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Fact vs. fiction: Defining fake news and tackling the industry-wide challenge

May 23, 2017 | By Keith Pepper, Country Manager, North America—Outbrain @KeithPepper

As the topic of fake news continues to make headlines, it becomes more important to be able to distinguish what is real news versus what is not. However, that distinction is not always an easy one to make.

While the term “fake news” seemed to arrive just in time for the U.S. presidential election, it isn’t exactly new. The intentional fabrication of stories to fool or entertain has always existed. However, the difference is that, today, social media and digital distribution channels have made it more difficult to distinguish “fake news” from “real news.”

Fake News in the Spotlight

The term “fake news” rose to popularity when Facebook faced a backlash for allegedly influencing the 2016 presidential election through the proliferation of made-up stories in users’ newsfeeds and related links. For example, the widely-shared claim that the Pope had endorsed Donald Trump.

Although Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg initially rejected the accusations, he then went on to write an open letter to readers about what the company was “doing about misinformation.” Zuckerberg mapped out a plan calling for stronger detection, easy reporting, third-party verification, and other steps aimed at disrupting the fake news economy.

Google also came under fire for sharing fake news as part of search results, after it displayed a WordPress site as a top hit with information that Trump won both the popular as well as the electoral college votes. At the time, Andrea Faville of Google issued a statement: “Moving forward, we will restrict ad serving on pages that misrepresent, misstate or conceal information about the publisher, the publisher’s content or the primary purpose of the web property.”

Meanwhile, in the months since the election, the meaning of fake news has continued to evolve. President Trump consistently uses the term to refer to media brands with which he disagrees. He famously called out BuzzFeed and CNN as fake news sources during a January media event. He also excluded them—along with The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times (which were also labeled fake newsfrom an informal White House press briefing in February.

So the question becomes: What exactly is fake news and how can one recognize and avoid it? Moreover, is “fake news” even a term we should be using, given its denigration in the cultural lexicon?

Sifting Fact from Fiction


The truth is that these are not easy questions to answer. Media outlets such as PolitiFact and Snopes have created dedicated channels to check the accuracy of news reports and employ entire staffs to weed through sources.

Meanwhile, despite their best efforts, even legitimate news sources occasionally make mistakes. The Guardian, for instance, reported in December 2016 that actor Michael Sheen was trading in acting for politics. However, Sheen completely denied the story.

Does that mean The Guardian publishes fake news? The answer is a resounding “no.” Premium publishers should not be relabeled as “fake news” based on occasional editorial errors. In fact, credible news sources have a process for printing corrections because that is part of the news business. These publishers correct errors when they are made as they always have. However, in the age of social media, where stories are retweeted and shared in real-time, it can be a challenge to ensure the most accurate story is always broadcast first.

As for whether we should be using the term “fake news” at all – that’s still up for debate. However, it is notable that some, like Facebook, are opting to reframe the dialogue by referring to this type of content as “misleading news” instead.

Fake News: The Challenge

And yet, while fake news may or may not have swayed the election, it can still have troubling, real-world results. In December 2016, a man fired an assault rifle in a Washington, DC, pizza parlor, in an incident dubbed “Pizzagate.” The gunman was investigating an unfounded “conspiracy theory” in which the business was a front for a child sex ring run by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager.

The conspiracy theory initially spread through viral emails, discussion threads, and social media in the weeks leading up to Election Day, reports PolitiFact. From there, fake news sites began spinning out versions of the unproven story.

So, how can reputable media outlets and social networks prevent the spread of fake news? If they ban a website’s feed, does that border on censorship and infringe on First Amendment rights?

When Business Models and Fake News Collide

In particular, Facebook and Google have been singled out for their roles in spreading fake news. Social media platforms have traditionally been hands-off of the content shared on its platform, encouraging virality instead. However, following incidents such as Pizzagate, it has made moves to educate its users and employ new fact-checkers for its content.

For example, it points users to a list of “Tips to Spot False News.” Recommendations include: “Be skeptical of headlines,” “Look closely at the URL,” “Investigate the source,” and “Watch for unusual formatting.” And if a user suspects a Facebook post is fake, they can take steps to report it as “false news” to the network administrators. If third-party fact-checkers confirm these are fake, posts then appear as “disputed.” Additionally, Facebook rolled out a “disputed” warning label to stories that could be perceived as misleading.

Google has also taken steps to weed out fake news. Search results will remain the same but a new “Fact Check” tag serves a small breakout box from a fact-checker site at the top of the results. Only time will tell if Google makes additional strides to address misleading content. For example, tackling brand safety concerns, given that advertisers frequently have no idea where their ads are being served to audiences.

Meanwhile, here at Outbrain, we’ve focused on three key areas and taken clear measures to address the issue as well. You can learn more about it here and review our infographic on how to spot fake news. We all need to do our part to responsibly deliver accurate news to the people who rely on it.

Keith Pepper is the Country Manager, North America at Outbrain. He’s based in New York City.

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