Rachel Katharine Sterken, Jessica Pepp and Eliot Michaelson
What Fake News Is and Why that Matters
On March 4th, 2016 the National Enquirer reported that Justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered by a high-end prostitute under the direction of the CIA. The story kicked around online for a bit before largely fading away. A short while later, on October 30th, 2016 a Twitter account purportedly belonging to a Jewish New York lawyer, but which regularly posted antisemitic and white supremacist propaganda, claimed that the NYPD had found emails which confirmed the existence of a secret pedophilia ring run by Hilary Clinton and other Democratic law-makers out of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC. Thus began the saga of ‘Pizzagate’, a story which generated a large and sustained online following, and which ultimately played a role in the broader disinformation campaign which helped nudge Donald Trump into the US Presidency.
These two cases nicely illustrate what we think of as the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ styles of fake news. Fake news itself is anything but a new phenomenon; the oldest case of it of which we are aware dates back to 1782, when Benjamin Franklin forged a supplement to a real newspaper, the Boston Independent Chronicle. The supplement included a letter purporting to be from an English militia captain, which detailed a practice of paying Iroquois and Seneca warriors for the scalps of American colonists. But there was neither such a letter nor such a practice. Rather, Franklin concocted this story—possibly for political gain, or possibly just out of boredom—while serving in France as a commissioner for the newly-formed United States. He then sent the forged supplement to several friends, hinting at its fakeness but also suggesting that it should make its way to the British press, which it ultimately did.
We believe there to be a single thing—fake news—that all of these stories are instances of. Of course, one of these stories was distributed via Twitter, another via modern print production in addition to a website, and the third via a much more old-fashioned set of printing techniques combined with the 18th century post. But those differences are irrelevant, we think, to the question of whether these stories count as fake news. They are extremely relevant, however, to the question of how we might go about trying to stop the spread of fake news, and to why the spread of fake news poses a significant danger to contemporary societies in a way that it did not in the 18th century.
Why, though, should we think that these stories—born of very different social circumstances—are all instances of a single type of thing? In his paper, ‘Stop Talking About Fake News!’ (2019), Joshua Habgood-Coote presses this worry, along with several others. The most salient of those others, for our discussion at least, is that an over-emphasis on trying to define fake news has led researchers to attend too narrowly on this phenomenon when trying to address the question of how to resist the pernicious effects of disinformation in general. While we agree with Habgood-Coote on this point, we think that one plausible approach to this latter question is to try to tackle different sorts of disinformation individually, rather than assuming that what works for the case of fake news, for instance, is likely to work equally well in the case of a different type of disinformation—say, propaganda. We’ll return to this issue below, once we’ve made the case for a straightforward and plausible account of what fake news is.
We believe there to be a single thing—fake news—that all of these stories are instances of.
Let’s start by reviewing two earlier suggestions that have inspired us, even though we don’t fully agree with them. First, consider Regina Rini’s proposal in her paper, ‘Fake News and Partisan Epistemology’ (2017):
A fake news story is one that purports to describe events in the real world, typically by mimicking the conventions of traditional media reportage, yet is known by its creators to be significantly false, and is transmitted with the two goals of being widely re-transmitted and of deceiving at least some of its audience. (E-45)
Like Rini, we take it that fake news stories tend to mimic the conventions of traditional media reportage. We disagree, however, with Rini’s claim that they must be known by their creators to be significantly false. The problem with this claim is that we can easily imagine a version of the Pizzagate case in which the author of the initial tweets actually believed that everything they tweeted was true: suffering from some serious mental health issues, we might suppose, the instigator came to believe that they alone had managed to crack an elaborate code in Clinton’s emails which revealed the true depths of her depravity. In such a version of the case—which might be the real version for all we know—the instigator’s beliefs would have been ill-founded, but genuine nonetheless. We cannot see how this would serve to undermine the Pizzagate story’s status as fake news.
Second, consider a definition drawn from Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse’s paper, ‘On ‘Fake News’’ (2018):
Fake news characterizes the activities of institutions that pose as journalistic which by design feed and codify the antecedent biases of a pre-selected audience by exploiting their vulnerabilities (cognitive and otherwise), all with a view towards facilitating some decidedly political objective.
There’s definitely something right about the idea that producers of fake news pose as journalistic. But again, we don’t see any reason to think that it’s necessary for some story to count as fake news that its producers have in mind a pre-selected audience whose biases and vulnerabilities they intend to play on, let alone with a view to facilitating a political end. Granted, this description does fit the case of Benjamin Franklin rather well, and perhaps also the National Enquirer case. But, again, it doesn’t fit the fleshed-out version of the Pizagate case we sketched above, in which the author believes they’re spreading true information. An understanding of fake news that threatens to rule out one of the most notorious instances of that phenomenon in recent years doesn’t seem particularly accurate or useful.
From the outside, it will often be difficult to tell whether a false story (or one you believe to be false) was the result of an innocent mistake, sloppy reporting, or just a complete disregard for standard journalistic practices.
These earlier attempts at understanding fake news have focused on the intentions of creators in order to separate fake news from more innocent false reporting. As Don Fallis and Kay Mathieson put the basic idea in their paper, ‘Fake News is Counterfeit News’ (2021), fake news is fake. And fakes are generated not by chance, but rather by intentional acts. The earlier attempts to define fake news that we have just looked at offer different ways of describing the type of intentional act that is required to generate a fake news story.
