You’d have to have been hiding under a rock not to have heard the term that’s risen in prominence in the past few years, been hijacked by politicians and stoked international political tensions along the way.
While the concept isn’t new – false information and mistruths have been circulating for as long as stories have been told – smartphones, the internet and social media have given it a new lease of life and a new high-speed distribution mechanism. Back in 2013, the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report warned that misinformation could spark "digital wildfires" in our hyper-connected world.
So what exactly is it? And what does the future hold?
Fake news can be as slippery to define as it is to pin down. Stories may be factually inaccurate and deliberately published to underscore a certain viewpoint or drive lots of visitors to a website, or they could be partially true but exaggerated or not fully fact-checked before publication.
Sharing without limits
While articles like this have existed for centuries, modern technology enable them to spread like wildfire, jumping from pocket to pocket and being consumed, digested and shared before anyone’s stopped to consider their accuracy.
This has been exacerbated as traditional media outlets compete for readers and vie for clicks with their internet-based rivals and social media.
Things are complicated further since not all of the misinformation shared online is total fiction. Fact-checking website Snopes.com founder David Mikkelson draws a distinction between “fake news” and “bad news” – something he defines as “shoddy, unresearched, error-filled, and deliberately misleading reporting.”
One of the central challenges of fake news is that it places the onus to verify stories on the reader, who could be a person without the time, energy or resources to do so.
2016 marked a turning point for awareness as Oxford Dictionaries said its Word of the Year was “post-truth”, defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
2016 was a landmark year for the concept, with key political events, including the Brexit vote in the UK and the US presidential election, underscoring how digitalization is shaping and often dictating the news flow.
“The concept of post-truth has been simmering for the past decade, but Oxford shows the word spiking in frequency this year in the context of the Brexit referendum in the UK and the presidential election in the US,” it said.
That chimes with Google data showing searches for the term “fake news” spiked in 2016 and haven’t abated since.
And the proliferation of fake news has gone hand-in-hand with an erosion of public trust in traditional news sources, creating a vacuum filled by misinformation. A survey by Ipsos showed faith in UK journalists and politicians has fallen to a low relative to other professions, while US President Donald Trump often uses the term to discredit stories he disagrees with.
An NPR analysis of Trump’s Twitter account showed the range of things he declared as “fake” or “phoney” grew last year.
Have you read?
While many fabricated stories take the form of relatively harmless satire or funny memes, others have more chilling implications. A lack of accountability on online platforms enables anyone to claim whatever they like with little reproach. This presents wide-ranging challenges, including to public health.
This means people without the proper qualifications and experience can claim to be health experts, sharing advertisements for too-good-to-be-true weight loss supplements or posts on Twitter about the perceived downsides of childhood vaccinations that directly contradict the view of qualified professionals.
“Misinformation published by conspiracy sites about serious health conditions is often shared more widely than evidence-based reports from reputable news organizations,” according to an analysis by UK online newspaper the Independent.
Of course social media and sharing apps can also be harnessed by health professionals to spread helpful information, as UNICEF has done in India, but again, the onus is on the reader to sift through a large volume of data and discern what’s accurate and what isn’t.
Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health and Institute of Healthcare Management, has called for new and innovative ways for health officials to counteract fake stories, saying tackling the problem is only going to become more important in future.
And such themes are everywhere, not just in health and politics. In a report on fake news published in 2017, UK lawmakers said the situation is unlikely to change, making education and better policing of online spaces paramount.
“What does need to change is the enforcement of greater transparency in the digital sphere, to ensure that we know the source of what we are reading, who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us,” they wrote. “In a democracy, we need to experience a plurality of voices and, critically, to have the skills, experience and knowledge to gauge the veracity of those voices.”