For a term that is suddenly everywhere, “fake news” is fairly slippery.
Is “fake news” a reference to government propaganda designed to look like independent journalism? Or is it any old made-up bullshit that people share as real on the internet? Is “fake news” the appropriate label for a hoax meant to make a larger point? Does a falsehood only become “fake news” when it shows up on a platform like Facebook as legitimate news? What about conspiracy theorists who genuinely believe the outrageous lies they’re sharing? Or satire intended to entertain? And is it still “fake news” if we’re talking about a real news organization that unintentionally gets it wrong? (Also, what constitutes a real news organization anymore?)
Finally, do any of these distinctions matter if the end result—widespread confusion and disagreement over what’s real and true—is the same? The problem, as many see it, is that the ubiquity of “fake news”—misinformation shared widely on Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and elsewhere—is creating a culture of deception and deepening the country’s partisan divide.
But if the proliferation of bad information online is indeed the dangerous driving force of a post-fact society—a society in which made-up stories inspire real incidents like the gunfire at a pizzeria in Washington over the weekend, or the woman charged with making death threats against the parent of a child murdered in the Newtown massacre because she thought the attack was a hoax—people ought to know what “fake news” actually means.
i wonder what it's like to be the pizzagate gun guy and discover that your former comrades now believe that you're a crisis actor— Max Read (@max_read) December 5, 2016
We’ve reached a point where fake news and real news are becoming harder to parse—not just because it’s easy for anyone to broadcast fabrications to mass audiences online, but because legitimate journalistic attempts to understand the fake-news phenomenon are often absent of much-needed nuance (and, in some maddeningly illustrative cases, turn out to be inaccurate themselves). All this is happening against a backdrop of what’s perceived by journalists as growing animosity toward the press, antagonism that’s reinforced by some of the most powerful members of society—like the billionaire Peter Thiel, who successfully destroyed Gawker and said he’d do it again, and the president-elect, who called reporters “the lowest form of life” and “the enemies.”