The year fake news made the headlines
Bogus stories propagated online not only spark confusion among readers, but also breed a distrust of the media
We offer no prizes for guessing that the 2017 Word of the Year, an annual selection made by the dictionary publisher Collins, turned out to be “fake news”. The phrase will now figure in future editions of the Harper Collins dictionary, defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”.
No one has done more to popularize the phrase than United States President Donald Trump, who regularly uses it in his terse Twitter rebukes to media critics and political enemies.
Others have latched on to the “fake news” label, producing an estimated fourfold rise in its use by headline writers in 2017.
It is not always used, however, in the way the dictionary compilers intended. Often it is employed to describe any genuine item of news that reveals inconvenient truths about political leaders, celebrities and others in the media firing line.
Following Trump’s lead, “fake news” is now routinely used to describe any bit of news the speaker disagrees with, regardless of its veracity. he phrase and the false reporting it describes have not been confined to the Anglosphere, or just the Western media. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo was the target of an insidious online campaign suggesting that he was preparing to sell out the country’s interests to China. The country’s cybercrime police moved to shut down the so-called Saracen group, one of a number of online publishers using such fake news to stir up ethnic divisions.
Fake news is not, of course, a phenomenon that was invented in 2017. Propagandists of all stripes have long been used to propagating falsehoods to influence their sometimes gullible audiences. The traditional role of the media has been to try to sort fact from fiction and get as near as they can to the truth.
But a new challenge comes from a splintering of the online media landscape in which fake news purveyors can pose as the genuine article. As more and more people track events online via social media sites, they tend to follow outlets that confirm their prejudices.
For example, although the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence confirms the existence of man-made climate change, skeptics will always latch on to any scrap of news that claims to contradict the mainstream.
From there, it requires just a short leap of faith for conspiracy theorists to start asserting that climate change science is itself a hoax devised by sinister peddlers of “fake news”.
2017 was not just the year of fake news but also the one in which some authorities, as in Indonesia, took measures to combat it. Social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook have come under pressure to tackle the problem of fake news being propagated on their sites.
Among the plethora of false reports that spread via social media during the 2016 US presidential campaign was the claim that Pope Francis had endorsed the candidacy of Donald Trump.
The service providers have in the past resisted being viewed as news sites, although much of their income comes from users clicking through to news items, both real and fake.
The existence of fake news items that go viral on sites such as Facebook can undermine people’s faith in genuine news services, now routinely denounced by Trump and others as the fake mainstream media.
Faced with a barrage of criticism, social media sites have now been forced to pledge that they will do more to fact-check items and take down fake postings. But there are still complaints that it takes too long to tackle false reports and that inaccurate, racist and inflammatory material still manages to get through the safety nets.
One response to the fake news phenomenon is the emergence of fact-checking sites that will act swiftly to debunk the more outrageous online claims.
Ultimate responsibility rests, of course, with the consumer. If a news item sounds fake, then it frequently is. A quick online search of trusted news sites will usually serve to disprove the most blatant examples of fake news.