Defining Fake News: Features and Tricks
“Fake news” (noun) /ˌfeɪk ˈnjuːz/
‘Disinformation’ has become a well-known keyword in politics, journalism and society, hence it should be considered a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Disinformation and ‘fake news’ have a striking impact on modern society, which is reflected in both the social and online spheres. Fake news emerges and keeps spreading as part of structured disinformation campaigns and their use is systematic regardless of the country. Approaching this topic requires keeping in mind a basic assumption: the web provides modern society with an incredibly large amount of data which people use at an even higher rate. This condition makes the perfect environment to encourage the spread of inaccurate or false information. By the end of the present article, it will be made clear that disinformation and fake news can have a political and social impact, especially due to their tendency to go viral with great rapidity. The interaction between technological and societal vulnerabilities, together with individual cognitive shortcomings, creates what Barojan calls a "toxic information environment," which facilitates the spread of disinformation (Jayakumar et al., 2021, p. 61).
The term ‘fake news’ is not new to today’s people. It is used to refer to viral posts based on fictitious accounts, which are precisely made to look real. Allcott and Gentzkow (2017) define fake news as “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false and could mislead readers” (p. 213). Researchers need to face the problem of ambiguity when defining fake news: the difficulty of defining it also matches with a scarcity of statistical data which allow a systematic and detailed analysis of the phenomenon. Fake news undermines public safety and trust in government, as well as democracy itself, together with journalism and economies. During the 2016 U.S. election, fake news generated almost nine million shares, reactions and comments on Facebook about false election stories, namely outperforming the total of interactions of the nineteen major news websites (Silverman, 2016). According to Madrigal (2017), after 2016 the media world should be reconsidered "in light of Donald Trump's surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election." Madrigal sustains that "The informational underpinnings of democracy have eroded, and no one has explained precisely how," meaning that Facebook constitutes a powerful, non-neutral force in electoral politics, as also shown in the study by Bond et al. (2012). The mentioned erosion of the informational underpinnings of democracy is more explicit in the article by Zittrain (2014), where the author presents a Facebook-based experiment conducted in 2010. On November 2, 2010, Facebook displayed a non-partisan "get out the vote" button on around 60 million people's newsfeeds. The experiment turned out in an estimated number of 340.000 extra voters who wouldn't otherwise have voted. According to Tandoc et al. (2017), two main reasons trigger the creation of fake news: financial and ideological matters. In fact, fake and shocking stories which go viral provide their creators with clicks — i.e. views — that can turn into revenue.
Fake news on social media also contributes to creating "echo chambers" (Quattrociocchi et al., 2016), i.e. social media networks people rely on to support their current convictions (see also Bessi et al., 2016). Such social bubbles are based on the so called "confirmation bias," which is crucial in people's decision to spread a piece of content within their community, thus creating "homophile and polarized clusters" (Bessi, Zollo et al., 2015, p. 1). Misinformation in the media is not a recent phenomenon, as it has been part of it since the development of the earliest writing systems (Marcus, 1993). The digitalisation of news has changed the way they are produced as much as the profile of those who produce them. Online platforms allow non-journalists to reach sometimes big audiences. Thus, a phenomenon called ‘citizen journalism’ arose (Robinson and DeShano, 2011). An article published by CNN business in 2019 states that in 2018 alone Facebook shut down around 5.4 billion fake accounts — and millions of them still remained (Fung & Garcia, 2019). Consequently, the same platform in 2019 allowed its hate speech algorithms to automatically remove content that violates the company’s policy (O'Sullivan, 2019). Fake news is not mandatorily 100% false: it is still unclear indeed whether falsity is a necessary condition to define them. Fake news aims at being intentionally misleading, but there is no consensus on how such deception is conducted. Deception is, nonetheless, one pivotal feature in the definition of fake news.
Fake news misleads its audience in a broad sense, as words have considerable power in shaping people’s beliefs and opinions. The attempts to automate the detection of fake news (e.g. O'Brien et al., 2018, Yang et al., 2019, Rashkin et al., 2017, or Zhou et al., 2019), through the analysis of its language (see Oshikawa et. al, 2020 for a complete survey) show a particular focus on natural language processing (NLP). According to Kang et al. (2020), NLP is "a computer-assisted analytical technique aimed at automatically analyzing and comprehending human language." Such techniques are used nowadays to extract significant information from linguistic data (e.g., for stance detecting or sentiment analysis). The language used in fake news exhibits particular characteristics, that tend to recur systematically. Fake news is commonly sensational, especially if it deals with a controversial societal topic. The first aim of fake news is to provoke and elicit strong emotional reactions: this is also due to the human preference for sensational news, which is easier to remember (Davis&McLeod, 2003). The main reason for that relies upon the fact that truth is usually more boring than sensationalism, whereas the latter sells much better. Moreover, typical fake news tends to discredit other sources of information since they present themselves as the most accurate and reliable source (Denaux&Gómez Pérez, 2020). Nonetheless, this claim of validity above others does not revolve around actual proof or evidence. Another peculiar feature which distinguishes fake news is that it usually discredits other sources by underlining the presence of alleged biases or interests or the fact that such sources lied before. The goal, in this case, is clear: undermining the source's validity by insinuating doubts in the average reader. Accordingly, the language that is used in fake news is usually colloquial and simple and tends to reduce complex matters to simple problems. Therefore, this strategy appeals to the readers’ emotions to compel them to feel deeply involved in the issue. Therefore, if emotional involvement and simple solutions mix, they end up producing the engagement these contents want to reach. An additional and effective trick that is commonly found in fake news is depicting experts as ‘the élite’, thus not trustworthy. The use of a general and the underspecified target itself, such as the élite or ‘the strong powers’, is one main feature of fake news as well. Using this kind of target makes a useful trick to create an ambiguous enemy against whom the readers’ emotional reactions are directed.
In conclusion, useful advice for readers is to keep a sceptical attitude when presented with articles or social media posts which show the aforementioned features. Remarkably, the audience itself represents a fundamental element in the definition of fake news. If readers do not perceive fake news as real, they will not start believing something that is not true. The audience participates in the creation of fake news which in turn would remain pure fiction if not perceived as real. The process of perceiving a fake as real also enables fake news to undermine journalism’s legitimacy, especially in a social media environment (Kang et al., 2016). Well-produced fake news embodies real news in many ways: the look of a website, the style and language of an article or the attributions included in a photo. Fake news can create a real network of fake websites and has real consequences on reality, thus making it a crucial subject for further studies.
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