Fake News – Sorting Fact from Fiction

Fake News – Sorting Fact from Fiction

You might have heard the term “fake news” used to describe false or misleading news stories, or sometimes just to criticise a news story someone doesn’t like! In recent years we have been living in what sociologists call an “information age”. In 2020, a survey estimated that 84% of British adults owned a smartphone, and this means we all have more access to information than ever before. That can be a really good thing: it makes it easier for us to learn new things and connect with each other. But being bombarded with so much information can also make it harder to sort fact from fiction. In recent years, false or inaccurate news stories have proven to be a growing problem. Today we’ll think about why this is, how you can tell fact from fiction, and look at what news organisations are doing to verify their stories and combat deliberately false information.

Defining Fake News

For as long as humans have talked to each other, rumours and false information have been spread. But the term “fake news” was first began to be used in the 19th Century to describe sensational reports in newspapers which were trying to sell more copies. In 1835, The New York Sun published a story later described as the “Great Moon Hoax” claiming that there was an alien civilisation on the moon. This helped the newspaper to sell more copies and to become one of the leading newspapers of its day.

Fake news can be either completely made up, like the story about aliens on the moon, or contain a grain of truth but be presented in a one-sided or inaccurate way. Watch the video below in which BBC journalist Tina Daheley shows us just how hard it can be to tell fake news from real stories. Play along and see if you can guess which of the stories she shows us from 3:15 onwards are real and which are fake!

Activity: Clicks for Cash

We’ve heard how one of the factors which encourages websites to publish fake news is that more shocking headlines gain more clicks, meaning the publishers make more money from advertising. In this activity, imagine you are in charge of a news website and want to boost your traffic by making up some shocking stories.

Visit  some well-known, trusted news sites, and just look at the photos attached to today’s news stories. Choose three photos and come up with a fictional headline for each of them that could be shared on social media.

You’ll probably realise quite quickly how easily genuine photos and news material can be misused to support completely false stories. Why not try showing a friend or family member your fake headlines with the photos to see if they’d be convinced they were real stories?

Circular Reporting & Fact-Checking

We’ve seen how and why incorrect information can be created, but the problem of fake news becomes far more serious when these falsehoods work their way into mainstream reporting and sources through a process known as circular reporting. To understand how this works, it’s worth defining two types of false information which can form part of fake news

Misinformation describes inaccurate facts which are unverified, obscure the truth and are misleading. It can work its way into otherwise reputable news content.

Disinformation is a term used to refer to deliberately deceptive information which actively promotes untruths in order to discredit a person or viewpoint or to get you to change your view on something.

Regular news outlets have to take care to verify their sources to avoid spreading misinformation through slight inaccuracies which can quickly form a bigger part of their stories. Some news organisations now also try to publish stories which fact-check and debunk dangerous disinformation spreading online.

Watch the video below to learn how inaccurate information can spread between sources and become difficult to disprove.

Activity: First Day as a Reporter!

In this activity you’ll have a go at the BBC’s iReporter game. It’s your first day in the office as a BBC reporter, and you’ll be tasked with balancing accuracy, impact and speed in order to get reliable stories onto the website and TV bulletins quickly. As you play through the game, think about how the different sources which are offered to you might help the story develop. The most reliable sources are official and come right from those at the heart of an emerging story.

Fact Check!

As we mentioned, some news organisations have begun to fact-check claims by politicians and claims circulating on social media. This is a specific response to concerns about the spread of false and misleading news.

Have a look at the following two sites carrying out these types of fact check:

There are a few factors which have contributed to the recent surge in complaints about fake news and the corresponding efforts by these organisations to fact-check the claims of politicians and news articles. One of the most significant is almost certainly the role of social media.

Services like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat are designed to play on human psychology, and posts that shock or surprise people will perform well, whether or not they’re accurate. Information can go viral before anyone has the chance to check its accuracy, and any corrections hardly ever have as broad a reach as the original post or tweet.

Activity: Tweet Trickery

Social media is one of the biggest factors contributing to the rapid spread of information. Visit one of the fact-checking websites we mentioned above and find a claim or statistic that they’ve proven to be inaccurate. Now imagine you’re one of the people spreading the inaccurate fact and write a tweet about it. You should use language that evokes strong emotions and shocks people, for the maximum impact.

Write your tweet in the box below, and remember, you only have up to 280 characters, although the most engaging tweets are usually move shorter!

Emmet O'Leary
Emmet O’Leary

Emmet O’Leary studied History at St John’s College, Oxford. Whilst studying he spent time as JCR Class Rep, promoting the interests of students from under-represented socioeconomic groups and later as President of the Junior Common Room (JCR). His undergraduate thesis explored the impact of Famine in Ireland, and its demographic shockwaves, on cultural and religious practice in the nineteenth century. He has wide-ranging historical interests including the writings of the Enlightenment and the social upheavals of the European Reformations and is also keenly interested in constitutional law and its connection to current affairs. Emmet is currently Access and Outreach Intern at St John’s.