Fake news are false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019).

Fake news, whilst existing for centuries, has become a relevant topic in recent years. The 2016 US Presidential Election was a particular event which created thousands of fake news articles and sparked many debates on the topic.

The basics: What are the types of fake news?

Fake news can generally be reduced down to 5 categories:

  1. Clickbait – This is a form of fake news that has developed since the invention of the internet. Clickbait generally takes on the form of exaggerated headlines, Youtube titles, etc. that will increase “clicks” and visitors to a website, video or social media post. This may also create extra revenue for a content creator.
Examples of clickbait Youtube titles and article headline

2. Propaganda РPropaganda is a systematic effort to manipulate other people’s beliefs, attitudes, or actions by means of symbols (words, gestures, banners, monuments, music, clothing, insignia, hairstyles, designs on coins and postage stamps, and so forth) (Britannica, 2019). Propaganda is generally linked with politics, however, it can created and used by anyone for any cause.

3. Satire/Parody – There are multiple websites and social media sites around the world that publish only “fake news” for entertainment purposes. In Australia, an example of this is The Betoota Advocate. Other examples include The Onion, an American site, and Waterford Whispers, an Irish site.

Two articles recently posted by The Betoota Advocate.

4. “Sloppy” Journalism – This is usually a mistake, either information used for an article has been incorrect, or a journalist has not conducted enough in depth research. This, in turn, misleads and influences audiences.

5. Misleading Headlines – This is similar to clickbait. A sensationalised heading and small snippet of an article can circulate through social media at a fast pace. Whilst the article may include true information, the headline may suggest something that is inaccurate. This is particularly used by Australian magazines such as New Idea.

A recent headline published by New Idea.

The 2016 US Presidential Election.

Fake news played a major role in the 2016 US Presidential Election, particularly for the campaigns of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton. During the election campaigns, an estimated 115 pro-Trump fake stories were shared over 30 million times, and 41 pro-Clinton fake stories were shared 7.6 million times on Facebook (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017).

One of many “pro-Hillary” fake news posts that circulated on Facebook during the 2016 election.

Whilst fake news may have impacted on the election results, there were other dangerous side-effects to the circulation of these stories. Pro-Trump fake stories emerged during the election campaign stating Hillary Clinton ran a child sex-slave ring out of a popular pizzeria in Washington, D.C, this became known as ‘Pizzagate‘. To some, this may seem extremely far-fetched, however, Edgar Maddison Welch, a father-of-two from North Carolina, believed it to be completely accurate.

Edgar Maddinson Welch after the attack

On the 4th of December 2016, Welch fired 3 shots from a AR-15 rifle inside the ‘Comet Ping Pong’ pizzeria. Luckily, no one was injured in the attack. Welch was sentenced to 4 years in prison and ordered to pay $5,744.33 in damages to the restaurant. Although the fake story was debunked, Comet Ping Pong have continued to be the victim of attacks by believers of the story, receiving threatening phone calls and experiencing an arson attack on the 25th of January 2019.

Fake news in Australia.

The Labor Party were targeted by fake news in the recent Federal election through a fake media release claiming that Labor would reintroduce “death duties” or inheritance taxes. The fake release was apparently written by the Victorian Housing Action Network, a body that was confirmed as fake by the executive director of the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute, Michael Fotheringham (SMH, 2019). The release was reportedly posted by Essential Media, a communications and research firm, however, Essential Media’s executive director, Peter Lewis, labelled it to be “fake news”.

“We know there are a range of bizarre tricks being used to undermine the democratic process but this seems to hit a new level of sophistication where a fake media release promotes fake news.”

Peter Lewis, Essential Media executive director

So, what does all of this mean for journalism?

The gaining awareness of fake news within Australia’s population has created a higher distrust and concern for the media and journalism. The Digital News Report: Australia 2018, published by the University of Canberra, revealed that 73% of Australians consuming news had experienced a form of fake news, and a further 40% of these people had experienced it in the form of “poor journalism”.

In Australia, the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalist Code of Ethics creates a guideline for practising journalists. It states that:

“Journalists commit themselves to honesty, fairness, independence and respect for the rights of others”

MEAA Journalist Code of Ethics

Under the code, journalists must “report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts”. They must also “not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis”. People are also able to report journalists to MEAA if they believe they have breached the Code of Ethics.

Fake News Checklist

  1. Be critical of all media. Is the site publishing the information reliable? Are multiple sites sharing the same information?
  2. If you are unsure, use sites such as Fact Check or Snopes to fact check any information shared on social media or by news corporations.
  3. Do not share information across social media if there is a chance it is fake news.
  4. Are your own biases on a topic affecting your judgement?
  5. Check the date the information/article was posted. Is it current and relevant?
  6. Is it too good to be true? Check that it wasn’t posted as satire.