“Fake news” — it’s a term that has seen an alarmingly high increase in popularity over the past few years. Google Trends shows that the phrase’s search popularity grew 20 times between just October 2016 and January 2018, and Collins Dictionary even named it as one of their words of the year for 2017.
But what, exactly, is fake news?
To understand the concept of fake news, we must first look at the current Internet ecosystem as a whole. For as much as the Internet touts itself to be a free space, it relies heavily on moneymaking strategies in order for many of its sites to remain in operation. ‘Free’ websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and even Google strategically monetize the distribution of information in order to generate income and keep their sites running. The digital advertising industry is estimated to have generated around $85 billion USD in 2017, and is expected to only keep growing; even private individuals can earn income by allowing advertisements on their social media pages, creating a network of peer-to-peer relationships that utilize clicks and views as currency.
In this economy of clicks, anything goes. The more sensationalized, the better, and any attention is good attention. Such ‘clickbait’ articles seem harmless in theory — many are seemingly random in nature and more profit-driven than anything else. However, with more and more people getting their news from sites like Twitter and Facebook rather than legitimate news sources, they make not only the average social media user susceptible to such deliberate manipulation and downright falsification of information but even government officials and other figures of authority whom we rely on to promote the truth. This deliberate digital distortion of reality can not only put actual lives at risk, but also slowly deteriorates the trust we’ve built with the Internet itself.
Going hand-in-hand with this is another basic principle of the Internet: its accessibility. The World Wide Web is open to everyone in the world (well, everyone who has a computer and Internet service provider, that is). Long gone are the days when computer networks were strictly managed by government, military, and academic officials; these days, any layman can create a website, post a message, or upload a video, all with the potential of reaching millions.
This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there were a positive correlation between the quantity and quality of online information. However, due to the proliferation of social media, it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish unauthorized (and uneducated) sources from actual facts: A Science Magazine study of social media network Twitter found that it took a true post around six times longer to reach an audience of 1,500 people than a false post, and that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories (NBC).
These trends are consistent across most social media platforms, and with around 2 billion daily active users on Facebook and over 2 trillion Google searches every year, the threat of public, widespread misinformation — intentional or not — is only getting worse. Not only are many news and media platforms privately filtering and prioritizing what information users can see, but users themselves are able to then pass that information on to a larger and larger group of people. Add fake news into the mix and we’re dealing with low-quality, inaccurate content on a massive scale.
So, back to the original question — what, exactly, is “fake news”? Is it simply an amalgamation of clickbait, spam, and yellow journalism, all devised in the hopes of making a profit? Or is it a little more complicated than that, a product of the Internet’s information overload and social media’s viral environment?
There are many definitions for fake news, but here’s ours:
“Fake news” refers to false or misleading information that holds political, societal, and/or economic influence, whether deliberate or unintentional.
With this in mind, it’s important to note that simply defining the problem isn’t enough. As we near Web 3.0, it’s time that the Internet makes serious structural changes to combat the fake news epidemic and the other threats that come with it — data privacy, plagiarism, and accountability being just a few. But identifying the issue is the first step to prevention, and we must keep working hard to promote trust and responsibility in the digital world.