The origins of fake news

The year 2016 has finally ended and we look back at a year full of scandals, highly emotional election campaigns in the US, the UK and Austria, and a political landscape more polarized than it has been for a long time. Especially, so called “fake news“ has had quite an important role in the events of the last year.

However, there are quite a lot of misconceptions about fake news. Fake news does not include one-sided or cherry-picked articles, or other articles that portray some sort of part-truth. Such articles are of course a problem in themselves, but they have been prominent and widely used since the beginning of journalism. Fake news stories basically depict out-right lies, such as events that have never happened, faked interviews and statements or other forms of pseudo journalism.

A symptom of post-truth-politics?

Fake news often gets associated with post-truth-politics. Both are relatively new words that became popular this year, because both are built on the same theory: confirmation bias. That means that we (and yes, all of us) have a tendency to search for information that confirms our own pre-existing opinions. This tendency explains why people believe and share fake news, even though they might be nothing more than pleasant lies.

Due to the importance of this subject in 2016, the Oxford Dictionary has chosen the word “post-truth” as its word of the year. In its official statement the Oxford Dictionary wrote that they have chosen this word because there has been a spike of frequency this year in the context of the EU-Referendum in the UK and in the US presidential election. One might also want to add the Austrian presidential election to the list.

Fake news and the internet

Usage of the word post-truth might be new, but the concept behind it is not. To put it simply, miscommunication in its various forms, such as confirmation bias, is as old as communication itself. However one might think, that because we now have access to modern forms of providing facts (i.e. the internet) fake-facts and fake news should be much easier to disprove.

But the opposite effect is the case, fake news simply spreads easier. That could have something to do with the fact, that most people still don’t do their fact-checking on the internet, but instead trust anything that sounds in some way reliable and serious.

The online-casino that is writing history

A recent example of fake-news, that is currently making its way through the Facebook feeds of thousands of Austrians, is the story about the grandiose new online casino, which awards new players with special bonuses. According to the “tribune news now” and the “spin news” the Austrian financial investor Hans Peter Haselsteiner has already invested 11 million Euro into the company and the casino is even a breaking news story in international TV. Unsurprisingly, everyone who believed this story will face a major disappointment. The casino is not awarding new players at all and like any other casino is just trying to make a profit.

So what can we do about this?

Perhaps we need more awareness of fake news, like don’t believe any sources ending in, check out the “about us” pages of blogs and words written with caps lock are usually also an indicator of unreliable news sites. Additionally, a simple Google search or a double check in other forms of media helps you to spot fake news on your own. Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College in Massachusetts, has put together a handy public Google Doc with tips for analyzing news sites.

As you probably would have guessed, the best way to avoid fake news is to just simply stick to reliable sources and don’t just click through the newsfeed on Facebook.

For the next couple of weeks we will publish ideas worth spreading in cooperation with the Wienvestigativ initiative of the journalism students of the University of Vienna. This blog post is written by guest author Gregor Hutter.

Cover image by Unsplash

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