In contrast to this, we prefer to identify fake news not via the sorts of acts (if any) that generate it, but rather via its effects (see our ‘What’s New About Fake News?’, 2019). So, we think a story counts as fake news if and only if: (i) it achieves broad spread; (ii) it is treated by those spreading it as having been produced via standard journalistic practices; and (iii) it has not, in fact, been produced via standard journalistic practices.
Of course, the notions of broad spread, treating as, and standard journalistic practice all need further clarification. To do this, let us revisit our initial cases. Does the National Enquirer story about Scalia count as fake news? Well, it achieved relatively broad spread via the Enquirer’s distribution network. Was it produced via standard journalistic practices? We presume not. That is, we presume that the Enquirer did not consult multiple sources with direct knowledge of the affair, that they failed to review the police evidence, etc.—just a few of the things we take to be characteristic of standard journalistic practice in the present day. Was the story treated by those spreading it (i.e., the publisher and distributors) as being produced by standard journalistic practices? Although this might not be obvious, we take the answer to be ‘yes’. Consider that the Enquirer is made to look like a legitimate newspaper and is generally placed in news-sellers next to perfectly standard newspapers. It is not treated as a news parody, placed alongside humor magazines rather than newspapers.
How does our account fare with respect to our version of the Pizzagate story? The story clearly achieved broad spread, and we assume that taking oneself to have cracked a secret email code without corroborating evidence cuts against standard journalistic practices. So again, the real question is whether it was treated by those spreading it as being the product of standard journalistic practices. While the spread of news via Twitter is relatively new and the norms for this activity are probably still in flux, we again think the answer to this question is ‘yes’. In particular, the fact that this story made it from Twitter to websites like Breitbart, which explicitly present themselves as news websites, tells strongly in favor of this answer.
Finally, consider the Franklin case: here, it is clear that Franklin simply made up the story. And the story was clearly treated as news by the British press, which reprinted the ‘letter’ both in part and in its entirety. So the story achieved broad spread, was treated as the product of standard journalistic practices, but was not in fact such. One upshot of our account that the Franklin case helps to bring out is that a story’s being fake news is a contingent matter: had Franklin’s forged supplement simply been ignored by the British press, it would never have become widely shared and, by our definition, would not have counted as fake news. Rather, we would count it as an attempt to generate a fake news story.
[I]n contrast to other types of disinformation, such as propaganda, fake news can be identified without having to wade into the murky waters of figuring out what the producer intended.
Our effects-based account of fake news, we think, captures a good deal of how most people would classify news stories as either real news or fake news. It also leaves plenty of room for disagreement. From the outside, it will often be difficult to tell whether a false story (or one you believe to be false) was the result of an innocent mistake, sloppy reporting, or just a complete disregard for standard journalistic practices. This opacity is part of the appeal of partisan charges of fake news. It’s not always clear whether standard journalistic practices were followed in producing a given story. And in a sufficiently partisan environment, people may already be so convinced of the superiority of their ‘side’ that they are happy to infer that any report to the contrary must not have followed standard journalistic practices.
We promised earlier that we would clarify how our proposed definition might figure into a response to the broader problem of disinformation. First, let us say why we think fake news is now a bigger part of this problem than it once was: it’s now far easier for stories to spread, via social media, than it once was, via the presses combined with word of mouth. So it is much easier for condition (i) of our account to be fulfilled. The infrastructure of news distribution has altered radically in the past few decades, undercutting the role that publishers once played in checking the quality of stories that would be well-positioned to achieve broad spread (which is not to say that they always played this role well). Social media companies, in contrast, have staunchly resisted taking on such a role. If we are looking for ways to reduce the spread of disinformation, pushing for them to do so looks like an obvious place to start.
Second, in contrast to other types of disinformation, such as propaganda, fake news can be identified without having to wade into the murky waters of figuring out what the producer intended. Consider one element of Jason Stanley’s prominent account of propaganda from his book How Propaganda Works: propaganda aims to cut off rational debate. We take it to be extraordinarily difficult for outside parties to definitively determine the aims of others. This makes propaganda a slippery target for regulation. In contrast, it would be costly, but entirely possible, for social media companies to hire trained journalists to check the evidence of any story achieving sufficiently broad spread on their platforms that had been flagged as suspect. Given that these companies have effectively captured the profits of media publishers while avoiding almost all the responsibilities those publishers used to bear, this might constitute a reasonable first step towards reducing the impact of one particularly harmful type of disinformation. At the same time, it would not substantially impair the kind of free speech that we, like many others, take to be essential to a well-functioning society.
Aikin, Scott F., & Talisse, R. (2018). On ‘Fake News.’ 3 Quarks Daily, May 21, 2018.
Fallis, D., & Mathiesen, K. (2019). Fake news is counterfeit news. Inquiry, 1-20.
Habgood-Coote, J. (2019). Stop talking about fake news!. Inquiry, 62(9-10), 1033-1065.
Pepp, J., Michaelson, E., & Sterken, R. K. (2019a). What's new about fake news. J. Ethics & Soc. Phil., 16, 67.
Rini, R. (2017). Fake news and partisan epistemology. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 27(2), E-43.
Stanley, J. (2015). How Propaganda Works. Princeton University Press.
Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.