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By David Peter Woodhouse Fake News: Don’t Believe Everything You Read!

Fake News - Cappelen Damm

Apr 29, 2022



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Fake News:1
everybody has heard about. The
president himself uses the term all the
time. But what is ‘fake news’, why do
people produce it and what can we do
about it? These are questions that this
article will attempt to answer.
What is ‘fake news’?
First, it is important to define the term ‘fake news’. This is a new term, but not a new idea.
Benjamin Franklini, for example, spread false rumors during the American Revolutionii in the
18th century that the British army had fierce Native American warriors on their side. This was
intended to make the Americans even more hostile towards the British, and influencing
public opinion is still one of the main reasons people spread fake news. We can include this
in our definition of fake news:
Before we go any further, we should look at the different types of fake news that exist. Firstly,
there is satireiii. This is when fake news is used as a form of entertainment. The stories here
look or sound like news, but are completely made up. The best example of this is the
American site The Onioniv (Norway has its own version with Satiriksv). These stories are so far-
fetched that they are quite easy to spot, and are therefore no problem for society.
Another type of fake news is news that is partly true. One example of this is a story on the
Breitbart website from January 2017. It said that a group of 1000 Muslim men in Germany set
a) How would you define fake
new phenomenon? Explain your
fake news story? If so, how do
you know it is fake news? If not,
why is it difficult to spot?
False news that looks or sounds true, which often intends to
affect the public’s opinion of an issue.
fire to a church and attacked the police with fireworksvi. There were 1000 people gathered
outside the church, and some of them set off fireworks, but nobody set fire to the church.
This type of fake news is especially dangerous because it is so close to the truth that it is
easily believable. There are not always evil intentions behind this type of fake news.
Sometimes, stories are inaccurate because of the speed at which they are published. Being
first with a story is often more important than being accurate, and many reporters use social
media without checking their facts.
Finally, we have fake news stories that
are completely false. One example of
this is the story about the Pope
supporting Donald Trump when he was
a candidate for the American
presidency in 2016vii. This story was
clearly intended to increase Trump’s
popularity and his chances of winning
the election in November of that year.
The Pope was quick to deny that he
supported Trump, but as we all know,
once a story has appeared on the internet, it can be difficult to persuade people that it is not
Going viral
Fake news has come to people’s attention because of the
stories that have gone viralviii, but how does this happen? One
way is through the use of hashtags. These are used on social
media to group together comments about the same topic. In
2016, a man called Eric Tucker posted a picture of some
busses on Twitter.ix He claimed that they had been used to
bring anti-Trump protesters to Austin, Texas. He used the
hashtags #fakeprotest and #trump2016. Because of these
hashtags, the tweet was picked up by the website Reddit. This
Pope Francis I did not support Donald Trump
led to it being posted on another website, Free Republic, which then sent it to Facebook
where it was shared over 300,000 times. This was then picked up and used by the TV channel
Fox News. This is where Donald Trump gets a lot of his information, so he found out and
tweeted it himself.
In the meantime, Eric Tucker found out that the busses were not being used to transport
protesters. He posted a tweet telling his 40 followers that he was wrong. How many times
was this tweet shared (or ‘re-tweeted’)? Only 58 times. Lies and misunderstandings are often
more interesting than the truth.
Fake news = big business
Eric Tucker created some fake news without meaning to do so. Other people create fake
news on purpose in order to earn money. Because of the reach of social media, fake news has
become big business. Jestin Coler has been called the godfather of fake newsx. He is an
American man who has set up many fake news websites, for example the National Report.
This became very popular (with 6 million views in 2014) and it therefore made him a lot of
money through advertising sales.
This National Report, however, is especially confusing because it mixes satire with other fake
news stories. Coler has said that it is the reader who has the responsibility to find out what is
true and what is fake. He continued, ‘The motivation was financial. A lot of these people are
screwing around online and seeing what goes viral and doesn’t. I never even thought about
people using it to influence one way or another.’ Coler has now officially retired from the fake
news industry, but not before becoming a very rich man.
Facebook and fake news
In addition to people like Jestin Coler, Facebook also makes a lot of money from fake news,
and with 1.9 billion active users, the fake news reaches a lot of people. The company earned
around 250 million dollars from the 2016 election campaign alone. Some of the fake news
stories on Facebook were about Donald Trump, but most were about his opponent, Hillary
Clinton. She was linked to sex scandals, and even murder cases. There was also false
after the election.
Facebook, however, is making attempts to limit the amount of fake news on its platform.
They have updated their algorithms (patterns that computers look for) to try to spot fake
news before it gains popularity. Facebook has also promised to give information to the
American authorities about 3000 political advertisements that were posted on 500 false
Facebook accounts. These American authorities are investigating Russian involvement in the
2016 presidential election.
Despite these attempts, Facebook has been reluctant to remove fake news stories, so many
fake stories from the 2016 election are still visible in 2017. Facebook said they did not want
to censor the internet, but many people suspect that the real motivation was profit. The
longer people stay on Facebook, and the more times they click on stories, the more money
Facebook makes. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, said that only 1% of the
