Article “News you don’t believe” – Audience perspectives on fake news
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Based on R. K. Nielsen and L. Graves’ research, we present you several key findings related to fake news:
- Poor journalism, brainwashing/indoctrination and advertisement are named as some of the most common fake news’ instances.
- Politicians, the media and certain platforms are “working” together to create a problem known as fake news. Participants agree that journalists present information without any research and checking, that stories with politicians as main characters are almost always a fake news.
- Respondents define a discrepancy between fake news and “ordinary” news as “one of degree”.
So, according to these findings, we can provide two basic definitions of fake news:
- Fake news could be portrayed as “inaccurate information presented as an objective news story and designed to deceive people in some way.”
- Fake news could be seen as “deception with the appearance of befittingly produced news but without the underlying strategic journalistic operations or purpose.”
Additionally, based on research, we can say that fake news are only partially fictitious articles. This type of news is much more related to grievances, frustration, exasperation.
Recent political events, such as the 2016 US presidential election, are characterized by a booming number of so-called “fake news” which were shared on social media platforms. While misinformation and propaganda have existed since past, their importance and influence within the age of social media remains not clear. Indeed, massive digital misinformation has been designated as a serious technological and geopolitical risk by the 2013 report of the planet Economic Forum.
A considerable number of studies have recently investigated the phenomena of misinformation in online social networks like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or Wikipedia. Research related to the expansion of both true and false news in Twitter showed that false news is characterized by a faster and broader dispersal than true news mainly thanks to the attraction of the novelty of false news. A polarization in communities is additionally observed within the consumption of stories generally and corresponds with political alignment. Latest research and scientific papers divulged bots and their capacities. Shao et al. found that, during the 2016 US presidential election on Twitter, bots were liable for the first promotion of misinformation, that they targeted influential users through replies and mentions which the sharing of fact-checking articles nearly disappears within the core of the network, while social bots proliferate. These results have raised the question of whether such misinformation campaigns could alter popular opinion and endanger the integrity of the presidential election.
In this article, we are going to present you a combination of qualitative and quantitative data gained through different research methods.
Structural shifts underlying the fake news discussion
The first structural change is a widespread crisis of confidence between news media and other public institutions including politicians and much of the public in many countries. It is apparent that this devaluation in certitude began before the emergence of digital media; it is partly driven by tabloidization of the news landscape and rising political polarization, accompanied by a diminished sense of common ground and more frequent and intense political attacks on the news media. Another structural change is the motion from a 20th-century environment influenced by broadcast and print mass media to a growingly digital, mobile, and social media environment. In this environment, it is easier to publish any kind of information, including false and fabricated ones. Several independent pieces of research suggest that in the United States, only a minority have actually been exposed to demonstrably fake news stories, and that these stories have in most cases made up only a very small fraction of people’s total information exposure. There is clearly a significant amount of dis- and misinformation circulating in our changing media environment.
The exchange of information is now democratized, thanks to social media platforms and digital content production technologies (like Photoshop). Anyone is now able to produce credible “noise” that is difficult to distinguish from high-quality information. While there is a general awareness of the existence of “fake news,” there is widespread disagreement over what comprises “fake news.” Merely labeling something as “fake news” can itself be considered mere propaganda, making it all the more important that journalists cite sources and “show their work. Current gatekeepers are more likely to view news production and dissemination as a business enterprise than as providing a public service. Additionally, the public perception of mass media as a corporate, profit-driven entity has further diminished its authority. Ownership of news distribution has shifted from traditional content creators to digital distributors. Digital distribution allows for highly efficient micro-targeting and limited exposure of users to challenging content. In contrast, when content creators also were responsible for distribution, diverse content was often bundled together for a mass audience, fostering the development (either voluntarily or serendipitously) of a common set of shared facts. Digital distribution also tends to favor popularity, engagement, and “shares” over expertise and accuracy.
Audience perspectives on fake news
In order to have a greater insight in audience perspectives on fake news in this changing media setting, we brought up the issue in 8 focus groups conducted across the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Finland. It is crucial to highlight that the term “fake news” generated bigger discussion in the United Kingdom and especially the United States than in Spain and Finland.
“Fake News” – News associated with misinformation from different sources, including journalists. Seen as distinguished from news primarily by degree. Also recognized as weaponized by critics of news media and platform companies.
News – Associated with professionally produced information that is accurate, timely, relevant, clearly communicated, and fair. There is often no clear agreement on where to draw the line between fake news and news.
These latter categories are seen as different from journalism in general primarily by degree; for audiences, the difference between fake news and real news is not absolute but gradual. The main categories in popular understandings of fake news: satire, poor journalism, propaganda, some advertising, false news.
The intent of the creator is less relevant than the fact of the harm—the insidious damage is the fact that the proliferation of false information discredits sources of relatively accurate and credible information regardless of what a specific “fake news” story is intended to accomplish. Three corollary harms were noted: first, the problem of increasing fragmentation and politicization; second, the promotion of “safe news” at the expense of difficult or challenging news stories; third, the need for credible sources to allocate ever-diminishing resources to debunking inaccurate information (which poses both financial and reputational costs). People retweet or share an article based on its headline and without ever having clicked on—and therefore without ever having actually read it. This allows misinformation to be seen, accepted, and promoted just as much, if not more, than higher-quality information.
