Five Months After The Election, Some Outlets Still Don't Understand The Fake News Problem

Five Months After The Election, Some Outlets Still Don't Understand The Fake News Problem

Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

Multiple outlets are incorrectly calling deceptive articles aimed to drive up stock prices for certain companies “fake news” in yet another misappropriation of the term. Although such fraud is indeed problematic, conflating it with fake news -- truly fabricated content meant to drive traffic or push a political message -- detracts from awareness efforts to combat the threat actual fake news continues to present.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced in a press release on April 10 that it would crack down on “27 individuals and entities behind various alleged stock promotion schemes that left investors with the impression they were reading independent, unbiased analyses on investing websites while writers were being secretly compensated for touting company stocks.” According to the SEC, certain companies “hired writers to publish … bullish articles" in order to “generate publicity for their stocks,” without disclosing that those companies were paying the authors. Some authors also wrote the pieces under pseudonyms.

Though the press release does not refer to these deceptions as “fake news,” multiple outlets chose to use that phrase to describe the misleading articles, calling them “fake financial news” and writing that “financial publications have a fake news problem.”

These articles, while deceptive, are not fake news. The term “fake news” specifically refers to information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news. While these articles were deceptive in withholding crucial information (in this case, the payments from these companies and accurate attribution), the reporting referring to these articles as “fake news” did not indicate that there was demonstrably false information in them. Misleading or out-of-context information does not on its own constitute fake news. In addition, as reported by CNN Money, the stories were posted on well-known financial news outlets such as Seeking Alpha, Benzinga, The Motley Fool, TheStreet and Forbes. Conversely, fake news tends to come from websites that often share or aggregate fake news, often to serve as clickbait.

The misuse of the term “fake news” continues to be a problematic trend. Following concern about the rise of fake news after the 2016 election, right-wing media figures began to twist the meaning of the term to attack news and outlets they disagreed with. President Donald Trump, likely echoing this right-wing media tactic, has also repeatedly misused the word to attack outlets, individuals, and reports that portray him in an unflattering light. In fact, a recent study conducted by the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy demonstrated that Trump's misuse of the term spiked when media outlets began to report details on the multiple investigations into and evidence about his campaign's possible collusion with Russian agents.

This warped use of the term is already having a negative impact: according to Columbia Journalism Review, multiple people have complained to the Federal Communications Commission about "fake news outlet[s]" on TV like CNN.

Fake news is a serious problem, with one study finding that fake stories drew more engagement on Facebook than real news articles before the 2016 election. And fake news purveyors are still regularly pushing false stories, weaponizing intentionally satirical articles into fake news, and harassing people with false charges. Fake news purveyors have also become a crucial instrument for spreading fringe conspiracy theories, and fake news was one of the ways Russia worked to spread disinformation into the United States’ information ecosystem.

Misappropriating the term will dilute its meaning, making it harder to deal with this ongoing problem. Conservatives and conservative media are already trying to delegitimize this term -- the most common phrase used to identify and accurately describe this very real problem -- and mainstream media misuse can help confuse the issue and thus decrease awareness of the ongoing threat.

Fake News
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