Fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation, be it via the traditional news media or via social media, with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically. It often employs eye-catching headlines or entirely fabricated news-stories in order to increase readership and online sharing. Profit is made in a similar fashion to ‘clickbait’ (content that is aimed at generating online advertising revenue at the expense of quality or accuracy) and relies on ad-revenue generated regardless of the veracity of the published stories.
Easy access to ad-revenue, increased political polarization and the ubiquity of social media, primarily the Facebook newsfeed have been implicated in the spread of fake news. Anonymously hosted websites lacking known publishers have also been implicated, because they make it difficult to prosecute sources of fake news for slander. With a large portion of Americans using Facebook or Twitter to receive news, in combination with increased political polarization, filter bubbles, the tendency for readers to mainly read headlines – fake news was implicated in influencing the 2016 American presidential election.
The use of fraudulent news can be traced back to the 8th century, but the term itself arose in the United States in the late 19th century. One of the earliest instances of fake news was the ‘Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835 where the ‘New York Sun’ published articles about a real-life astronomer and a made-up colleague who, according to the hoax, had observed bizarre life on the moon. The fictionalized articles successfully attracted new subscribers, and the penny paper suffered very little backlash after it admitted the series had been a hoax the next month.
Fake news is similar to the concept of ‘yellow journalism’ (journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news) and political propaganda, frequently employing the same strategies used by early 20th century penny presses. In the late 1800s, Joseph Pulitzer and other yellow press publishers goaded the United States into the Spanish–American War, which was precipitated when the U.S.S. Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba.
Prior to 2016, the term ‘fake news’ was frequently used to refer to satirical news, such as ‘Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update’ or ‘The Onion’ newspaper. Later, this category of satirical fake news also came to include Jon Stewart’s ‘The Daily Show’ and Stephen Colbert’s ‘The Colbert Report.’ Fake news has been used in email phishing attacks for many years, with sensationalist fabrications incentivizing users to click links and have their computers infected with malware.
The origin of contemporary fake news is disputed, with some parties claiming it is part of a coordinated Russian propaganda effort aimed at the West. Hillary Clinton was a prime target of fake news during her 2016 presidential candidacy. However, a study by researchers at Stanford University and New York University concluded that fake news had ‘little to no effect on the outcome of the election,’ noting that only 8-percent of voters read a fake news story and that recall of the stories was low. A Pew Research poll conducted in December 2016 found that 23% of U.S. adults admitted they had personally shared fake news, either knowingly or not.
Following Donald Trump’s election it has been suggested that Angela Merkel has become the new primary target of fake news in the run-up to the 2017 German federal election. The Facebook newsfeed has been heavily implicated in the spread of fake news – Facebook itself initially denied this characterization. But, in the aftermath of the American election and the run-up to the German election Facebook has begun labeling and warning of inaccurate news, and partnered with independent fact-checkers to label inaccurate news, warning readers before sharing it. In the wake of western events, China’s Ren Xianling of the Cyberspace Administration of China suggested a ‘reward and punish’ system be implemented to avoid fake news in that country.
Fake news saw higher sharing on Facebook than legitimate news stories, which analysts explained was because fake news often panders to expectations or is otherwise more exciting than legitimate news. Fake news is often spread through the use of fake news websites, specializing in made up attention-grabbing news, while often impersonating widely known news sources in order to gain credibility. Fake news items have occasionally spread from such sites to more well-established news-sites resulting in episodes like ‘Pizzagate,’ a debunked conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, which were leaked by WikiLeaks, contain coded messages referring to human trafficking and connecting a number of restaurants in the United States and members of the Democratic Party with a fabricated child-sex ring.