The ‘Complete’ History of 'Fake News'

In record time, the phrase morphed from a description of a social media phenomenon into a journalistic cliché and an angry political slur. How did the term "fake news" evolve, and what's next in the world of disinformation?

It was mid-2016, and BuzzFeed’s media editor, Craig Silverman, noticed a funny stream of completely made-up stories that seemed to originate from one small Eastern European town.

"We ended up finding a small cluster of news websites all registered in the same town in Macedonia called Veles," Silverman recalls.

He and a colleague started to investigate, and shortly before the US election they identified at least 140 fake news websites which were pulling in huge numbers on Facebook.

The young people in Veles may or may not have had much interest in American politics, but because of the money to be made via Facebook advertising, they wanted their fiction to travel widely on social media. The US presidential election, and specifically Donald Trump, was (and of course still is) a very hot topic on social media.

And so the Macedonians and other purveyors of fakery wrote stories with headlines such as "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President" and "FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide".

They were completely false. And thus began the modern, and Internet-friendly, life of the phrase "fake news".

Nothing New Here

Misinformation, spin, lies and deceit have of course been around forever. But what Silverman and others uncovered was a unique marriage between social media algorithms, advertising systems, people prepared to make stuff up to earn some easy cash and an election that gripped a nation and much of the world.

In the wake of President Trump's victory, BBC Trending delved into the huge world of pro-Trump Facebook groups. Inside those hyper-partisan spaces there were some outright falsehoods circulating.

But most of the content was more traditional political communication: puffery, drumbeating, and opponent-slagging. There were memes showing Trump as a fearless leader, support for his pledges to deport illegal immigrants, and potted biographies describing the candidate as "the very definition of the American success story." It was hardly balanced stuff, but nor did much of it qualify as "fake news".

But pundits scrambling to explain the shock result (and in many cases, their own follies) turned to "fake news" as one possible explanation.

Enter Politics

The phrase now evokes much more than those get-rich-quick Macedonian teenagers. President Trump even gave out "Fake News Awards" to reporters who had made errors or poor predictions - with a special nod to all reporting on the ongoing and very real investigations into collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But to say that President Trump was the first politician to deploy the term would itself be, well, "fake news".

On 8 December 2016, Hillary Clinton made a speech in which she mentioned "the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year."

Some journalists at the time interpreted her remarks as a reference to "Pizzagate", a bonkers conspiracy theory which sprouted and grew to tremendous proportions online.

It started with a rumour that sex slaves were being held under a Washington pizza restaurant, and ended a couple of days before Clinton's speech, when a man entered the busy family-friendly restaurant with a rifle. Nobody was injured, and the man was arrested and sentenced to four years in jail.

Useless Words?

Since then phrase has been used more or less continuously by Trump and other world leaders, as well as by countless political operatives, journalists and ordinary people.

Google News search of "fake news" throws up 5 million results, and already in 2018 the phrase has been used about two million times on Twitter.

And, contrary to the conventional wisdom, it's no longer a stream of falsehoods eagerly swallowed solely by Trump supporters and/or those with little education. By April 2017, Trending was reporting on the phenomenon of left-wing, anti-Trump fakery.

Experts say highly-educated people can be duped by lies as well, and can often be more stubborn when presented with information that challenges their views.

But within months the sheer ubiquity of the phrase "fake news" had perhaps rendered the term meaningless. All sorts of things, misinformation, spin, conspiracy theories, mistakes, and reporting that people just don't like, have been rolled into it.

Going Viral

Clearly the enabler of the modern form of "fake news" - or, if you like, misinformation - has been the explosive growth of social media.

"In the early days of Twitter, people would call it a 'self-cleaning oven', because yes there were falsehoods, but the community would quickly debunk them," Wardle says. "But now we're at a scale where if you add in automation and bots, that oven is overwhelmed.

"There are many more people now acting as fact-checking and trying to clean all the ovens, but it's at a scale now that we just can't keep up."

So what to do about it? Fact-checking works, says Alexios Mantzarlis, but automated solutions are probably not the answer.

"We're been heralding robotic fact checking for about 20 years and we're nowhere near it," he says. "What we can do is help humans and journalists find fishy claims faster, and get access to the stats that they need to verify a claim faster."

The Future of Fake

In the future, the term "fake news" might come to be seen as a relic of a febrile 2017 (if we're lucky). But the fight against misinformation won't go away. Companies and governments are now starting to take concrete action, the consequences of which will be felt for some time.

"Google and Facebook have both said that they are going to be hiring a lot of people to review content and enforce their terms of service and keep fake and illegal stuff off their platform. I'm interested to see how that is actually done," BuzzFeed’s Silverman says.

"The opaqueness of these platforms and their power and the fact that so much speech has moved on to them is something that we need to pay attention to and make sure that we don't turn them from places where misinformation is running rampant to places that are so locked down that they are inhibiting speech," he says.

Alongside worries about the power of the social media companies, the experts also have concerns about the power of governments.

"Sometimes well-intentioned but ill-informed legislators will overreach and do more harm that the problem they are trying to fix, with legislation on fake news," Mantzarlis says, noting that legislation is being proposed in several countries across Europe.

The most sweeping such legislation came into effect on 1 January in Germany. The law demands that social media sites quickly remove hate speech, fake news and illegal material or face fines up to 50m euro (£44.3m, $61.1m).

And beyond viral political text news stories, there are new frontiers which fact-checkers are trying to delve into.

Impact?

There's one essential question, what impact does misinformation really have in the minds of voters?

Ever since the debate over the issue really took off a little over a year ago, there's been enormous disagreement as to whether false stories spread online actually have any impact on people's politics or voting patterns.

BBC

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