Fake news – definitions and characterization

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Fake news – a definition

“Recent political events – notably the controversially close Brexit referendum in the U.K. and narrow win of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential election of 2016 – have led to a wave of interest in the phenomenon of “fake news“, which is widely believed to have played a significant role in shaping the outcome of both political contests.”[1]

If we want to understand the distinctive aspects of the recent onslaught of fabricated and misleading information that passes itself off as news, we must first understand some of the core epistemic functions of news. The emphasis has been on their reliability as a source of factual information for the consumer. Consumers of news media are the recipients of a specialized form of testimony, and it is understood that consumers of news also incur epistemic obligations. It is assumed that competent readers can distinguish between factual reports and opinion pieces, and will use the same basic screening methods (e.g., for errors and inconsistencies) they would be using when evaluating the testimony of a trusted and competent interlocutor. Naively accepting reports without further analysis comes dangerously, trust in putative epistemic authorities is by necessity provisional, and basic critical questions – concerning the credibility of the source, its reliability, motives, interests, consistency and track record – should never be entirely suppressed.

News media – serving as the source of much of what we take ourselves to know. Without reliance on curated news reports we would know precious little about what goes on in other countries, about the world of politics, or even about what the latest sports results are. Of course, communicating reliable information is not their only social function because even consumers do not always turn to the news for knowledge and information only, but also for entertainment and diversion. The most important epistemic function of the news is to furnish us with reliable factual information.

“In addition to acquiring specific beliefs by accepting the corresponding news reports, we also rely on the news media for overall coverage. If our environment’s epistemic coverage is deficient, we will no longer be reliably apprised of significant changes in the world around us, and whatever knowledge may have been acquired at the initial point of belief formation will gradually erode. “[2] To this way the news provides us with epistemic coverage, which in turn safeguards existing knowledge by keeping us abreast of changes in the world.

Traditionally, the news has been presented in a fixed and, aggregate form, as a news bulletin of a certain duration, or a newspaper edition with a certain number of pages. This necessitates not only tough editorial choices regarding what to include, and what to leave out, but also presupposes the knowledge of the target audience – since, for obvious commercial reasons, the selection of topics must have a sufficiently broad appeal. The consumer, in turn, can infer from the selection of articles of news segments what other people in their community tend to be interested in. As the journalist Stefan Schulz puts it, “Newspapers inform people about what information other people seek out when they wish to learn about world.”[3]

Historically, the newspaper industry has been no stranger to bias, distortion, manipulation and outright fabrication. As Robert Love puts it, “In the early days of American journalism, newspapers trafficked in intentional, entertaining hoaxes.” “More recently, CNN and The NEW York Times were used by the U.S. military as unwriting co-conspirators in spreading false information, a tactic known as psychological operations”“, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The faking of news stories has been around for a long time, and every iteration of technological advancement, has unleashed new possibilities of deception and fabrication. “[4]  „Fakers”“ usually used a reputable member of the community such as a doctor, dentist, architect, or other professional or businessperson man, who, for money, would corroborate the story to any reporter that the local paper might send to investigate in bona fides. “„Fake news” then involved deception, not only of the consumer but also of the middle-man: the editor of the local paper, who “ now constantly on the alert for fake stories, is often deceived, and sends on of the reporters of his own paper to investigate the matter”, only for the local reporter to encounter the planted report. As the art historian Mark Jones puts it, with some hyperbole: “Each society, each generation, fakes the thing it covets most. ”Fake news typically mimic the “look and feel” of mainstream sources to garner credibility and for some consumers, fake news appears to swamp traditional news sources, even subverting the latter's claim to authoritativeness. This seems to be the overt goal every time Donald Trump uses his Twitter account to denounce a critical news story as, in his trademark all-caps, “„FAKE NEWS”“, which he did a total of 73 times between 10 December 2016 and 24 July 2017 alone. Most of the time, the label is applied not to specific, but indiscriminately to news organizations such as CNN, MSNBC, or The New York Times.

