A definition of 'fake news' vs. 'conspiracy theory' vs. 'journalism'.

A Definition of ‘Fake News’ (and Related Terms)

If the public discourse in the United States is any indication, then people in the US mean different things by ‘fake news’. Naturally, then, it is time to agree on a definition of ‘fake news’. While we’re at it, let’s distinguish ‘fake news’ from other terms.

1.  Let’s Agree On Terms

As I see it, we will need to distinguish between at least three terms: fake news, conspiracy theory, and journalism.

A Definition of ‘Fake News’

Also known as “fictional news”. Characterized by outlandish stories — sometimes about paranormal and supernatural events. Any explicit claims to truth are obviously belied by their only semi-serious and comedic tone. Examples include many of the cover stories of the Weekly World News as well as some of the satirical punchlines of The Daily Show.

A Definition of ‘Conspiracy Theory’

Bad explanations designed to glorify their author and undermine the author’s perceived nemeses. Sometimes unfalsifiable. Alas, believed by many people. Examples are voluminous. Examples include certain explanations of the assignation of John F. Kennedy and InfoWars’ Alex Jones’s claims that the Sandy Hook shootings were staged.

A Definition of ‘Journalism’

Professional gathering and reporting of information to society. Sometimes journalists publish errors. But unlike other content producers, journalists tend to publish corrections as soon as possible. (Errors ≠ satire, fiction, lies, etc.).

Most people rely on some form of journalism. So, ideally, journalists are free to investigative and criticize powerful people and groups; And, ideally, the powerful people and groups do not use their power to undermine journalists’ freedom or credibility. Because when the press is not free and trusted to do so, crime, corruption, and wrongdoing can go unnoticed or unchecked.

2.  Let’s Agree on the Terms of Discourse

Obviously, we can disagree about the nuances of each term and its use. But if we want to have any meaningful discourse about the news, then we cannot let our disagreement get out of hand. That brings me to three agreements that we should make despite our disagreements.

First, we should agree to distinguish between these terms and to use the same definitions. And if we cannot agree on definitions, then we should note that disagreement so as to avoid talking past one another.

Second, when asked to clarify our use of a term — e.g., ‘fake news’ — we should (i) clearly explain how we are using the term and (ii) explain why our use of the term is merited.

Third, we should not lazily resort to defensive or rhetorical tactics during the discourse—e.g., labelling news that challenges our views or values as “fake” or “biased”. Rather, we should work hard to interpret each other charitably, ask good questions, attempt to assume others’ perspectives, and provide helpful answers. Moreover, we should regularly remind ourselves that we’re not enemies. We’re in this together.

3.  Further Reading

Of course, there’s a literature on all of this. Interested readers can scratch the surface of that literature by reading, say, Wikipedia entries on ‘fake news’‘conspiracy theory’, and ‘journalism’.

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Nick Byrd

Nick is a cognitive scientist at Florida State University studying reasoning, wellbeing, and willpower. Check out his blog at byrdnick.com/blog

9 thoughts on “A Definition of ‘Fake News’ (and Related Terms)”

  1. Interesting thoughts. I would argue fake news has historically been satirical and known to be false (the onion). Conspiracy theories have historically been narrow in scope, even the JFK assasination was not political, just tantalizing. The current “fake news” craze is good old propaganda. The truth or falsehood of the claim doesn’t matter as long as it fits a pre conceived idea and creates an emotion that causes action. The loss of middle class jobs is due to illegal immigration and cheating by economic competitors. Terrorism is the result of refugees coming to the U.S. Everyone that has a government job is non-productive. Welfare makes people lazy. Not all propaganda is evil. Your $1.00 donation will feed this family for a month. Fake news is a tool used for propaganda. As long as we can’t have open discussion with people of opposing views, propaganda and the “new fake news” thrive.

    1. Hi Rick! As always, it’s a pleasure to hear from you and — more specifically — to get your thoughts on the matter.

      I largely agree with your analysis of the recent use of ‘fake news’. I think a lot of it is propaganda. When powerful figures try to undermine any report that criticizes them or their work (regardless of the report’s merits) by calling it ‘fake news’, that’s just propaganda.

      But others use ‘fake news’ to spin conspiracy theory.

      For instance, I see both journalists and ideologues (1) accuse some reports, articles, journals, news networks, etc. of being ‘fake news’ simply because the reports/etc. made an error. And then they (2) use the accusation of fake news to motivate a conspiracy theory about the news organization/author and any political blocs associated with the organization/author.

      Examples: “Fake News, Exposed” by The Weekly Standard.

      It is a response to an article in The Atlantic drawing attention to the fact that the Trump administrations’s rhetoric is often anti-muslim and anti-diversity. The Weekly Standard’s article points out a few simple errors in The Atlantic’s piece. Then it jumps from these errors to an elaborate conspiracy theory: The Atlantic’s piece is a “set-up” arranged by the left and the leftly-biased media to make the Trump administration look like anti-muslim anti-diversity monsters. (And then the Weekly Standard writer uses their conspiracy theory to justify Trump’s treatment of the press.)