content on Facebook was fake news,xi but it is important to remember that if this is correct,
this 1% gets a lot more attention than the other 99%. This is often known as ‘clickbait’, and it
is part of the reason why Zuckerberg is one of the richest men in the world.
Trump’s ‘alternative facts’
Politicians have also got in on the act, communicating directly with the public on social media
in order to try to win their vote or their support in general. Donald Trump’s tweets are a good
example of this. For him, popularity is all-important. This gave rise to his tweet about the
number of people at his inauguration in January 2017. He boasted that there had been more
people there than at Obama’s inauguration in 2008xii. When his spokesperson was asked
about this on CNN, she claimed that she had ‘alternative facts’xiii. The news reporter had
another name for these alternative facts. He called them ‘falsehoods’, also known as lies.
Trump knows, however, that social media is an effective way for politicians to influence
people, especially because many people use it as their main source of news. According to
Pew Research Centre, six out of ten US adults get their news from social mediaxiv. This means
that his tweets, true or not, can reach as many, or more, people than TV news.
Challenges to democracy
Another reason why fake news exists is the desire to affect the outcomes of elections. There
have been a lot of stories in the media about Trump working together with the Russians in
2016. Trump says that they did not work together, and this is still being investigated. There
are reports, however, that some Russian people were paid to create fake news designed to
influence American votersxv. They were employed to create fake news stories that were
negative towards Hillary Clinton, but also to post comments on Facebook and other social
media. “The reason I was hired is to make simple people change their mind about their vote,”
said one professional Russian internet troll. Another claimed that making people mad was the
most important part of their work. These professional trolls claimed that they had been told
to ‘troll’ sites like Facebook and Twitter, as well as the internet sites of mainstream media,
such as The Washington Post and the New York Times.
In addition to influencing a presidential election, the rise of fake news has changed society in
several other ways. One such change is that people have begun to doubt the established
news sources. Donald Trump is involved in this as well. He has used the term ‘fake news’ on
many occasions to describe stories that put his presidency in a negative light. This is a big
problem in a country where free speech is protected by the First Amendment to the
Constitutionxvi. The mainstream media have an important role to play when it comes to
limiting the power of the president and making sure he follows the law. The US president is
often called the most powerful man in the world. If he says that a story is fake, many people
the ability of the media to hold him to account.
The consequences of fake news
Fake news can also have dangerous consequences. In November and December of 2016,
America witnessed the ‘pizzagate’ scandalxvii. This was because another piece of fake news
had gone viral. It claimed that Hillary Clinton was involved in a human trafficking business.
This was supposedly based in the basement of a pizza restaurant in Washington. On this
occasion, however, the fake news could have had fatal consequences. On December 4, a 28-
year-old man entered the restaurant with a weapon, claiming that he was there to ‘self
investigate’ the story. He fired three shots, but luckily, no one was injured.
Fake news has also had dangerous consequences in the United Kingdom. This time, it was
some of the daily newspapers that were guilty of using headlines that weren’t 100% accurate.
On November 23, 2015, the Sun newspaper claimed on its front page that 1 in 5 British
Muslims supported Jihadi terrorists. They were later forced to admit that this story was
‘significantly misleading’xviii. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance said
that the Sun, and other British newspapers, were guilty of using ‘offensive’ languagexix.
Unfortunately, this offensive language may have contributed to increased violence in the UK.
Hate crimes are on the increase and many blame this on exaggerated and fake news stories
about people with immigrant backgrounds.xx
How to spot fake news
What can we do then to guard ourselves against fake news? There are simple questions we
can ask ourselves to check if a news story is fake or not. Some of these include:
Who has written the story? Is it possible to find this out? Are they journalists or experts?
Is the author linked to a political party or another organization? Do some research!
Why has the story been written? Is it intended to inform or to persuade?
Does it make you mad? Fake news often targets people’s emotions.
Can you find the same information in more than one place?
Is the story well written? Proper news stories DO NOT USUALLY USE CAPS or lots of
exclamation marks!!!!!!
You can find more hints and tips here (in English) or here (in Norwegian). Be on the lookout,
though, because fake news is definitely here to stay.
After reading
a) How did your definition change after having read the article?
b) Which of the tips for spotting fake news is the most useful one? Explain your answer.
Work in pairs and find definitions for the following terms or expressions. Include examples
where possible.
a) Work together with other students to find an example of a fake news story. Why do
you think people were fooled by this story? What made it believable?
b) Why do some people think that fake news is a problem?
c) Facebook have said that they want to stop fake news, but they do not want to censor
the internet. Do you think that they are doing enough to stop fake news? Explain your
d) Why is censorship such a bad thing? Do you know of any countries where the internet
is censored? Why has it been censored in these countries?
a) Do some independent research to find the top five fake news stories of 2016 and
b) Have a look at this link and answer the following questions.
(i) What is the news story about?
(ii) Does the website think the story is true or is it fake news?
(iii) Why has the website reached this conclusion?
Alternative links for (b):
c) Watch the first minute of this BBC news review. How do we know that this story is not
fake news? Use the hints and tips here (in English) or here (in Norwegian) to make a
list (in English) of the reasons why this is not fake news.