The view that fake news could be an effective tool for promoting media literacy, no longer is it reserved for sophisticated-and ultimately self-critical media formats that aim to educate their viewers. Instead, it has come to be associated with sources that spread falsehoods by manipulating their consumer's emotions and tapping into deeply held partisan beliefs.

[1] Gelfert, A., Fake News: A Definition

[2] Godler Y, Reich Z, Miller B. Social epistemology as a new paradigm for journalism and media studies. New Media & Society. 2020;22(2):213-229. doi:10.1177/1461444819856922

[3] Gelfert, A., Fake News: A Definition

[4] Gelfert, A., Fake News: A Definition


  1. Gelfert, A., Fake News: A Definition. URL accessed on 23 March 2021, https://www.academia.edu/36258758/Fake_News_A_Definition
  2. Allcott, Hunt and Matthew Gentzkow. 2017. Social media and fake news in the 2016 election. Journal of Economic Perspectives 31(2): 211-236.
  3. Bakir, Vian and Andrew McStay. 2017. Fake news and the economy of emotions: problems, causes, solutions. Digital Journalism (DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1345645).
  4. Berger, Jonah. 2011. Arousal increases social transmission of information. Psychological Science 22(7): 891-893.
  5. Braucher, David. 2016. Fake news: Why we fall for it. URL accessed on 25 March 2021: <https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/contemporarypsychoanalysis-in action/201612/fake-news-why-we-fall-it>
  6. Dentith, Matthew R. X. 2017. The problem of fake news. Public Reason 8(1-2): 65-79.
  7. Fake News Challenge. 2017. URL accessed on 25 March 2017: <http://www.fakenewschallenge.org/>
  8. Fallis, Don. 2015. What is disinformation? Library Trends 63(3): 401-426.
  9. Godler Y, Reich Z, Miller B. Social epistemology as a new paradigm for journalism and media studies. New Media & Society. 2020;22(2):213-229. doi:10.1177/1461444819856922

Surveying recent characterizations of 'fake news'

The notion of fake news is defined and characterized in a number of ways, both because of political issues and due to other different spheres of life. According to Lilleker, ‘fake news’ is “a catch-all term with multiple definitions”. Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘fake news’ as: “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”[1]  Another definition says that fake news is a faux or insinuating statistic offered as information. It frequently has the goal of diminishing the popularity of someone or an entity, or creating wealth through advertising revenue.

Media scholar Nolan Higdon has described fake news as “fake or deceptive content material offered as information and communicated in codecs spanning spoken, written, printed, electronic, and virtual communication.” As defined by Dictionary.com, fake news is “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.” or “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”[2]  Others may relate ‘fake news’ to words such as ‘hoax’, ‘gossip’, ‘rumor’, ‘deceit’, ‘fraud’, ‘scam’.

Once common in print, the superiority of fake news has accelerated with the upward thrust of social media, in particular the Facebook News Feed. Political polarization, post-fact politics, affirmation bias, and social media algorithms had been implicated withinside the unfold of faux information. It is once in a while generated and propagated through antagonistic overseas actors, particularly all through elections. The use of anonymously-hosted fake news websites has made it tough to prosecute benefits of false news for libel. In a few definitions, fake news includes satirical articles misinterpreted as genuine, and articles that employ sensationalist or clickbait headlines that aren't supported withinside the text.

Generally speaking, fake news has three characteristics:

– Inaccuracy regarding facts

– Optimization to share

– The main purpose is to shroud or buckle with emotions; feeding on prejudice or bias.

A news article isn't fake because it's rude or inappropriate. A news article that challenges your beliefs or values isn't fake news. A news article that's rejected by those in power doesn't make that story a fake news article either. What else isn't fake news? Satire, honest reporting mistakes, journalism you do not like aren't fake news.

