What is fake news?

This article is part of Fake news

Fake news: whether you’ve realised it or not, you’ve very likely encountered it before. But what exactly is fake news?

Fake news: a definition

Fake news is a term that fits within a larger problem of misleading information. Purposely fabricated news reports are part of that problem, but there are plenty of other types of information that aren’t 100% reliable.

A politician who tries to swing an event to their advantage, a journalist who has misunderstood the conclusion of a scientific study or an advertiser who presents their product more positively than is strictly true: not every type of misleading information can be classed as fake news. That’s why scientists and policymakers prefer to use the wider term ‘disinformation’ over the more limited ‘fake news’.

“Fake news denotes any form of incorrect information that is aimed at misleading people for political reasons (eg. winning votes) or commercial ones (eg. making money through false advertisement). Scientists and policymakers prefer to use the wider term ‘disinformation’.”
Prof. dr. Ike Picone

Disinformation vs. misinformation

Scientists Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan (2017) go one step further and introduce a distinction between disinformation and misinformation. Disinformation is disseminated with harmful intent, while misinformation is not intentionally spread for that purpose.

5 facts about fake news

Although fake news is a hot topic right now, it’s not a new phenomenon. In the past, facts were also misrepresented or incorrect information was sent out in order to harm political opponents. The main difference today is the impact of social media on the spread of fake news: news travels faster than ever.

What we learn in the news or the media influences our choices and our behaviour. When incorrect information is purposely disseminated, that can have an impact on our political opinions and the way we vote.

‘Thanks’ to the internet and new technologies, just about anyone can create fake news. You could start a website where you post your own news reports and spread these on social media. It’s even possible to create fake videos these days by imitating someone’s voice (voice cloning) or by combining existing images (deepfakes).

Fake news is first and foremost about spreading incorrect information, but that’s not always the makers’ ultimate goal. Fake news can be big business. When people on social media click on so-called news articles with shocking titles, the creators can earn a lot of advertisement revenue thanks to the website traffic.

Social media have boosted the spread of fake news enormously. On the one hand because people like or share these messages on their timelines, which brings them to the top of your feed, but also because the algorithms behind social media try to predict which posts you will find interesting. This phenomenon is called a filter bubble. If you have interacted with fake news before, you might be shown posts that are similar.

3 examples of fake news

  • Images of Ariana Grande in the wrong context

In 2017 photos of a battered Ariana Grande were shared on Twitter, supposedly as a consequence of the bombing in Manchester. In reality the images were from the set of ‘Scream Queens’, a tv series in which she played a part.

  • Fake advertisements with famous people

In 2019, scammers spread all sorts of fake advertisements on Facebook and Google with made-up testimonials from famous Flemish people, claiming they had gotten rich through bitcoin or used certain diet pills to lose weight. These advertisements used images of the likes of Philippe Geubels and Astrid Coppens.

  • Made-up deaths

Amélie Nothomb, Paul McCartney and even Enzo Knol: they have all incorrectly been pronounced dead in the past. Sometimes on purpose, to spread fake news, but on occasion trustworthy news media also publish these types of articles by accident.

Published on 19 October 2023