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BREAKING NEWS: Don’t fake it (with content)

Like it or not, we’re increasingly living in a world where a fake news story can take root on social media and then spread within hours. From politics to new inventions – remember ‘selfie shoes’ anyone? – the fact (or maybe not) is that fake news looks like it’s here to stay. In this week’s blog, 44’s Emily New looks at the impact of faking content – and what this means for the future of comms…

Back in April, I was well and truly April-Fooled. The place of the fooling was Facebook. The fooler? McVitie’s. The company posted a new advert for a cheese-flavoured Jaffa Cake – news which caused me much food-related despair.

Cheese? In a Jaffa Cake?

Outraged, I shared the post in disgust, only to be quickly reminded that it was the morning of the 1st April. Embarrassed, I logged off, shut my laptop, and consoled myself with a Jaffa binge of epic proportions (orange flavoured, of course).

April Fools’ Day pranksters have been publishing fake content for years. Back in 1957, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, Panorama, famously released the news of a booming Spaghetti harvest in Switzerland. The April report saw stressed spaghetti pickers working on large pasta plantations…

Fast forward to 2017, and fake news is no longer just a tradition limited to one amusing morning in April. BuzzFeed recently published an article listing the top 50 fake news stories shared on Facebook in 2016, which included headlines: ‘Actor Bill Murray Announces 2016 Presidential Run’, and ‘Daycare Busted For Running Toddler Fight Club… parents outraged’[1].

Hello, and welcome to fake news

So what actually constitutes fake news? Well, it’s pretty difficult to define – simply because it’s become a catch-all term for any kind of discredited story or fact. There are also different types and levels of ‘fake’. Just take The Onion, for example. This news website spreads fake content for satirical effect, receiving around 10 million unique visitors every month[2]. A popular Twitter hashtag, #NotTheOnion, has also been set up and shared – tagging true stories that seem so bizarre and ridiculous that they sound fake anyway.

Then, there’s news published that’s partly based on real facts but may be open to interpretation, or may intentionally not give the whole picture. As Mark Twain famously said: “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”[3]

Finally, there’s fake news published specifically to deceive – which is what we’re focusing on here. It was at Donald Trump’s first press conference as President-elect when the term ‘fake news’ broke out of media discussions and into the mainstream.

“You are fake news!” Trump shouted at CNN’s Jim Acosta[4].

Next up, why does it even matter?

Since the US election, more than a third of teachers have caught pupils quoting fake news in their homework, while The Independent has even dedicated a whole section of their website to fake news and associated stories[5].

But the existence of fake news perhaps matters less than the ability of readers to distinguish it from the truth. In recent years, the role of social media has changed – it’s no longer just a tool for keeping in touch, but is now the main way that many users stay up to date with the latest affairs. 62% of Americans now use social networks as a primary source of news[6].

A number of quizzes have even been set up to test us on whether we can tell fake news from real news. Why not give it a go here? It’s not easy…

And finally, stay tuned…

But, in what’s being called a ‘post-truth era’, perhaps fake news is not completely a bad thing.

Along with more awareness, comes a positive response. Digital and social media companies are just starting to put tools in place to detect if fake news is being shared on their platforms. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales has set up a crowd-funded news site called Wikitribune, which only uses fact-checked stories by professional journalists, while Facebook has also launched its own guide to fake news[7].

Perhaps, then, we’ll see increasing efforts to learn how to recognise and combat content that’s been fabricated. In the same way, perhaps online audiences will start returning to digital journalists and platforms they can trust. It’s this honesty, clarity and credibility that will mean future news can stand out from the digital noise.

I’ll end this blog with a comment from a friend of mine, who – when thinking about fake news – wondered why we don’t see good news faked as much as bad news.

So, to kick us off, here’s something I read earlier: ‘Writer from Leamington Spa Wins Lifetime Supply of (Orange) Jaffa Cakes.’

Now, that would be a good day in the newsroom…


[1] https://www.theverge.com/2016/12/30/14128508/facebook-fake-news-2016-top-50-articles

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2010/may/24/the-onion-satire-television

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/736-of-all-statistics-are-made-up-2010-2?IR=T

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/11/trump-attacks-cnn-buzzfeed-at-press-conference

[5] http://www.independent.co.uk/topic/fake-news

[6] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/fake-news-origins-grew-2016/

[7] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/facebook-fake-news-guide-articles-curate-stop-take-down-lies-russia-donald-trump-us-politics-a7726111.html

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