The phrase "fake news” has skyrocketed in popularity over the past five years — tarnishing content from farcical satire to full-scale news website forgery with the same insidious brush — but the broad term makes it difficult to come up with a clear definition of what ‘fake news’ is.

Google Trends analysis of search term "fake news" 

What is fake news?

‘Fake news’ is truly in the eye of the beholder. It depends on who you ask. For some, its news that disagrees with their world views and for others, they see the usage of the term as an attack on journalism and the free press.

Today, 'fake news' or misinformation typically refers to false stories published online, but this broad definition doesn't do it justice. It's better classified into types of information disorder.

Although 'fake news' seems recent, it's not new. Misinformation has been around for millenia — at least from the days of the printing press — and much like today, its impact has reached far beyond the political realm. For example, In 1803, fake reports of peace between France and England sent share prices in the London Stock Exchange soaring by 5% almost immediately.

More than two centuries later, the same techniques are still being used, albeit in a new environment. The internet age has allowed anyone to enjoy the privileges of being a publisher with near-complete anonymity, leading to an alarmingly large network of ‘news’ publications that look similar to traditional media and use similar templates — quickly creating an opportunity to shape public opinion via the digital realm.

It's not only the general public that fall victim to fake news, the mainstream media do too. There have been many a case where news organisations have published stories and articles informed by inaccuracies.

First draft categorised the types of information disorder into misinformation, disinformation and mal-information based on the falsity and the intent behind content (although misinformation acts as an umbrella term for all three).

Types of Information Disorder. Credit: Claire Wardle & Hossein Derakshan, 2017.

Who started the "fake news" trend

The popularity of the phrase is largely down to it's deliberate use by politicians to assign incredibility to media organisations they don’t like very much. Although the most notable usage of the term, and perhaps it's inception, is attributed to Donald Trump, the BBC  and the Washington Post pointed out that Hillary Clinton used "fake news" in a speech in December 2016, prompting Trump to use it to describe media coverage and distinguish "fake news" from "real media".

The problematic phrase: “fake news”

We often attribute 'fake news' to content that's not typically news. Although lot's of misinformation is published under the guise of a legitimate news media content, most of it isn't. Think of social media posts, videos and blog posts. The ambiguity of 'fake news' means that it only lightly touches on problematic content. It's surface level. It doesn't help to delve deeper into the complexities of today’s information ecosystem.

The use of the term itself affects our perceptions of the news. One study found that, for many, the first thing that comes to mind after the word "news" is "fake" or "biased". Another study, published in the Journal of Mass Communication and Society, revealed that when elites publicly speak about fake news it reduces people's trust in media. Most shockingly, they found that it negatively affects people's ability to identify real news.

Words Matter. Language has a profound effect on how we interpret the world around us and ‘fake news’ isn’t helping. That’s why it’s never been more important that we're able to properly characterise the different types of misinformation so we're better equipped to identify it and deal with it.