What is fake news? The three kinds

Paul Gibbons expert on fake news and post truth

Fake news can be divided into three kinds. The first kind is news that is deliberately “made-up” and that the “perp” knows is manufactured. The second kind is news that is unarguably false, yet in the minds of the writer/ publisher is true.  The third kind is satirical, from publications such as The Onion, who do not pretend what they say is the truth, yet has the appearance of a news article.

What Wikipedia thinks about fake news

Wikipedia defines fake news exclusively as the former – “a story has to be written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically.”  Quality news organizations make mistakes, but by and large do not seek overtly to deceive.  When challenged, they print retractions – in fact, one characteristic of Fox News is that they do retract – which (in my view) puts them outside the fake news category.  One characteristic of a post-truth world is that people “double-down” on their lies rather than retract them.

The key distinction according to Wikipedia is intention – whether (like the good folks in Macedonia) news organizations set out to deceive (or to be funny, or believe they aren’t fake). I think the lines are blurred between the three kinds because it is impossible to discern human intention.  Much as we’d like to believe we understand the motivations and intentions of people and groups, those are stories we make up in our own heads – what philosophers call “folk psychology”.

Examples of fake news

The Onion intends comedy, but they are almost always making a political statement, and almost always “paralleling” the truth (or they would not be quite as hilarious.)  I’d say The Onion represents a kind of fake news – they know they are not telling the truth, and their intention is to be funny.

To decide whether a site such as Infowars is fake news, we have to take a position on the truth (to say that something is unarguably false).  In a sense, we can’t easily say it is unarguably false, because they would argue with us – so we need to use “what some huge percentage of reasonable people might believe given the evidence.”  This puts us on slippery ground.

We don’t know, for example, whether Infowars really believes that the Newtown massacre of school children was a fabrication – and what their intention is in suggesting that it is.  We don’t really know whether Trump really thinks crime rates are at an all-time high, or whether Kellyanne Conway really believes that the Bowling Green massacre happened. (It is near an all-time low, and nothing like that ever happened in Bowling Green.) They may be indifferent to the truth, they may be ignorant of it, or they know it and choose to deceive.  Knowing someone’s state of mind when they speak (lie) is (as we’ve said) philosophically impossible – it may be the case that some combination of the three describes what they are thinking.

So I think we need to keep the definition broad – that means we avoid making the psychological call of ascribing an intention (a state of mind to someone), but we have to make the easier call (and one that is philosophically possible) of taking a position on the truth. We have to do more of the latter, and less of the former.

This, before I leave, is an in-depth report on the fake news factories in Macedonia that may well have swung the US election.  https://www.wired.com/2017/02/veles-macedonia-fake-news/

I hope these comments add to the debate – as I say in Truth Wars, figuring out how to discriminate, as citizens and consumers, between truth and falsehood may be the most important problem of our time.

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