Creating accurate content is arguably more important than ever. If you are creating content for your readers, colleagues or customers then make sure it is accurate. Our director Roisin Woolnough explores the rise of fake news.

Type the words fake news into a search engine and what do you get? You get a long stream of feeds on the topic. The news is awash with fake news items, be they the actual fake news stories or stories about the stories. And it’s the same if you type in alternative news or post-truth.

Fake news is big news. It is a massive topic at the moment and it is a massive deal for us journalists, individually and collectively. The proliferation and impact of fake news has really shone a spotlight on the importance of accurate, truthful and unbiased reporting. It doesn’t take much for the whole profession to be discredited in the eyes of the general public – even if it isn’t actually journalists putting those fake stories out there.

What is a fake news story?

Let’s think about what constitutes a fake news story. A fake news item is a fabricated story, presenting itself as a news story. It is a hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, usually in order to gain political or financial advantage. It is not the same thing as satire or biased reporting.

Alternative facts? Well, that is a very new term, famously coined by Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s counselor, during a television interview in January this year. What are alternative facts? As Conway’s interviewer said: “Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

Then there’s post-truth, a word that has been around for about a decade but surged in popularity last year, to the extent that it was named international word of the year in 2016 by the Oxford Dictionaries. There was purportedly a 2,000% surge in usage last year of the adjective, which is defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

Why did post-truth so suddenly and quickly go from being a peripheral word to being part of mainstream language? Because of the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election, two events that were mired in allegations of politicians distorting the truth and misinformation being spread by various news channels and social media sites. Post-truth then spawned post-truth politics.

Of course, the idea of politicians – and other figures in power – being less than honest is nothing new. Think of Cicero and Catiline, Octavian and Mark Antony – plenty of mudslinging and self-aggrandizing behaviour by those Roman luminaries. Think of the propaganda material produced during the First and Second world wars.

The spread of fake news

Fake news is nothing new. However, what is new about today’s fake news is that it can be spread a lot further, a lot more quickly than ever before because of the Internet and the way that stories are consumed and shared.

The pay per click business model is also a contributing factor. Many of the fake news websites that were so popular during the US election campaign heralded not from the US, but from a small city in Macedonia. It was discovered that Macedonian teenagers were running headline-grabbing fake news stories that appealed to readers in the US. Why? Because it generated traffic to their websites, which in turn generated revenue for them from advertising.

Fake news spread like wildfire on Facebook during the US elections and many people have complained that changed the outcome of the election. According to analysis by the US news and entertainment website BuzzFeed, a fake news story that claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump was the most successful news item on Facebook in the three months running up to the US election. Moreover, the analysis found that fake stories generated more engagement on Facebook than the top election stories from 19 major news outlets put together.

Facebook has been heavily criticised for not clamping down on fake news posted on the site. The organisation’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, issued a long post in November 2016 in response to those criticisms. Facebook has also started labeling stories from fake news sites as ‘disputed’.

The UK government is taking action too. The Culture, Media and Sports Committee recently announced the launch of an inquiry into fake news. The inquiry will look at where fake news is coming from, how it is disseminated and what this means for democracy. One question the Committee is asking is this one:

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web, recently waded into the fake news debate. To mark the 28th birthday of the web, Berners-Lee posted a piece on his website talking about three current big web challenges. Challenge two is fake news and misinformation.

Can you spot a fake story?

A lot of people think they can spot a fake story from a real one. Research by the US ‘fact tank’ Pew Research Center, found that roughly four in ten (39%) Americans are very confident that they can recognise fabricated news, with 45% feeling somewhat confident. Just under a third (32%) say they often see political news stories online that are made up. However, it is almost impossible to gauge the accuracy of these statistics. Are people as able to recognise fake stories as they think they are? A significant number of those polled for the research say they have shared a fake news story, with 14% saying they knew it was fake at the time and 16% only realizing it was fake after sharing it.

Moreover, recent research by the Media Insight Project found that, in readers’ eyes, who shares a story is far more important than author behind it, in terms of credibility. The research, ‘‘Who Shared it?’ How Americans Decide What News to Trust on Social Media’, shows that readers are much more likely to believe and share an article that has been shared by a trusted source. Who wrote and published the article is of much less consequence.

The problem and proliferation of fake news is such that it has had a big impact on how the general public perceive news and thereby, journalists. Not that criticisms of partisan reporting are always unwarranted – plenty of news outlets work to their own political agenda. Earlier this year, Wikipedia announced that it was no longer going to use the Daily Mail as a source of information because it was ‘generally unreliable’.

The reputation of journalists and news outlets had already sustained a lot of damage in recent years after the phone hacking and police bribery scandal at the News of the World newspaper. All of these incidences and the Leveson inquiry really called into question the integrity of journalists and news outlets, in terms of how news is found, reported and sometimes distorted.

What can we journalists do about the problem of fake news? We can call out fake news when we see it. We can highlight and discuss the problem. We can strive to ensure we aren’t victims of fake news and don’t give these stories more of a platform than they already have. Most of all, what we must do is make sure that our own reporting is accurate, truthful and unbiased. The onus is on us to do so, individually and collectively. We must build the public’s trust in the media and do our best to get the truth out there.