“We can’t shy away from phrases because they’ve been somehow weaponized. We have to stick to our guns and say there is a real phenomenon here,” said David Lazer, one of the authors of the essay and a professor of political science and computer science at Northeastern University.
“We think it’s a phrase that should sometimes be used,” he told me. “We define it in a very particular way. It’s content that is being put out there that has all the dressings of something that looks legitimate. It’s not just something that is false—it’s something that is manufactured to hide the fact that it is false.”
For instance, the infamous hoax report that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was hosted on a website that had the appearance of being a local TV station, “WTOE 5 News.” There is no station called WTOE 5 in the United States, but the plausibility of the name allowed the falsehood to spread. (That one fake story had roughly three times more Facebook engagement—that is, likes, shares, and comments—than any New York Times story published in 2016.)
Facebook now almost exclusively uses the term false news to talk about fake news. First Draft, a nonprofit research group within Harvard University, also prefers false news, arguing that fake news fails to capture the scope of the misinformation problem online. (Claire Wardle, First Draft’s director of research, goes so far as to call it “f-asterisk-asterisk-asterisk news.”)
But Lazer rejected this phrase as imprecise. Not all false news, he said, is fake.
“I’m sure The Atlantic has sometimes gotten things wrong and published incorrect reporting,” he told me. “Those reports may be false, but I wouldn’t call them fake. For fake news, the incorrect nature of it is a feature, not a bug. Whereas when The Atlantic publishes something that’s incorrect, it’s a bug.”
“The term fake news, describing this problem, has been around for a long time,” he added. “There’s a wonderful Harper’s article about the role of fake news and how information technology is rapidly spreading fake news around the world. It used that term, and it was published in 1925.”
None of the political scientists endorsed President Trump’s tack of calling almost any news coverage he dislikes fake news. “We see that usage getting picked up by authoritarian types around the world,” Lazer said. But he does hope that by using the eye-grabbing term, scholars can reinforce the idea that there is something wrong with the information ecosystem, even though “it may not be the pathology that Donald Trump wants you to believe in.”
Just saying fake news won’t make the pathology go away, though. Nor is fake news the only internet’s only truth affliction.
“I think there’s a whole menagerie of animals in the false-information zoo,” Lazer told me. They include rumors, hoaxes, outright lies, and disinformation from foreign governments or hostile entities. “It’s clearly the case that there was a coordinated Russian campaign around disinformation, but that’s another animal in the zoo,” he said.