Home National We’re All Responsible for Fighting “Fake News,” Experts Say

We’re All Responsible for Fighting “Fake News,” Experts Say


According to the Pew Research Center, fake news has had an impact on Americans and their interaction with news. In a recent survey, 64 percent of adults said fake news caused confusion on basic facts of current events. Furthermore, in that same study, though most participants were at least somewhat confident in their ability to identify fake news, about 23 percent said they had shared fake news, either knowingly or unknowingly.

Despite Google, Twitter and Facebook’s efforts to combat fake news in all forms, its prevalence in media — particularly social media — has increased. So has the general concern for it, given the upcoming presidential election. 

With all the buzz on “fake news” and its effect on the political climate, the term itself loses clarity on its definition. So what exactly is “fake news?”

Fake news is defined as “the deliberate creation and sharing of false or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain,” according to the UK House of Commons. However, fake news has become an umbrella term to describe disinformation, misinformation and propaganda, which are all different.

Disinformation is information that is deliberately misleading or false with the intent/manipulate to harm a person or social group. Misinformation is any false information that is spread, regardless of whether there was an intent to mislead. Propaganda is information deliberately spread to harm a person, group, movement, institution or other organization.

The distinction between the three types of information spreading is intention. Disinformation and propaganda have the intent to deliberately spread information, while misinformation, the category those 23 percent of Americans fall into, is the spreading of false information unknowingly. 

During the 2016 presidential election, the term “fake news” started being used widely, particularly by then-candidate Donald Trump — who used it to describe articles or media organizations he didn’t agree with, regardless of whether or not the story contained false information. After the election, the term gained popularity on google trends and has continued to remain in the public sphere. 

Given the influence “fake news” had on the 2016 elections, UW-Madison journalism professor Mike Wagner, thinks it could have similar consequences during the next election.

“I think people like to try what worked and try it again,” he said. “So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more coordinated efforts at disinformation from other countries seeking particular advantages. We only know what to prepare for based on what happened last time, so if people who provided disinformation have gotten better at it or have new strategies, media companies and people who use different kinds of media will have to learn how to react to them in real time.”

“I think it’s going to play a very similar, but equally or possibly even more pernicious relationship,” said Lewis Friedland, a Distinguished Achievement professor at UW-Madison. “After three years, with this term being actively propagated throughout the entire public sphere, now, many more people are expressing doubt about what’s true.”

While there is a concern for “fake news,” there are no ready-made solutions on how best to combat it. According to the Pew Research Center, “U.S. adults blame political leaders and activists far more than journalists for the creation of made-up news intended to mislead the public. But they believe it is primarily the responsibility of journalists to fix the problem. And they think the issue will get worse in the foreseeable future.”

While Americans don’t put the blame of fake news on journalists, many put the responsibility to fix it on them. Interestingly, only nine percent of Americans who took the survey noted that tech companies held most of the responsibility of reducing made-up news. 

“I don’t think [social media companies] are doing enough,” Wagner said. “I get it’s a really hard problem. If you have a billion users how do you police the behavior? Facebook can and does regulate speech, so it’s not like they can’t find it and take it off. It’s that they’re choosing not to get involved as far as they could in regulating disinformation. I think one of the major reasons is that they don’t want to be called biased because they don’t want the government to regulate their content.”

Friedland believes the problem lies with the delegitimation of the news system.

“Getting people to doubt the most reliable, legitimate sources of news has been a deep conservative Republican strategy for a long time,” he said. “With the assumption that there is fake news journalists need to fix, there’s a false equivalence. Outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post or even The Wall Street Journal, which is conservative, are not fake news. So then the question becomes how do you restore legitimacy? How do you restore trust? Yes of course news media have an important role to play but frankly it’s more incumbent upon us all as citizens to rebuild the framework in which we can actually find some kind of common ground of what’s true and what’s not true.”

Learning to trust the media and doing personal research going into 2020 might be one of the best solutions for the public to not fall for false information. Though Wagner believes “fake news” has existed since humans have learned to talk and will continue to exist, he thinks there are a number of ways to mitigate its effect on citizens. 

“I think that we can all help citizens become better critical consumers of information,” he said. “Political elites can help by calling out bad behavior on their side, especially, but on both sides. News organizations can help by telling us how they know what they know and being more transparent about the news gathering process, which is a difficult and challenging process. And the more citizens are aware of how journalists do things, I think the more they end up trusting them.”

Along with news organizations and politicians being more transparent, citizens can help themselves by looking into where they get their news and finding trustworthy sources.

“People not only need to dig into the news, but they need to basically do some research on what are trusted sources?” Friedland said. “Who is right most of the time? I think it’s less of people finding out which [article] is fake and which isn’t, because most people honestly just don’t have the time to do that. It’s to do core, deep research to know where the most trustworthy news is and focusing on those sources.” 

“I think the most consequential thing people can do is think before you share,” Wagner said.