First – People see the difference between fake news and real news as one of degree
According to focus group responses, “fake news can be seen as a broad and diverse category and one that is separated from other forms of news primarily by degree.” Furthermore, respondents say that discrepancy between fake news and real ones is not “black and white” and that fake news are not a problem that exists for few years, but rather “an age-old problem”. Additionally, respondents offered a wide variety of fake news definitions. One of definitions was that fake news are “news that don’t have a factual basis and are coloured, leaning, biased.”
Participants made a distinction between “source cues” and “social cues”. Source cues are brands participants trust, while social cues are people participants trust. Respondents said that when verifying information, they rely on family, friends and their own research.
Second – The main forms of fake news people identify are poor journalism, political propaganda, and some forms of advertising
The examples given by the participants of the focus group, were much more focused on their personal opinion regarding what fake news truly is, rather than on the actual definition of the term itself. Their examples were focused on incapable or biased journalism, use of media for propaganda purposes, content used in marketing and advertising, while very few of the participants spoke about fabricated content which presents itself as news. This demonstrates that people are inclined to look at the issue of false news from a broader perspective which inevitably leads to labeling certain individuals in positions of power as the guilty parties.
Journalism in its core is a noble craft which stands upon pillars of ethics and unbiased reporting. However, according to the opinions of participants, the work of certain categories of journalism derails the entire journalistic industry due to its sensational tone of reporting and lack of credibility in terms of providing factual news. Furthermore, another societal factor criticized by the participants in relation to false news, is politics. The participants argue that politicians manipulate news outlets by purposefully feeding them unreliable information which in turn causes a domino effect of propaganda being reported on as factual and undeniable truth.
Additionally, the participants of the focus group mostly agree on the opinion that clickbait titles and online adverts are designed to purposefully mislead the readers into opening websites which have an agenda. These websites range from simple advertisement space for whoever paid for it, all the way to specific individuals campaigning for, and spreading ideas that can otherwise not receive much attention in the mainstream media.
Satire however, as an example of purposefully misleading content, is not considered to be fake news. The reason for satire being „excused“ from this designation lies in the fact that any satirical content has an underlying tone which clearly shows the nature of the content and prevents its malintepretation as factual.
Third – People associate publishers, platforms, and politicians with fake news but also see trusted news outlets as a potential corrective
Most people would agree that the term fake news came to fruition and into existence due to lack of belief into those who report the news and those of whom the news actually talk about. When a public has the arguments to oppose and disagree with the media and politicians, it is inevitable that occasionally even factual news becomes labeled as fake. However, this happens due to the sheer number of news outlets that exist nowadays, and one of these outlets is always bound to enjoy more trust from the public than others.
Furthermore, people are constantly bombarded with online news. This type of news is simply too difficult to keep up with in terms of credibility, because every single social media user is able to bring content on different platforms which allow for said content to spread like wildfire. It is very difficult to discern what content is reliable in such a sea of sources which have very few filters that do the job of the editor in an actual news outlet.
Fourth – People are aware of the fake news discussion and see the term “fake news” in part as a politicized buzzword
Participants of the study showed a very high level of awareness regarding the issue of fake news and all the possible consequences that might arise from their misinterpretation. They recognized that the main problem with fake news is the fact that the term itself is being used by particular individuals in positions of power to discredit their opponents and cause mistrust and havoc in the public opinion. Labeling something as fake news, without actual confirmation, in a world where information spreads incredibly fast, is a very powerful weapon in the arsenal of a politician in bringing down their opposition in the eyes of the public.
The low-trust context of the fake news – Discussion
According to the data, it can be notably stated that people lost confidence in the truth of news they consume. That is not strange because there is hyperinflation of information that is biased, irrelevant, and sometimes even dangerous in online space. If one-click and go to the online address they are pointing at, their data and privacy can be compromised and used for harmful purposes. Citizens of the US and UK showed a lower level of confidence in the news they consume than citizens of European countries, such as Spain and Finland. However, the difference is slight, and hence the trend is the same, but with negligible variations.
Moreover, people who were questioned stated that there is a lack of trust towards old media and institutions. In some cases, that could lead to potential security threats. One side of the coin is that one has a high level of critical thinking and does not believe everything he or she read on the internet. Still, the totally opposite situation is that one does not trust to official institutions and relevant information presented by law officials, scientists, or people appointed to vital positions in society. Therefore, the term “fake news “started to be used too much and without valid reasons. Some people even do not understand the term correctly. In their subjective opinion, it can be used for everything they considered is false. In the broad view, one environment heavily influences his or her opinions, perspective on the world, and attitudes toward “fake news “related content. All in all, trust is about building a reputation, which can collapse in one second.
- Newslit website, https://newslit.org/tips-tools/did-you-know-negative-light/ (accessed on 11 April)
- R. K. Nielsen and L. Graves, “News you don’t believe”: Audience perspectives on fake news, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 2017.
- A. Bovet and H. A. Makse, Influence of fake news in Twitter during the 2016 US presidential election, Nat. Commun. 10, 7 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07761-2
Authors: Ajla Aljović, Sara Međić, Emir Šogolj, Omer Muminović