Defining “Fake News” Is Harder Than You’d Think

Go to the profile of Julie Mastrine
Aug 13, 2019
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People on all sides of the political spectrum see fake news as a terrible problem for the health of democracy. However, the way people use, feel and think of that term has changed a lot in recent years, and it means different things to different people at different times.

Recently, the AllSides Red Blue Dictionary, a tool providing balanced explanations of controversial terms and phrases, gathered a team of people with beliefs from across the political spectrum to come up with a definition that captures what people really mean when they refer to “fake news”.

Allsides.com Red Blue Dictionary
Image: Allsides.com

The process took days, and required lots of back-and-forth to ensure that views from all sides of the political bias spectrum were accurately captured. The final, full fake news definition appears on the AllSides Red Blue Dictionary, which was created by a cross-partisan group of dialogue experts. That means every single dictionary definition was a multi-partisan effort, incorporating opinions and ideas from people all across the political bias spectrum. 

So, what is fake news? Fake news most commonly refers to journalism or information that either deliberately or unintentionally misleads people and distorts reality by spreading false information, hoaxes, propaganda or misrepresentation of facts. It can be used as a propaganda or marketing tactic, as a way to fairly or unfairly discredit ideological opponents, or as a way to increase revenue via online engagement metrics such as clicks, views, comments, likes and shares.


People on both the Left and the Right say that the term fake news can be used to discredit anyone or anything they disagree with or don’t like. For example, many on the Left say President Trump calls anything he disagrees with fake news, while many on the Right argue this is the Left media’s way of deflecting legitimate concerns about their bias and lack of credibility.

Four types of occurrences are regularly labelled fake news:

  • False information: Completely untrue, false, or made up information presented as fact.
  • Misapplied or misrepresented facts: True information or data that is misrepresented, misused or misapplied to paint a false picture of reality.
  • Omission of information: Information or data that is factually true but is misrepresented, or other relevant information or data that would counter its narrative is ignored.
  • Misleading choices of what should be news: Important stories are ignored or buried (hard to find), or unimportant stories are treated as important news.

Aside from these more technical distinctions, there is broader disagreement as to the scope of what ought to be labelled as fake news. For instance, some left-leaning mainstream media outlets that have been criticised by President Trump, such as CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times, often use the more narrow, literal definition of fake news — purely fictional, made-up information.

Allsides.com Media Bias Chart
Image: Allsides.com

However, media and people from the Right and the Far Left often use a broader definition of fake news — to describe media coverage that is overly biased, deceptive or manipulative. From this vantage point, established media powers are employing bias, failing to do good-faith research and lacking credibility. They say the mainstream description of fake news — as purely made-up information — is too narrow a definition, and believe that we need to shine a light on the more subtle and pernicious type of fake news: that which is biased, manipulative or deceptive. Many on both the Right and Left believe this type of fake news is a more sophisticated, dangerous and Orwellian way to fool and manipulate people. They are grateful that this deceit is getting more attention.

And yet, it’s not that simple. Still more people believe that when people on the Right use the term fake news, it’s really an attack on credible news in general.

Get the full definition of fake news at the AllSides Red Blue Dictionary and consider the following questions:

  • What do you think of when you hear the term “fake news”?
  • How can we distinguish fake news from real news?
  • How might concerns about fake news affect how reporters provide information?
  • Is it a problem that people have different meanings for the term fake news?
  • Are all the cries of fake news preventing us from agreeing on a shared reality?
  • Does the heightened awareness of fake news encourage critical thinking and help us to identify higher quality information?

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Related Topics

Post-truth
Reimagining Democracy

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Go to the profile of Julie Mastrine

Julie Mastrine

Director of Marketing, Allsides.com

Julie Mastrine is the Director of Marketing at AllSides.com. AllSides is healing our democracy with balanced news, media bias ratings, and real conversation.

1 Comments

Go to the profile of Peter Kraneveld
Peter Kraneveld 4 months ago

It would have been good to put this article in context by mentioning somewhere that it applies to the US only. Most of its observations apply to the US or can only be understood in a US context. One example. The US does not have a political left. In other OECD democracies, Democrats would be centre-right and Republicans would be somewhere between UK style conservatives and the religious fringe parties.

It is quite important that the contribution is written with the extreme political polarisation in the US as background. Though the UK is moving in the same direction, that background does not exist in other OECD democracies. The fake news issue is but one element of that polarisation. Fake news is what the other side says or writes, unless "my" side says or writes the same. In other democracies, facts and figures have a much larger role in deciding what is fake news. Without the polarisation, the fake news issue would shrink to manageable proportions.

Two elements not mentioned in the article are noteworthy. Concentrating, as the article does, on professional print and TV journalism, journalists are humans. They fail, like all of us, often, more often than we think we do. That is not fake news. Deduct errors and omissions from what is routinely called "fake news" and you are left with dogmatically inspired twists. Solve that by taking away political polarisation and somehow and I doubt there will be much fake news left.

A more serious omission in the article is internet chat sites. Here is where fake news really lives, because there is no fact checking mechanism in place. If you are concerned about fake news, force the chat site operators to do an amount of fact checking and correcting. Don't say it is not possible. If Wikipedia can do it effectively, so can other sites. Don't just write there, lobby something.