There are facts, which are often news, and there are lies. Lies can sometimes be news, depending on who is telling them: “I did not have sex with that woman,” is a good example. But if lies are made up by some anonymous internet warrior with the intention of harming others, why do we do those lies the honour of calling them news? Or should we not classify the things we currently consider fake news as ‘news’ after all?
At the PR summit organised by C2, fake news was the central topic. It is a topic that – unsurprisingly – attracts a lot of attention. Since the election campaign in the United States, fake news has been conquering the world at a speed that would have even Usain Bolt himself throwing in the towel. It turns up every day in one form or other: on your Facebook newsfeed, during the evening news or in newspaper articles about the word of the year… and fake news actually wasn’t even nominated. Media, and more and more individuals as well, are being accused rightly or wrongly of spreading fake news. And the heart of the matter is that it doesn’t have much to do with news at all.
“Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote a political cause or point of view, with the intention to influence someone’s thoughts and persuade them of your ideas.” Does this ring any bells? It is the definition of propaganda, although it comes extremely close to the definition of fake news. If there is hardly any difference between the two, why don’t we just call both by the same name? Propaganda is nothing new, after all, although just like lies it may be newsworthy on occasion.
Whether something is news or not depends on whether or not it is true. Is the message incorrect without the person telling it being aware of it? In that case, it is simply inaccurate reporting. Unacceptable as that may be, it is a completely different issue. If the report is inaccurate and the person spreading it realises that that is the case, then it is no longer news. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists to make the distinction. Distrust of the media, partly due to the actions of journalists, is growing. Groups have even been set up that try to catch the media out by spreading false reports. Their aim is to bring the media into discredit.
By now the term ‘fake news’ is so controversial that it has become a red rag to a bull. Is there something you don’t agree with? It must be fake news. Something you don’t believe? Fake news. Does it count as propaganda when someone dismisses things as fake news, even when they aren’t necessarily untrue? Or when a world leader calls something fake news if it doesn’t put him in a good light? Aren’t you trying to persuade people of something, even if you know that what you are saying is subjective?
One thing is certain: we are living in a post-truth era, when it is more difficult than ever to distinguish truths from untruths. That applies all the more to social media, where the only people users can trust are themselves. There is one tip I can give you, at any rate: if it looks like propaganda and reads like propaganda, it is probably fake news.