Frequently Asked Questions: “Fake News”

You’d have to live under a rock not to have heard much ado about “fake news.” But while it’s inspired impassioned feelings from all sides of the political spectrum, there is little out there to provide objective understanding of exactly what the problem is. Further, proposed solutions to the fake news problem, particularly through government regulation, have almost uniformly undermined freedom of expression. Governments, including democratic governments, have used the spread of fake news to justify attempts at political censorship online, increases in government surveillance, criminal liability for content moderators, and even total internet shutdowns.

Here we attempt to lay out the major questions people are asking about fake news, what is being done about it, and how that lines up with human rights standards.

What is “fake news” anyway?

There are so many things shoved into the category of fake news, one can hardly fault people for not knowing exactly what it is.

Generally, fake news consists of stories that “report” on so-called facts and information that have no basis in fact, often with specifically fantastic headlines to encourage sharing on social media. Fake news stories cover the gambit of topics, much like real news — politics, yes, but also health, entertainment, gossip, arts and culture, and the list goes on. One explanation for the rise of fake news might be money. Modern media is based on an advertising model that relies on getting people to click to view content. Fake news can be more sensational than reality and lead to a high number of clicks, meaning that stories that get sufficient views can be very profitable.

Wow. That sounds horrible. What makes it so difficult to deal with?

The definition above may make it sound like it should be easy to identify fake news, but that would be misleading. Several things can make identifying or categorizing fake news very difficult.

First is the thin line that exists between fake news and satire or parody. Popular websites like The Onion have established themselves by publishing what ostensibly could be seen as fake news but with either comedic intent or as social commentary (or both).

Another problem is that fake news that is political — the type that has been in the headlines most over the past year — appears to be skewed on a partisan basis. It’s not clear why this is so, although there are interviews with individuals claiming that when they write stories targeted at conservatives, it’s more profitable. This has made it hard to have neutral conversations about fake news and different approaches to it.

The viral spread of certain types of content on the internet has also made the issue of fake news more complicated. Once content is out in the public sphere, it can take on a life of its own, spreading and influencing people in unexpected ways. Take, for example, the “pizzagate” story, which garnered a following of people determined to prove its accuracy. Reporting by Buzzfeed showed how that story spread and grew over time, eventually resulting in a man “investigating” the story first hand by taking a gun into a family-run restaurant.

Another big problem with fake news is that major news outlets have over many decades (if not centuries) turned sensational headlines and news stories — bordering on falsehoods — into a mainstream business model. No one on the internet hasn’t come across “clickbait” headlines that don’t accurately portray the news story that they are attached to, or read stories that either skew or selectively report facts to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions. Outlets with perspectives on all sides of the political spectrum are guilty of engaging in this practice, and few organizations are immune to its influence. These sensationalist stories, which are not fake news, tend to get more views, and are likely more popular with people who are accustomed, through use of search engines and social media platforms, to seeing content that does not challenge their worldview.

How long has fake news been around? Why am I just hearing about it now?

As technologist Robert Graham has pointed out on Twitter, “using fake news…goes so far back into pre-history of the Internet that [you] can’t find good references when it started” (Graham was referring to the use of fake news for phishing schemes). Fake news can be traced back to ancient times. Perhaps the most famous case of fake news historically was the rise of so-called yellow journalism in the late 19th century, which focused on sensationalist reporting that would drive up sales.

In some areas of the world, people have been focusing more heavily on fake news as a driver of mis-information for a few years now. Only in the past year has it gained widespread notoriety in the U.S., largely due to the fact that the 2016 presidential candidates highlighted the issue, and because social media was added to the equation, with onlookers observing that people often share and re-share stories based on the headline alone, without further scrutiny.

Social media has also made it less likely for people to reject fake news because it creates individual “bubbles” of news designed to show users content that algorithms determine that they will most want to see. The consequence has been the continued proliferation of fake news stories by users who promote them because they reinforce their personal worldviews.

What is being done about fake news?

Companies have been accused of being complicit in spreading fake news and some are beginning to take notice. Both Facebook and Google have committed to stop dealing in advertising with websites known to distribute fake news. Facebook then went a step further, announcing partnerships with fact-checking organizations to try to indicate when stories may be fake news, as well as streamlining the reporting of fake news and visually flagging disputed stories.

Around the world, lawmakers have also gotten involved. As Mike Masnick at TechDirt reported, legislators from China, to Iran, to the U.S. have drafted laws and rules to “crack down” on fake news, pushing content-based restrictions on what can be written or shared on the internet.

Well, some of that sounds good, but doesn’t some of it seem like censorship? Where do we go from here?

Why, yes it does. Masnick explains exactly why legal limitations on fake news are a problem:

So, for all of you complaining about fake news — a broad term with no real meaning, and which allows people to claim that anything they dislike, or anything with a small error in it counts as “fake news” — beware that you’re basically handing an easy tool of censorship to governments like China and Iran that have long histories of stifling any kind of dissent. “Fake news” isn’t necessarily a good thing, but freaking out about it is playing into the hands of censors worldwide.

Masnick explains exactly why laws prohibiting or limiting “fake news” are likely to lead to censorship. They will also undermine freedom of expression by giving government officials the authority to determine what speech is and is not proper, which may lead to other harmful consequences. Any law or regulation that makes government officials the arbiters of what content people can access should be met with inherent mistrust.

However, while laws, regulations, and other practices meant to prohibit fake news run afoul of human rights protections, it may not actually be a bad thing to shift corporate practices to increase user exposure to, and engagement with, news content posted within their network. The saying goes that the only remedy to bad speech is more speech, and ultimately these same corporations have exacerbated the spread of fake news by limiting speech users are exposed to, and building “bubbles” around the content that they see. Maybe, then, the only way perhaps to stem the tide of fake news without limiting the human right to freedom of expression and privacy is to open these channels back up, and once again increase our exposure to more and different flows of news and information. Until then we may continue to see these unacceptable calls for increased censorship.