Can we stop calling everything we disagree with “Fake news” already?

Fake news Invasion imageOK, we get it, Fake News has taken off as a buzzword and everyone is talking about the Fake News problem. But seriously, can we stop with the childish pretending that all news outlets are “fake news”? It isn’t funny. And it definitely isn’t helpful.

The term “Fake News” has a very real meaning and purpose in current public discourse. There are websites which make stuff up in order to get clicks and traffic. They aren’t meant to be funny, nor are they actually based in real events. They are just written to incite an emotional reaction and cause people to share, comment and click on Facebook and Twitter. They are a marketing/advertising system, and nothing else.

The most famous example to come out over the last couple of weeks is the website which claimed that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump. That never happened. Not in any way, at all, no matter how you try to twist facts or spin true events. It was made up, wholesale, with no concern for reality at all.

Inaccurate Real Fake News websites mainstream mediaBut since this concept has become mainstream I keep seeing references to all of the “fake news” websites, CNN, FOX, MSNBC, ABC, etc with an implied “hohoho, I’m so clever, I don’t trust the mainstream media…” This image recently went to the top of the /r/wikileaks subreddit. Ron Paul posted this list of “The Real Fake News List“. I’m sure there are many more examples doing the rounds.

What I find somewhat more troubling than these lists though, are the well thought out and mostly reasonable articles which confuse the concept of “Fake news” with spin and bias. Bad journalism is not fake news. Bias is not fake news. Spin is not fake news.

Tim O’Reilly recently complained about the exaggerated headline of a Huffington post article about the Hamilton-Pence event. The HuffPo article’s headline read “Mike Pence Gets ‘Booed Like Crazy’ At ‘Hamilton’“, which I agree, is a gross exaggeration (and clearly a political spin) of what actually happened. But Tim O’Reilly’s own headline is just as problematic: “The Huffington Post Has a Fake News Problem!

No it doesn’t. Clickbait headlines and bias is a problem we have had for a long time now, but these things are not fake news. Exaggeration in a headline is not the same as making up an entire story. They aren’t even close to the same thing.

The fact is, some people at Hamilton did boo Mike Pence. Whether it was “like crazy” as claimed by the Huffington post is really just a matter of perspective (and agenda). Compare the exaggeration of that Huffington Post article to the fake news article: “FBI AGENT SUSPECTED IN HILLARY EMAIL LEAKS FOUND DEAD IN APPARENT MURDER-SUICIDE” which was published in the fake ‘Denver Guardian’, using a fake town with fake quotes from fake people to describe something which never happened. These two things are not the same.

Can we please stop pretending they are?

The Problem with Satirical News

The two fake news articles referenced above (Pope endorsement and FBI Suicide Murder), along with the fake news websites which published them, are both gone now. Presumably the intense scrutiny and social pressure on this issue drove them to shut up shop and run away, crying on the piles of hundred dollar bills they made during the election from their inflammatory headlines.

Fake news like this is easy to call out. Their intention and motivations are simple, and their impact is universally negative.

Where it gets a tricky is with satirical websites which write particularly deadpan articles. With no context or awareness of the satirical nature of the publication, it is too easy for people to fall for headline as true. (Aside: My personal favourite example of this is the Annapolis police chief who testified that 37 people died from Marijuana overdose on the first day of legalisation in Colorado because he read it in a Daily Currant article.)

The Onion Americas FInest News source logoThe Onion is the world’s most well known satirical news publication. Despite the usually obvious humour of their articles and the popularity of the publication, people still frequently fail to understand that the “news” that it publishes is not real. The blog Literally Unbelievable is the public proof of this fact.

Some examples of the Onion’s funniest political headlines:


Unfortunately, many other satirical publications aren’t quite so obviously satirical. This is where the lines start to blur between satire and fake news.

Poes law Wikipedia screenshot

To show you what I mean have a look at this fantastic list of “The 9 worst fake news sites” published by Gizmodo. In its list of fake news sites it provides perfect examples of the sorts of articles which maybe, perhaps, could be real news, but are in fact completely made up:

To show you just a few.

Notice how the list Gizmodo has provided is of “Fake News Sites”. We must be talking about the same thing as I referenced above with the Denver Guardian, right? Well, no. Every single website in this list self-identifies as a satirical website.

9. The World News Daily Report: WNDR assumes however all responsibility for the satirical nature of its articles and for the fictional nature of their content. All characters appearing in the articles in this website – even those based on real people –  are entirely fictional and any resemblance between them and any persons, living, dead, or undead is purely a miracle.
8. Free Wood Post: Free Wood Post is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within are fiction, and presumably fake news.
7. Empire news: Empire News is intended for entertainment purposes only. Our website and social media content uses only fictional names, except in cases of public figure and celebrity parody or satirization. Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental.
6. Huzlers was offline at time of publishing this article.
5. Betoota Advocate doesn’t seem to admit to being satire anywhere I can find, and in fact claims to be fair and authentic, but as an Australian, I can promise you that no Australian is confused about this one. Definitely satire. Australia’s Onion.
4. Lightly Braised Turnip seems to be down. Taken over by a dating app, or spam or something. I have dealt with this website previously though, and I’m pretty sure it also had a disclaimer page.
3. The Borowitz Report: the Borowitz Report, a satirical news column that has millions of readers around the world, for which he won the first-ever National Press Club award for humor.
2. The National Report: National Report is a news and political satire web publication, which may or may not use real names, often in semi-real or mostly fictitious ways. All news articles contained within National Report are fiction, and presumably fake news.
1. The Daily Currant: The Daily Currant is an English language online satirical newspaper…our mission is to ridicule the timid ignorance which obstructs our progress, and promote intelligence – which presses forward.

As you can see, some of them even call themselves “fake news” websites in the same breath that they call themselves “satirical”. Clearly the difference between the two isn’t exactly clear cut. They overlap. And thus, I agree with Gizmodo that this is indeed a list of “Fake news sites” even though they all call themselves satirical.

That said, this also means that they have somehow failed to include The Onion in their list too.

In Short…

Fake News is not the same as biased reporting, agenda driven spin, or clickbait headlines.

Fake News is not every news story which you disagree with.

Fake News is anything which is made up news. Whether it is made up news for the sake of humour in the form of satire, or made up to cause a reaction (clicks, comments and shares on social media) is mostly irrelevant. It is made up, and not at all real. ie: Fake. (this really shouldn’t be that hard to understand!)


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