What is fake news?

By UM News

What is fake news?

By UM News
School of Communication faculty discuss whether consumers can learn how to discern the “wheat from the chaff” in their news consumption.

In today’s fast moving and continuous news cycle, consumers are bombarded with stories, images, tweets, opinions and more each day. With new technologies, images and video can be easily manipulated to influence public opinion. 

So can we accept news items on face value? How do people determine which news is real and which is fake? Several faculty in the University of Miami School of Communication explore the issue for News@TheU.

What is fake news? 

Fake news is a term that is widely misunderstood and misused. Is it a deliberate lie? Is it propaganda? Is it motivated by money or a desire to mislead? Is it a good-faith mistake? It is not a good-faith mistake. Often it is a deliberate effort to mislead. Sometimes it is the work of an advocate who will not or cannot see with impartiality. The producers of fake news try to make their work look authentic, just as forgers have done throughout history. I think we should stop using the term fake news. If it is a lie, call it a lie. If it is propaganda, information slanted to achieve a goal, call it propaganda. Fake news is a muddled term. And it muddles our thinking.
- Joseph B. Treaster, professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Management, School of Communication 

When current administration members – including the President – use that term, what do they mean? 

When members of the current administration use the term, they are referring to real news they don't agree with. And their strategy is working – you say something enough and some people will begin to believe it's true. If Donald Trump calls a front page story about his mood since the midterms being bleak "disgusting fake news," his followers will say that the media is "disgusting." Ironically, it's the Trump administration that is releasing fake documents to support its positions. After CNN reporter Jim Acosta was banned from the White House, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders knowingly tweeted a doctored video attempting to make Acosta look aggressive toward an intern. Side-by-side comparisons of actual video and the tweeted video show the latter had been sped up at times to make it look like the reporter was karate-chopping the intern when she was trying to take the mic away and the reporter's comment – "Pardon me, ma'am," had been edited out. That's pure propaganda that any reputable media outlet would never knowingly publish.

- Heidi Carr, lecturer, School of Communication 

Is social media and the Internet an easy target to manipulate news? Why? 

Social media and the Internet allows for easy creation and publication of unverified newsworthy content. Readers often fail to detect fake news and share it with their online network. Fake news can then reach more people more quickly than was possible in the past. The rapid and widespread sharing of false information online may cause considerable harm to individuals and society.

- Barbara Millet, research assistant professor, and Cong Li, associate dean for graduate studies, School of Communication

Social media is everything in the media world today – it's how someone creating a fake story in Macedonia or deep in the woods of Maine can write a made-up story and see it go viral within an hour. It’s just “let me see what the suckers will buy into today” and poof, 10,000 clicks later people are calling Chelsea Clinton and Michelle Obama trailer trash on Facebook for giving Donald Trump the middle finger – which I hasten to clarify they did not do. How many times have we clicked "Like" on a post without really reading it? Or shared something that fit our beliefs?Certainly, there have been improvements since 2016, such as Facebook, Apple, Spotify and YouTube banning Alex Jones and other conspiracy content, but a lie going viral is just a click away.

- Heidi Carr, lecturer, School of Communication 

How can we as consumers of news weed the wheat from the chaff?

Check the source. It is important to evaluate news credibility by inspecting the source. Is the news being provided by a legitimate publisher? Is the author a professional journalist?Inspect the quality of the content. Spelling and grammatical errors are red flags. Additionally, fake news headlines are often in all caps and tend to use excessive punctuation.Read beyond the headlines. Most people only read the headlines. But what is the whole story? Reading beyond the headline may reveal clues about the legitimacy of the story. Don’t rely on solely social endorsements or commentary. A story being “viewed,” “liked,” “shared,” and “commented” by many online users does not necessarily mean that the story is real. Fake news may get large numbers of “views,” “likes,” “shares,” and “comments” on social media.Don’t share fake news. Fake news spreads quickly and widely, mostly because people “share” it. A straightforward way of reducing the negative effect of fake news is not to share it with others.

 - Barbara Millet, research assistant professor, and Cong Li, associate dean for graduate studies, School of Communication

To protect yourself against fake news, evaluate everything you read or hear. Does the information seem credible? Does the publication or broadcaster advocate a certain point of view? Look for a second and third source on the same report. People who devote their lives to journalism do not create fake news. They sometimes make mistakes. When they become aware of their mistakes they correct them. A few journalists have created hoaxes. When they’ve been discovered, they’ve been driven out of journalism.

To find out what’s going on in the world, try to set aside your own biases. Absorb the facts in a story first, then think about the impact. Don’t regard a story as going after someone. Regard it as a report on what happened to someone, or what someone did. That’s how traditional journalists report a story. They find out what happened and report that. They can be sued for libel if they set out deliberately to harm someone with a false report.

- Joseph B. Treaster, professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Management, School of Communication

What are the implications for our society if fake news is treated like real news? 

There have already been repercussions. Trump's "enemy of the people" rhetoric is egging on foreign dictators to crack down on free expression. Earlier this year, Egypt passed a "fake news" law that allows the country to prosecute any journalist it accuses of writing false information and Singapore is now working on a similar law. Vietnam has begun fining news websites and shutting them down on charges that they were spreading false news about the government. Kazakhstan officials have raided a magazine's office. Russia passed a law that allows the government to shut down any website that posts defamatory information about public officials, like Vladimir Putin. Malaysia has convicted foreign journalists for criticizing the government on social media. Look at what happened to Washington Postcorrespondent Jamal Khashoggi. He was killed and dismembered after writing stories critical of the Saudi monarchy.

- Heidi Carr, lecturer, School of Communication

Distorted information is harmful to all of us. It complicates decision-making. It creates uncertainty, confusion, and frustration. Some people may decide they can’t trust anything they hear or read and just dropout, cruise along in their own world. That is bad for democracy. It puts us all at risk.

- Joseph B. Treaster, professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Management, School of Communication

There is very little scientific evidence on the impact of fake news on society. However, it is widely believed that widespread disinformation causes considerable harm to individuals and society. Fake news has the potential to breed distrust and induce biased perceptions and behaviors.

- Barbara Millet, research assistant professor, and Cong Li, associate dean for graduate studies, School of Communication