2.4 Fake News: The Term that Can No Longer be Used

We are currently living in what has been coined the post-truth era. Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016, post-truth is defined as “relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals” (BBC, 2016, para. 2). It is the idea that people prefer to believe things that make them feel a certain way, rather than accepting facts. There is an easy connection to be made here to another term made popular around the same time, that is fake news. In this section we will examine how this term has changed in our recent history, making it an impracticable term for teaching purposes.

The term ‘fake news’, which originally meant news that is false, took on new meaning throughout the US Presidency of Donald Trump (2016-2020). Trump used the term to create distrust in the media, calling major news outlets “the enemy of the people” (Lee, 2018, 1:37). Some audiences agreed with his accusations towards the media and began to accuse mainstream news outlets of spreading fake news. This especially became the case when the news outlets criticized Trump and his supporters, which can be seen in the way Trump often reacted to reporters from major news outlets like CNN during press conferences. In one example, a reporter repeatedly asked Trump to take a question from their news outlets and Trump, rather than answering the questions, responded by repeatedly saying ‘fake news’ (Sutton, 2017). People in positions of power might do this when they disagree with a story, or when a story presents them in a negative way, as we often saw with Trump (Ipsos, 2018; Zimmer et al., 2019). Over time, these interactions had the impact Trump seemingly hoped for, creating distrust in the media, who might represent him negatively at any given time. Some leaders from other countries, seeing his successful attacks on the media, began to do the same (Lee, 2018).

But news and media are supposed to hold governments and leaders accountable. It is their job to report on leaders’ activities to ensure the public is in-the-know. When leaders claim that a news story is fake, simply because it does not match up with their plan or image, it is very dangerous. A study has shown that when credible news stories are labeled as fake news, people may increasingly disregard factual information (Freeze et al., 2021). A Citizen’s Guide to Navigating Information Disorder aptly classifies the use of the term fake news, in the post-truth era, as having “assumed a role as a political weapon against opposition, primarily used by those who don’t trust the traditional news media outlets” (Stecula, 2021, p. 5). When populations begin to distrust the media, the result can be devastating. For example, many people are worried about climate change; however, their trust in governments, business and media is low (Economist Impact, 2022). These factors lead to inaction because they undermine climate initiatives proposed by these organizations: i.e., if the media or government cannot be trusted, why should we respond to their suggestions about climate change action? This leads to a situation where a concern held by most people is not being acted upon due to distrust and disinformation (Economist Impact, 2022).

Many scholars and information professionals refuse to use the term fake news. Its meaning has been twisted to such a degree that it holds very little legitimacy in serving its actual purpose. In the next section, we will discuss the dangers of fake news as a phenomenon that has had major impacts, but we will use the term false news, as we too want to separate our work from the politicized term. We define false news as information that is made to look like real news content and is usually created with the intent to cause harm. It usually contains controversial opinions, or it can be completely made up (Lee & Ma, 2012; Pennycook & Rand, 2019).

2.4.1 The Dangers of False News

Some false news stories, like this one about Vin Diesel moving to Saskatoon, a Canadian prairie city with a population of 250,000, are harmless and sometimes even fun.


Image of Vin Diesel above a headline that reads "Vin Diesel Explains Why He's Moving to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan."
Figure 10: False news story about Vin Diesel (Schneider, 2016).

Other instances of false news have resulted in violence and destruction. A Belgian newspaper Het Laastste Nieuws published a story that claimed exposure to 5G radiation might be linked to becoming infected with COVID-19. This circulated on social media and five percent of UK residents believed it to be true, when questioned. This resulted in the reduction of protective health barriers, such as masks for some, but it didn’t stop there (Hassan & Barber, 2021). In 2020, there were 77 attacks on cellular towers and 40 assaults on repair workers in the United Kingdom (Hassan & Barber, 2021). Throughout the pandemic, several countries experienced incidents that were a part of what has been coined as the 5G-COVID digital wildfire, including the kidnapping of eight telecommunication technicians in Peru (June 2020) as well as arson attacks in South Africa (early 2021) and Canada (March 2021). Experts have correlated the attacks to the spread of false news on the topic (Langguth et al., 2022).



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Disinformation: Dealing with the Disaster Copyright © 2023 by Saskatchewan Polytechnic is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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