Fake News

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An Introduction to Fake News

What is Fake News?

Fake news is a type of journalism used to promote misleading or false information broadcasted through traditional print media, TV news and online social media. Fake news is published with the intent to mislead or to bring attention towards political, financial, and social topics with deceptive headlines. It is separate from traditional satire which is intended to humor or parody rather than cause deception or mislead audiences. Fake news employs clickbait or eye-catching headlines in order to maximize traffic and impact the greatest amount of people.

With the widespread use and ease of access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Fake news has become a prominent predicament for these platforms due to their massive reach and the potential for advertising revenue. A recent study showed that 44% of Americans get their daily news from Facebook.[1] The massive reach of such platforms has made them a major target of Fake News.

The term "Fake News" became legitimized during the 2016 US Presidential elections. Candidates from both sides complained they were targeted by Fake News and some complaining that it influenced the result of the election.

Types of Fake News and Examples

An example of fake news spread during the 2016 US Presidential Elections

Fake News

These types of stories are completely made up. There is no truth to such stories and the goal is to spread misinformation or to promote a particular agenda. These types of stories were particularly present during the 2016 US Presidential elections. The pope endorsing Donald Trump during the 2016 US Presidential elections is a prominent example of "Fake News" that was wide spread during the elections.[2]

Satire or Parody

This involves publishing a fabricated story as humorous attempt to mimic a legitimate news source. This can be harmful if it is taken out of context. Sites such as the Onion or Daily Mash are known for publishing this type of content. One of the top headlines from the The Onion stated "Pope Vows To Get Church Pedophilia Down To Acceptable Levels" in response to the child abuse scandals that rocked the church back in 2010.[3]


Propaganda consists of subjective information that is used to influence an audience or promote an agenda. This is often done by presenting selective facts that are meant to cause an emotional rather than a rational response out of the target audience. Propaganda is usually associated with government but can include political, and private companies.[4]

Slanted and Biased

This type of journalism usually reports on real news but presents the facts in a way that further a particular agenda. This includes taking things out of context and ignoring sides that do not fit your agenda. It has become a prominent issue as the major news networks in the United States tend to show bias towards a particular political spectrum and tend to include that bias while broadcasting information. For example , CNN has been shown to be very left wing in its approach to journalism and tends to report on issues that further their progressive agenda. [5] In contrast, news networks such as Fox News and Breitbart News Network has shown to be particularly right wing promoting conservative agenda.

How is it spread?

Social Media

Perhaps the most popular method of which fake news has spread is through social media channels. Facebook and Twitter acts as referral sites to fake news sites via their newsfeeds. It is an evident trend that more people are resorting to digital means of acquiring information rather than print papers, likely due to the ease of accessibility and low costs. One major reason for the popularity of social media is the significant amount of advertisement growth that can be generated through visits to the original fake news website. This can get up to tens of thousands of dollars per month generated by Adsense. [6]Another advantage of utilizing social media for fake news producers is its low costs as it’s free to post and produce content. People who see Facebook news articles may also be more inclined to believe and share as they may trust their family and friends’ opinions and credibility. Social media makes sharing information whether true or false much easier. The information that’s not shared through articles and fake news sites can also be fake news. For instance, people with a great deal of influence such as politicians and celebrities can share fake news or misinformation through a tweet. The millions of followers of these influencers will be reached very efficiently with no source to back up a certain false claim.

Fake News Facebook Engagement 2016


Clickbait is a great way of spreading fake news through social media. There stories and articles involve surprising or provocative headlines that attracts you to click the link leading you to a specific website. The use of clickbait is especially successful when you want attention and click-generated ad revenue. Clickbait can involve use of images and videos as well all with the intent to make you click and visit their site, which often contains misinformation.


