appellate judgeships appointed by former presidents, and those gavel handles are not shown on a proportional scale.

. False Connection
When headlines, visuals, or captions do not support the content.

Example: Clickbait. Sources provide generally credible content, but use exaggerated, misleading, or questionable headlines, social media descriptions, and/or images.

Low harm Satire or parody
No intention to cause harm but has potential to fool.

Example: The Onion or other sources that use humor, irony, exaggeration, ridicule, satire, and false information to comment on current events.


Why We Should All Care about Fake News

Being able to recognize fake news is an important skill to have. The spread of this type of content has serious impacts on society, and has the ability to erode people’s confidence in the truth. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank, demonstrates the impact of false information on perceptions of the government and society. A majority of Americans feel that false information erodes our confidence in government and in each other, and that it erodes leaders’ ability to get work done.

Public opinion data about the effect of made-up news, from Pew Research Center.

(Data source: Pew Research Center)


But, beyond its societal impacts, we should care because fake news affects us individually.

  • You deserve the truth. You are smart enough to make up your own mind–as long as you have the real facts in front of you.
  • Your time and attention are valuable. The more bad information there is, the harder you have to work to find good information. You have every right to be insulted when you read fake news, because it’s undermining your own ability to recognize the true information.
  • Fake news destroys your credibility. If your arguments are built on bad information, it will be much more difficult for people to believe you in the future.
  • Fake news can hurt you, and a lot of other people. Purveyors of fake and misleading medical advice perpetuate harmful health- and disease-related myths, such as sites which promote eating disorders. [[trigger warning?]] These sites are dangerous because they encourage the use of approaches that have little or no evidence to support them. For example, such sites might suggest an untested cream for a condition that requires far more robust (and well-tested) treatment like a drug.
  • Real news can benefit you. If you want to buy stock in a company, you want to read accurate articles about that company so you can invest wisely. If you are planning on voting in an election, you want to read valid and factual information on a candidate so you can vote for the person who best represents your ideas and beliefs. Fake news will not help you make money or make the world a better place, but real news can.

(adapted from Joan Hopkins, Benedictine University)


How to Identify Fake News

There are a few actionable steps that can be taken in order to identify fake news. The following short videos will introduce you to these steps and show you how it’s done.

  1. Introduction to Online Verification (3:13):

    Watch this video to learn about why online verification is necessary and see an important example of misleading information in action.

    • There are consequences of your decisions so you need the best information
    • In a test of students, historians, and fact-checkers, only the fact checkers were able to verify a source successfully in under 5 minutes.
  2. Investigate the source (2:44):

    This video will teach you how to begin verifying information you see online.

    • Leave the site
    • Ask who the creators are
    • Disregard what sources say about themselves
    • Use wikipedia as a first stop to verify publications and organization: Into a web search box, type the site’s URL followed by Wikipedia

  3. Find the Original Source (1:33):

    This video explains why it is important to trace information back to its original source and provides tips on how to do so.

    • Find the original source first.
    • Make sure the people writing the information are also the ones verifying it. (This limits/avoids the “telephone game” effect that happens when writers simply pass along information without verifying it).
  4. Look for Trusted Work (4:10):
  5. This video discusses the importance of having a base of trusted sources, such as fact-checking sites and trusted news sources.

    • Build a personal library/toolkit of trusted sources
    • Practice “trading up”: When you find an article from an unreliable source look for the same topic from a trusted source
    • Use fact-checking sites such as:

Credit: This module was created by Tamara Uhaze, John T. Oliver (instructor for the course and corresponding author), and Erin Ackerman. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
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