The term ‘fake news’ has become ubiquitous in media coverage. While it certainly has its uses, it doesn’t do a very good job at describing the full breadth of the concept. What we call ‘fake news’ refers to news that has been entirely fabricated or made up. Snopes is one of the websites that keeps track of stories like this.
Examples are not hard to find: headlines like “Australia to forcibly vaccinate citizens via chemtrails”, “Melania Trump bans White House staff from taking flu shot” and “Muslim doctor refuses to treat Christian girl on board a flight” are but a Google search away. However, a news item doesn’t have to be entirely made up to be insidious or misleading. To capture the broader scope of the various ways to mislead audiences, we prefer to use the term ‘disinformation’. Unlike ‘misinformation’, which is simply information that is incorrect, disinformation involves the intent to deceive. Propaganda, then, is disinformation with an explicit or implicit political agenda.
Disinformation is commonly used by a variety of parties, including some governments, to influence public opinion. Social media are a particularly fertile breeding ground for such attempts. To give an example: around 47 million Twitter accounts (approximately 15%) are bots. Many of these bots are used to spread political disinformation, for example during election campaigns. Recent examples of influential disinformation campaigns include the MacronLeaks during the French presidential elections in 2017, the Pizzagate controversy during the 2016 US elections, the various “alternative” explanations surrounding the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in July 2014 and the rumors circulating in Sweden about the country’s cooperation with NATO.
Disinformation works because many people fail to recognize false information when it’s presented to them. For example, a recent British study indicated that only 4% of participants was able to tell fake news from real. In some ways, this is not surprising: people are bombarded with excessive amounts of information as they scroll through their news feeds or social media page. Much of this information was shared by friends, whom people tend to trust to tell them the truth. A fake or disinformative news article shared and shown to someone by a friend is therefore more likely to be seen as trustworthy.