Commonly used for Twitter accounts, fake news can be distributed widely and fast with the use of bots. These bots are operated by computer programmes and are capable of mass producing tweets, forwarding content, following other accounts and even leaving comments. With specific hashtags attached to these tweets and with the shares directly at influential users, these bots can rapidly create an trending topic. In fact, by taking advantage of spreading to influencers that have a wide network, fake news articles have a much better chance of going viral. [7] The high speed by which the bots automatically work is also impressive however they are easily distinguishable from an account operated by a real person. This is usually illustrated on Twitter by many retweets despite very few favourites which is quite uncommon.


Picture uploaded by Facebook user that of alleged "pro-ISIS" rally

The rapid dissemination of Fake News carries along with it several consequences. It can be utilized as a tool for influencing public opinion, spread false information in the political spectrum and effect business and economics.

Public Opinion

A recent example of this was seen last year when an "anti-ISIS" rally was mistaken for a "pro-ISIS" rally. On 5 December 2015 Facebook user Mickey Knox published the above-reproduced image, reporting that it depicted a “pro-ISIS rally” that had taken place in Dearborn, Michigan, earlier that day. The image was widely circulated via social media, and was shared more than 3700 times on Facebook and re-tweeted more than 1300 times[8] . Several news organizations picked up this story and published without their own due-diligence. Although the story was later retracted and declared a hoax, not everyone that was exposed to the story would have seen the retracted version. These individuals now might be under the influence that such "pro-ISIS" rallies are taking place all over the place.

Apart from spreading misleading information, Fake News can undermine the integrity and trust of legitimate news organizations. A 2016 poll by Gallup suggests that American's Trust in Mass Media has sunk to a new low at 32%, down 8 points from last year [9]. This can cause great uncertainty amongst the public if the authenticity of every bit of information being braodcasted is being doubted. The decreasing trust in the mainstream media will continue to plummet until strict regulations are put into place to ensure that news stories being published adhere to a set of guidelines that are deemed appropriate in order to provide unbiased and factual information to the public.

2016 US Presidential Election

The term "Fake News" became legitimized during the 2016 US Presidential elections. Candidates from both the Republican and Democratic party were constant targets of Fake News. Misleading news stories ranged from minor libel such as Michelle Obama unfollowing Hilary Clinton on Twitter [10] to Donald Trump accused of hiring hookers and urinating in a hotel room once booked by President Barrack Obama.[11] The wide spread of Fake News on social media platforms and other news media provoked many to question if it influenced the election towards a particular candidate. Although many individuals claimed to have been exposed to Fake News at some point during the elections, a Stanford study suggested that majority of Fake News stories were not persuasive enough for a person to change his or her vote. The study goes on to conclude that "it is unlikely Fake news swayed the election."[12]

Social Media & Fake News

Facebook criticized for not doing enough combat Fake news

Social Media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter were considered to be the top target of Fake News. Facebook has been criticized as being one of the main distribution points for Fake News, which many think influenced the 2016 US presidential election. A recent BuzzFeed investigation found that 38% of posts shared from three large right-wing politics pages on Facebook included "false or misleading information," and that three large left-wing pages did the same nearly 20% of the time. [13] Facebook denies this claim and the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg put out a statement quoting "Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic." He continues with the mentioning that "Only a very small amount is Fake news and hoaxes" and "Overall, this makes it extremely unlikely hoaxes changed the outcome of this election in one direction or the other." [14] However, several dozen Facebook employees have been meeting up in secret in order to tackle this issue and one employee reportedly saying “its not a crazy idea” “What's crazy is for him to come out and dismiss it like that” “when he knows and those of us at the company know, that fake news ran wild on our platform during the entire campaign” [15]

This is significant because according to a recent study , 44% of Americans get their news from Facebook.[16] This means that it is highly likely they have come across some sort of fake news or article that they believed to be true and could have influenced their decision. In response, Facebook has promised to step up its efforts to fight fake news by sending more suspected hoax stories to fact-checkers and publishing their findings online. [17] Google has also joined Facebook in an effort to eliminate and ban websites from advertising revenue that spread misinformation and promote Fake news. [18]

Facebook Trending Topic Controversy
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

