The now-popular buzzword “fake news” gets thrown around a lot today by many different players. In fact, it has become so central to our current political issues that Oxford Dictionaries designated “post-truth” as the international word of the year in 2016. But what does “fake news” actually mean? For a term with so much importance, there is surprisingly little agreement on its definition.

Scholarship thus far has primarily focused on breaking down different meanings of the term based on distinguishing between “truthful” and “false” information. This has most commonly been done by delineating between the concepts of misinformation and disinformation. The key difference between these two terms is the intentionality behind them. Specifically, misinformation is typically understood as false information that is spread unintentionally, such as a social media user sharing a false story or rumor without realizing that it is untrue. Disinformation, in contrast, is information that is intentionally false or misleading. For example, a political group spreading false information in order to influence public opinion, or a website creating fake news articles in order to attract clicks (and ad revenue). This could include everything from state-sponsored Russian hackers attempting to manipulate election outcomes in the United States, to the political economy of online platforms like Facebook  and YouTube which creates perverse incentives for profit.

However, an important recent study by Farkas and Schou (2018) titled “Fake News as a Floating Signifier: Hegemony, Antagonism and the Politics of Falsehood” argues that this focus on “fake” versus “true” news misses the bigger picture. The term “fake news” is in fact being used as a “discursive signifier”; that is to say, it is a linguistic weapon used to delegitimize political opponents which has become central to a battle between political ideologies competing over the definition of our social reality.

The authors of this study exhaustively analyze five months of articles, from November 2016 to March 2017, published by American and British newspapers and magazines, including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Conversation, CNN, Monday Note, Business Insider, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Buzzfeed News, Mashable, Slate, Gizmodo and Time Magazine, which in some way reference “fake news.” They find that during this time period (from Election Day to Inauguration Day), usage of the term “fake news” went from being marginal to nearly ubiquitous.

 

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FIGURE 1: Global user search interest in “fake news” on Google (Farkas and Schou 2018)

 

According to the study, “This pattern is no coincidence, as the term was mobilized to critique and delegitimize political opponents from the outset, acting as a key component in a political power struggle between the American left and right.” On one side, a variety of journalists and scholars in the news stories attributed “fake news” to right-wing partisanship, arguing that right-wing voters were more susceptible to false information and irrationality. Indeed, there have been a variety of studies which have shown that individual social media users who are politically to the right of the spectrum share fake news stories, such as the type created by the Russian Internet Research Agency, with greater frequency than do those on the left. On the other side is the now-common refrain from President Trump and his supporters, accusing mainstream media outlets like CNN and The New York Times of being “fake news.” They define and construct fake news as “a symptom of a fundamental, democratic problem, namely that mainstream media companies are biased and deliberately attempting to promote liberal agendas instead of representing ‘The People.'”

Put simply, this study finds that “fake news” means different things in different contexts. Defining true and fake has become more about promoting or attacking political sides in a highly polarized conflict of ideologies. It is not so much that facts no longer matter, or that we are in a “post-truth” era, but rather that we are in a political climate of “hyper-factuality” concerned obsessively with defining what counts as factual, and what counts as false, not for the purposes of truth, but for political traction.

For some people reading this, it may seem like a “no kidding” conclusion, but we cannot underestimate how important it is to be able to verify such claims through systematic, peer-reviewed data and analysis. That is how science works; otherwise, it is just anecdotal. Most of all, this study is a crucial wake-up call that we, as a public, as journalists, as academics, and as policymakers, need to understand how “fake news” has become a weapon within competing political discourses and that continuing to use it as such further undermines confidence in our social institutions and democracy and increases the already problematic polarization of our public sphere.

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