Fake news isn’t just stuff that happens to be out there. It’s there for a reason and it’s usually wrong by design. It is closely associated with misinformation, which is wrong but not necessarily malicious (at least at first), and disinformation, which is intended to mislead. The boundaries between these things are fuzzy and they occasionally overlap. Some fake news doesn’t conveniently or completely fit in to one category or remain in one category.
Nevertheless, a basic typology is still useful in order to understand the different patterns of motivation involved.
- First, we will suggest a typology based on who creates and disseminates fake news, why they do it and what they are hoping to achieve.
- Secondly, we will suggest some reasons why the audiences of the above choose to believe it.
- Thirdly, we will put forward a method of critical analysis which will help you assess any organised body of information you suspect has been faked.
This is the simplest pattern and it isn’t really motivated as such – at least at first. It can start as a simple error, mistranslation or misinterpretation of the facts, although others may pick the ball up and run with it if they see an advantage in doing so. So, in the hands of others it can become fake news. It can be relatively easy to disprove. The trouble is that people who want to believe it will often continue to do so, whatever the power and authority of the denial. Perversely, they might interpret denial as a “cover-up” and, therefore, proof of its veracity.
2. Fake News: Simple Malice
We call this simple malice because, in the words of The Godfather “it’s business, not personal”. Some of the producers of fake news do it for a living, or at least as a serious hobby. They simply make up stories about public figures, institutions, governments, businesses and the like – often chosen at random. They know their audience and they know what appeals to them. They want to attract followers, which is empowering, and traffic to their websites, which can lead to advertising revenue.
Their pay-off can be a combination of money, power and fun. The aim is to get an audience, but they aren’t usually driven by an urgent personal or ideological need to convince or be believed. They are spoilers, not campaigners.
3. Fake News: Targeted Malice
In this type the perpetrators are campaigners and their targets are not random. They are people, organisations, groupings or governments and they become the victims of a deliberate and purposeful campaign designed to discredit them for some reason.
The archetype of this form is the dedicated and extremist hate criminal. But a less extreme version is the propagandist. This type is usually concerned with influencing and shaping public opinion on a wider basis. Propaganda is defined as the use of deliberately biased or misleading information used to promote a political cause or a certain point of view. For both, their pay-off is serving their cause. They want, as a rule, to be believed and have what they say accepted as a truth by their intended audience.
4. Disinformation (Deception)
Deception is using disinformation as a deliberate, and even strategic, weapon in a wider campaign to get an advantage over a perceived enemy or rival. It has two discernible functions. The first is to sow discord, cause upset, annoy, distract and deflect. The second can be to mask their own true intentions. In both cases the aim is to maintain the initiative, keep the enemy or rival off-balance and perhaps win over any wavering middle-grounders who might be potential allies.
Like targeted malice, it works on the existential principle that what harms your enemy does you good. And remember that deception doesn’t have to convince. Most of the time it is enough for it to create doubt and uncertainty. But it does have to be clever. It’s never about floating one isolated story by way of one medium. It tends to be multi-layered and multi-media.
As you can see, these 4 basic types are described in ascending order of sophistication – in terms of aims, techniques, subtlety, skill and resource.
Reasons for Believing?
Some people like it. They might even choose to believe it when they know it’s possibly fake, in a willing suspension of disbelief. And once it gets a grip it can be a very stubborn thing. Why?
- It can be more interesting and exciting than real news;
- It comes with an aura of privileged, insider information which is empowering;
- It can seem to mean “knowing” something which “they” (the authorities) don’t want you to know and which most other people don’t yet know or recognise;
- It appeals to the alienated, the cynical and the suspicious. It’s a paradox that such people are often very well connected, at least by virtual means, to supportive cohorts of the similar;
- It can appeal to those who want an intangible, possibly abstract thing like COVID-19 to have some “agency” – i.e. an identifiable and human cause, origin and mechanism;
- Some people like simplicity and reductionism. Messy, complex and ambiguous reality can be frustrating compared with the simplicity of, say, a conspiracy theory;
- Although fake news has always existed, social media means there is more of it and it has fewer protective filters than most conventional media;
- It capitalises on folk wisdom of the “no smoke without fire” variety;
- It draws endorsement from social media’s use of statistics to create a superficial “kinship of ideas” – a form of belonging;
- It also capitalises on fear and a sense of powerlessness, which amplifies all of the above.
Tools for Judging: source and content
So, how can you extend this understanding into a set of tools for identifying fake news? Intelligence operators have always had this same basic problem; what should I believe and how can I test it?
Sometimes, you can’t prove that a piece of information is true or otherwise. But you can assess, grade it and then make an informed judgement as to its overall and probable reliability. There are many different variations on this theme, but the basic method is something like what follows.
Information is assessed on the reputability of the source, and the believability of the content.
All news comes to you from a source, and the reputation of a source depends on four dimensions. These are:
- Is the source authentic? To what extent is it known and respected, with a record for accuracy, truth and good faith?
- Is the source trustworthy? Is it reliable and accurate all the time, most of the time, some of the time or seldom?
- Is the source competent? Is it information that the source would credibly have, or be able to gain, access to?
The fourth dimension is the extent of your doubt – and you must be doubtful by default. Is it a minor doubt (it could be an honest mistake by a well-meaning source) or more serious doubt (like deliberate misinformation by someone with an agenda of their own)?
Be especially suspicious when a non-established or unusual source “breaks” a big story. Also, bear in mind that most established news sources and agencies tend not to deliberately lie. But they do report the facts selectively and they do have institutional standpoints they tend to favour. Being both truthful and thoroughly biased is not actually that difficult and it complicates the picture somewhat! Which reminds us that fake news is not an entirely new thing, although it has certainly been accelerated by the rise of social media. It also reminds us that some otherwise official and otherwise legitimate sources are sometimes involved in creating and maintaining fake news.
To assess the content of the story or the information, consider:
- To what extent is it logical and does it make sense? In other words, is it instinctively credible information?
- Is it consistent with other sources and types of information, news or activity?
- Is it confirmed or contradicted by any other source?
Referring to both source and content, it might be impossible to make an assessment for want of any background, context or evidence. This does happen! In that case, it might be true but there’s no way of knowing – so it’s not safe to believe it or base any judgement or action on it. One good import from the language of the scam here is the adage about that which is too good to be true.
Intelligence agencies use versions of the above approach but also use detailed criteria to give sources and content alphabetical or numerical values, leading to a combined “score” – much like a risk assessment. But for our purposes, the questions identified above are good enough.
They give you a “critical thinking” test that you can apply to any piece of news or information – whether it comes from a news agency (state, private or somewhere in between), social media or any other source. We call it a critical thinking test because what it boils down to is a habit or discipline of restless scepticism and purposeful checking. Whatever methods you apply, if you develop and use that discipline you probably won’t go far wrong.