Facebook has been condemned for the poor functionality of its "Trending" topics feature. Trending stories appear on the right hand side of your news Feed when you are browsing Facebook and they are usually the topics that are merely the most popular ones being shared at any given moment. They take into account a few personal things such as where you live and what pages you follow but look for two broader signals which are the topics being mentioned and a lot and topics that receive a dramatic spike in mentions. However, Ex-staffers say the social network is silencing conservative news stories. They claimed that the headlines you see when scrolling through your news feed are constructed by human beings and subject to their biases. They call it “trending news” and advertise it as something as that is sorted by an algorithm but that is just not the case. [19]

The suppression of certain views can be considered as a means of promoting propaganda. By restricting certain news or information, the public does not have access to the complete information to make an informed decision. Rather, they are forced to accept the opinion that is being drawn by the party spreading the information. It is key to note that Objectivity is not always possible but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.

Economical Examples

Tweet by AP that caused panic in the Stock Market

Can Fake News have an effect on the Stock market? In 2013, $130 billion in stock value was wiped out in a matter of minutes following an Associated Press tweet about an “explosion” that injured Barack Obama [20] . AP said its Twitter account was hacked. Although stock prices recovered shortly thereafter, this instance points to how news on social media can be manipulated to impact high-frequency trading algorithms that rely on text to make investment calls. This story exemplifies that Fake News is spread amongst multiple facets and its impact are destructive and evident. DOW Jones Industrial averaged dropped 143.5 points. This event is an example of how Fake news has become a global phenomenon and its effects are evident at macro level.

Another instance of Fake News circulation includes a "Fake iOS 7 ad claiming to make the iPhone waterproof". Back in 2013, Apple released the iOS 7. A hoax started spreading across social media channels claiming that the new software upgrade had also made the iPhone waterproof [21] . A significant amount of users fell for the hoax and had their iPhone destroyed as a result of following the instructions put out by the hoax. The fake ad was published by a user on an online forum called "4chan" which is known for its controversies. This event portrays that people have a tendency of believing things they hear even if they come from very illegitimate sources. Therefore, source legitimacy has become of further importance in an effort to tackle such hoaxes and Fake news.

Future of Fake News

Fake News Trend from July 2016 to January 2017

The new technologies that are expected to be prevalent in the future will have good and bad implications for fake news. In fact, many new technologies will make creating and distributing fake news much more efficient and real. For instance, video and audio can be easily compromised with the use combined advancements in artificial intelligence and computer graphics. [22] This means not only do we have to look out for misinformation on the internet, we may encounter entirely fabricated news broadcasts, replacing what they are saying and saying with an realistic robotic voice. Morphing technology is improving rapidly and can alter face movements and produce human voices that can be very difficult to see or hear the deception. [23] On the other hand, a future where we cannot believe anything we see and hear especially on the internet is unlikely. Social media platforms have been proactive in their endeavor to eliminate fake news or at least giving users a sign that it is probably unreliable information. For example, Facebook has partnered with various fact checking organizations and offered users tips for identifying fake news. [24] On top of this, a proactive approach that uses algorithms can flag articles automatically and with artificial intelligence, software can learn from human feedback and be more effective and efficient in stopping fake news. “Wikidata” is also a way to combat fake news by using provided facts in a large database and allow users to search for the truth by asking it questions. A limitation of this however is that news is new and the database may not contain the data to debunk the news article. Fact-checkers that can update its database in real time would be ideal. [25]

Unrelated to technology, there are a few challenges that may limit the filtration and elimination of fake news. Firstly, the term “fake news” could be deliberately used by people who want to label the news fake either to mislead people or to cause them to dismiss the news article. This shows relying on social media users to flag fake news rather than professionals may allow real news to be blocked. On the other hand, relying on fact checkers is not guaranteed either. Many people may not actually look at the credibility and reliability of the fact-checker's sources or it may be the case that their sources are not made public because they want to avoid their sources being compromised. The current approach involves trusting the big corporations such as Facebook and Google handle it and they have tried to. For instance, Google and Facebook is collaborating with Vodafone, a telecom company that will stop giving ad revenue to fake news sites by only working with sites the have assessed to be clean of fake news. [26] However, the effectiveness of this strategies too eliminate the root causes is questionable as some of those who publish fake news have the sole intent to misinform or to change your view rather than to make money.