      The problem is that The Atlantic’s editorial errors entail neither (a) malintent nor (b) that the over-arching claim of the The Atlantic’s piece — i.e., that the Trump administration’s rhetoric is often anti-muslim and anti-diversity — is false. The Atlantic’s errors are entirely consistent with a benign hypothesis: (i) a journalist made a pretty normal human error and (ii) even when we correct these errors, the original conclusion of the article is remains sound: the Trump administration’s rhetoric is outstandingly anti-muslim anti-diversity.

      So while many uses of ‘fake news’ are just propaganda, some uses of ‘fake news’ are also vehicles for conspiracy theory. In those cases, mere errors are labeled ‘fake news’ so as to provide the kind of motive needed to demonize some group with a conspiracy theory.

      (And in case someone is asking, “Why is that conspiracy theory?” Because it’s an instance of “Bad explanations designed to glorify their author and undermine the author’s perceived nemeses.”)

      (And I imagine that liberal-leaning journals/journalists do the same thing. After all, it seems like a rather natural thing for humans to do.)

  2. After responding to Rick’s question, I find myself wondering if conspiracy theory and propaganda are distinguishable.

    Or if they are distinguishable, I wonder if one is a subset of the other.

    One thought: perhaps propaganda is like conspiracy theory, except that it is presented by the government (compared to plain old conspiracy theory, which is presented by, say, private citizens.)

  3. Your classification of “fake news”, “conspiracy theory”, “propaganda” and journalism is pretty interesting. We designed an app that identifies fake & unreliable news and also indicates if there’s any bias in news articles.

    While designing the application, I was originally classifying the news websites in manner you described here. However, later on, I chose these three classifications:

    Fake – Any website that has a recent history of publishing entirely false stories (e.g. “Lady Gaga performing Satanic rituals at the Super Bowl”), fall in this group. In some cases, there are websites which do produce 10 real articles, but sneak in 3 completely fake articles to confuse the readers about their website’s credibility. Our algorithm strictly classifies as fake. Most of the websites that peddle conspiracy theories fall under this group (I’ll explain why later).

    Unreliable – This is a grey area between fake news and verified source. These are the websites that deliberately chose an interpretation of an event that makes their readers happy. In scientific terms, they fudge the words and frame the story in a way that suits their philosophy. Trusted Times’ philosophy is that news should be all about unadulterated facts. And if a news website is changing the facts to fit their narrative, then that news website is unreliable.

    Verified – These are the websites that have dedicated journalists who are pursuing the truth every day. There’s no obvious intention to fudge the facts and these websites make an effort to publish the information as best as they can. Now, there are some reporter’s opinion, attitude or language toward a certain subject discussed in the story may be different. Some writers could come across as more opinionated (and biased) than others. And that’s what we aim to capture and display with Trusted Times – as we believe not every reporter is same.

    Now, coming back to the question why we grouped conspiracy theory websites, and fake news under one category. The reason is simple. We focused on what the reader wants – information. An average reader cares whether the story she/he reads is true or false – or in between. Thus, we wanted to convey that in the most simplistic way as possible – fake, verified or unreliable. Conspiracy theory websites are fake until and unless they provide irrefutable proof to validate their theory – then we can re-classify them as verified. So, Info Wars has to prove that Lady Gaga did perform satanic ritual and explain what a satanic ritual means, and how it can be performed and how Lady Gaga did it. And verify all the claims through an independent third party which corroborates the evidence. So until and unless Info Wars does that, it will be a fake news website for us (just an example).

    If you are curious to learn more about Trusted Times, please visit our website – https://trustedtimes.org/

    1. This sounds like a great step in the right direction. Thanks for explaining your categorization and your reasons for the categorization. I’ll give the app a try ASAP.

    2. I tried the Chrome extension on the Weekly News article mentioned above.

      I agree that with Trusted Times insofar as the article is not fake news. But I am not sure I agree with it’s analysis of FAVORABLE, UNFAVORABLE, and NEUTRAL:

      This article writes FAVORABLY about:
      Washington Post

      This article writes UNFAVORABLY about:
      Jeffrey Goldberg
      Rumana Ahmed

      This article is NEUTRAL about:
      Anna Bross
      Atlantic magazine
      Times magazine
      State Department
      Obama White House
      Ben Rhodes
      Trump White House
      Obama administration
      White House
      Ned Price

      I wonder if the extension distinguished between the report’s claims about an entity and their quoted claims about an entity.

  4. I believe it is possible. One possible next step is to look for the relationship between the entity and the subject describing or mentioning the entity. This would indicate the relative sentiment (favorable, unfavorable, or neutral) between two entities vs the same on the main article as it is now. For example, if a person is quoted saying “my relative sick” – then sometimes the algorithm depicts the relative in an unfavorable way, because the sentiment is negative (being “sick”) – which shouldn’t be the case. These are some of the current limitations of machine learning algorithms.

    Besides that, the obvious next step is to keep training the models so their accuracy rate (and confidence) becomes better and yields to less error rate & false positives.

    Speaking of false positives, until the models earn a perfect record, I would need help from real journalists and researchers to validate the results from the models. So I’m open to collaboration.

    1. I see. That makes sense.

      If I were a journalist or a machine learning expert, then I’d be interested in helping out in some way. Alas,…

      But some of the readers might qualify, so perhaps someone will reach out to you.

      Thanks for sharing! I really appreciate you taking the initiative to create something like this!

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