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 journalism publishes errors. And then it publishes 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.

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 our next point.

2.  Let’s Agree on the Terms of Discourse

Our agreement about discourse should also be threefold. First, we should agree to distinguish between these terms and to use the same definitions. If we cannot agree on definitions, then we should at least ask each other to clarify the meanings of the terms above whenever we use them.

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. When there is misunderstanding or disagreement, then we should work hard to ask good questions and provide helpful answers. We should speak clearly and interpret each other charitably. Moreover, we should regularly remind ourselves: 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’.

4.  Related Posts

If news is biased, then it’s wrong, right? Wrong! For an explanation of why that’s wrong, check out “The Bias Fallacy“.

Do academics have their own version of fake news? Sort of. I discuss this on a podcast  “Academic Fake News“.


Published by

Nick Byrd

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

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Rick McBreen
Rick McBreen
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… Read more »
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… Read more »
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… Read more »