Also, it is hard to determine accountability of those who decide to create or publish fake news because it would be hard to prove an intent and the knowledge that it was false. This calls for proper regulations and enforcement strategies, and perhaps involvement with the justice system so that there is more deterrence. The path to credible and reliable information from the internet or even from mainstream news agencies is difficult. To fully remove bias and subjectivity from news is very unlikely but with better technology, more awareness and more use of critical thinking, we can handle misinformation professionally and not be easily fooled.

How to Detect Fake news

Key Methods

Apart from advances in technology to better detect and stop fake news, a variety of methods and critical thinking can help us recognize a news article’s validity. Here are some few key tips.

1) Check the validity of the sources:

Often we forget to check our sources as they might be endorsed by a trustworthy friend who had shared it on social media. Especially with websites that are unpopular or not well-known, it is important to check the authors who wrote the article and to look at the “about” section on the website for information on the sources. Be aware of fake authors and of the websites that do not even have an “about” section. When you see the author’s sources, be sure to see if there are any good or if they even back up the claim made in the article. If they do back it up, see if others have found the source reliable in the past. Also, many fake news articles may have fake or unnamed experts used as sources which is something to be aware of. When you are checking out the website to see the article's validity, it is smart to look at other articles in that website and often this can help you tell whether you should be skeptical of the information you found in the original article you saw.

2) Don’t fall for clickbait:

If the headline of the article sounds like it is probably too good or too bad to be true then it very well can be false. Often social media users will share the fake news based on a shocking headline. Instead, always look into the article's content and its credibility before sharing. Even if you are reading from a news agency you find reliable, It is important to keep in mind that the headlines are created to attract or provoke you to view the article, for example they may use surprising claims about something or all caps or exclamation points which is a good sign it might be misinformation. Satire or a funny headline can also be clickbait used to make you click into their website and ultimately generate ad revenue.

3) Be aware of the content:

When you are reading the news, always question elements of the content to look for misinformation. For instance, sometimes we can find unusual formatting such as misspelled words, manipulated photos and fabricated dates/timelines. Note that some content may intentionally contain some true facts given that adding some truth to a lie will make fake content much more convincing. In other words, legitimate news can turn into fake news when some information is altered such as dates.

4) Think about the intention behind the article:

The big picture should be considered when inspecting fake news. There is always an intent behind the fake news, whether that is to change your perspective, divert your attention or to simply to make you laugh. Ask yourself questions such as “why am I seeing this right now at this exact moment?” Current events at the time such as a federal election should make you skeptical of the news on the election especially when the news agency is known to be biased to a political stance.

5) Use a fact checker:

If we cannot figure out if an article is legit, there are various fact checkers that can help us. To list a few, there are factchecker.org, scopes.com, the Washington Post fact checker, and politifact.com. These fact checkers have been reliable but it might be necessary to check their sources if they reveal them to further verify the article's validity.


Vikramjit Dhaliwal Mark Zi Long Zhao
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
Beedie School of Business
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC, Canada
vikramd@sfu.ca mzzhao@sfu.ca


  1. Article in NiemanLabs
  2. Article in CNBC
  3. Article in The Onion
  4. Wiki ref Propaganda
  5. Article in The National Review
  6. Article in The Washington Post
  7. Article in Technology Review
  8. Article in The Independent
  9. Poll byGallup
  10. Report by Snopes
  11. Article by Mirror
  12. Study by Stanford University
  13. Article by BuzzFeed
  14. Statement by CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg Facebook
  15. Article in Guardian
  16. Article in NiemanLabs
  17. Article in BBC
  18. Article in Telegraph
  19. Article in Huffington Post
  20. Article in Huffington Post
  21. Article in The Guardian
  22. Article in The Guardian
  23. Article in The Guardian
  24. Article in The Verge
  25. Article in The Guardian
  26. Article in The Guardian
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