The election of President Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 ushered in an era of attacks on the media and accusations that outlets such as The New York Times and The Washington Post are publishing “fake news.” But what exactly is “fake news”? And why are claims about information, misinformation, and disinformation in American journalism so troubling?
TSP has previously published articles summarizing scholarly concerns about fake news–in particular, its role in the political polarization phenomenon. Media scholars also now see these trends as part of a larger, longer-term crisis of democracy itself, beginning sometime in the final decades of the 20th century.
- Matt Carlson. 2018. “Fake News as an Informational Moral Panic: The Symbolic Deviancy of Social Media during the 2016 US Presidential Election. Information, Communication & Society: 1–15.
- Karin Wahl-Jorgensen. 2018. “Media Coverage of Shifting Emotional Regimes: Donald Trump’ Angry Populism.” Media, Culture & Society 40(5): 766–778.
- Edson C. Tandoc. 2019. “The Facts of Fake News: A Research Review. Sociology Compass: 1–9.
- Johan Farkas and Jannick Schou. 2019. Post-Truth, Fake News and Democracy: Mapping the Politics of Falsehood. New York: Routledge.
In spite of all of these questions and controversies, one thing is clear: there is no consensus on what exactly fake news is. The definition of fake news is unclear to many Americans. According to a 2018 study from The Media Insight Project, there are several understandings of what “fake news” really means to Americans nationwide:
- 71% of Americans think fake news is “made-up stories from news outlets that don’t exist”
- 63% think fake news refers to “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors”
- 62% think it means “journalists from real news organizations making stuff up”
- 43% think fake news refers to news organizations making sloppy mistakes
- 25% call satire or comedy about current events fake news
Audiences play a key role in interpreting the news and acting on it — or not. Pew Research Center data shows 68 percent of American adults say that they get their news on social media even though 57 percent of them expect the news they see on social media to be “largely inaccurate.” Academic studies also find that “fake news” is often used by social media users to insult information shared by members of opposing political parties.
- Silvio Waisbord. 2018. “Truth is What Happens to News: On Journalism, Fake News, and Post-Truth. Journalism Studies 19(13): 1866–1878.
- John Brummette, Marcia DiStaso, Michail Vafeiadis, and Marcus Messner. 2018. “Read All About It: The Politicization of ‘Fake News’ on Twitter.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 95(2): 497–517.