Fake news are stories that are extremely untrustworthy, false, faux, stories that are fabricated and contain no sustainable sources or quotes. Types of fake news are misinformation and disinformation. According to the Merriam Webster online dictionary and University of Michigan library website, misinformation is “false or inaccurate information that is mistakenly or inadvertently created or spread; the intent is not to deceive”, while disinformation is “false information that is deliberately created and spread in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”.[3]


[1] Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fake-news (Accessed on 27 March 2021)

[2] Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/fake-news (Accessed on 27 March 2021)

[3] University of Michigan Library Research Guides, https://uides.lib.umich.edu/fakenews (Accessed on 27 March 2021)


  1. Gelfert, A., Fake News: A Definition. URL accessed on 23 March 2021, https://www.academia.edu/36258758/Fake_News_A_Definition
  2. Cambridge Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/fake-news (Accessed on 27 March 2021)
  3. Dictionary.com, https://www.dictionary.com/browse/fake-news (Accessed on 27 March 2021)
  4. University of Michigan Library Research Guides, https://uides.lib.umich.edu/fakenews (Accessed on 27 March 2021)

Fake news: A stipulative definition

Just as disinformation is a species of information, fake news is, in a sense that needs to be spelled out, a form of news. This claim is by no means uncontroversial, since it might appear to create a false equivalence between epistemically “high-grade” and “low-grade” entities, so to speak. The very suggestion that disinformation is a species of information has been met with forceful criticism.

Perspective matters. For the recipient of a piece of disinformation, or someone who is confronted with an instance of fake news, it does little good to be told that they should only accept what they are told if, in fact, it meets the requisite criteria of veracity and truthfulness. Therefore, building truth and veracity into the very definitions of ‘information’ and ‘news’—in other words, making them success terms—does little to address the pressing epistemological problem: how to respond to claims presented to us as true by a putative news source, given that, for all we know, they might (or might not) be fake news.

For one, fake news is misleading, in much the same way that disinformation is misleading: it is “likely to create false beliefs” (Fallis 2015, p. 406). As discussed earlier, fake news may sometimes be fabricated from thin air, in which case it can at best be accidentally true. More often than not, it is built explicitly around falsehoods— especially claims that, if true, would be sensational—which it promotes and perpetuates. Perhaps a given claim, as a matter of chance, happens to be encountered only by an especially critical subset of reasoners, none of whom is taken in by it, even though the average person would have easily been fooled. Yet, arguably, what matters in the case of fake news, and gives urgency to it as a sociopolitical phenomenon, is that sufficiently large numbers of people are in fact taken in by it.

What matters, then, is that, all else being equal, and taking into account general background conditions such as overall levels of media literacy, a piece of fake news that is released is likely to result in (and often does cause) false beliefs on the part of its target audience. For a putative report to count as fake news, it must be likely to mislead not only in a non-accidental way, but deliberately. What matters is that the purveyors of fake news deliberately engage in practices that they know, or can reasonably foresee, to lead to the likely formation of false beliefs on the part of their audience, irrespective of whether they themselves have a stake in those beliefs (as a political activist might have), or whether they are just in it for the money (as the Macedonian website operators were[1]). Importantly, the spread of false beliefs is not merely a side effect of fake news, but is a direct result of its function. By contrast, fake news is designed to operate in a way that is unconstrained by the truth, either because it aims to instil falsehoods in its target audience (for example, in order to discredit a political opponent), or because the way it is deliberately operated is objectively likely to mislead its target audience, its real goal being (for example) the generation of clickbait through sensational claims that attract an online audience. Fake news is the deliberate presentation of (typically) false or misleading claims as news, where the claims are misleading by design.


[1]   Many of those who, during the presidential race, had set up websites spreading fake news about Hillary Clinton (e.g., WorldPoliticus.com, USConservativeToday.com, or USADailyPolitics.com) were teenagers based in the Republic of Macedonia, whose main goal was to generate revenue from online ads shown next to fake news articles that served merely as clickbait (Silverman and Alexander 2016).


First part – Natalia Vuković,

Second part – Ajla Aljović

Third part – Sara Međić


Illustration: Ezana Ćeman