On “Fake News”

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Fake news is a problem. That’s one thing that most people can agree on, despite the expanding breadth of their various political disagreements. So what is fake news? In their recent article in the journal Science, David Lazer, Matthew Baum, et al. define fake news as “fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent.” That they have provided such a clean and straightforward definition is an achievement — the political vernacular is saturated with charges of fake news, and hence it’s important to introduce some precision into the discourse. This is especially the case in light of the fact that many deployments of the charge of “fake news” are what one might call politically opportunistic, that is, aimed at de-legitimating a story that has been reported as news, while also demonizing the person or agency doing the reporting. Having a precise definition of fake news is needed in order to distinguish actual instances of fake news from the cases in which the charge of fake news is invoked merely opportunistically.

However, it strikes us that the analysis above is yet lacking; there are cases that look to us like instances of fake news that are nonetheless excluded by the definition. So it may be too narrow. Consider the following case:

CRIME REPORT Putative news source (N) reports (accurately) to an audience (A) an incident (I) in which a violent crime is committed within A’s vicinity, by a group identified as Muslim immigrants.

Thus far, the original definition delivers the right result in CRIME REPORT: no fake news is in play.  But let’s add to the case that N excessively reports I throughout a news cycle, and reports in a manner that could give a casual member of A the impression that several different crime incidents involving Muslim immigrants have taken place. Now, it seems to us that CRIME REPORT has become an instance of fake news. However, N’s reportage involves no fabricated information; in fact, the reportage is ex hypothesi accurate. The misleadingness might have more to do with errors arising from the availability heuristic and various priming effects than with anything in the content of the claims themselves. Moreover, it might even be the case that CRIME REPORT involves the creation of no new beliefs; the report is misleading in that it confirms or fortifies existing beliefs prevalent in A. Read more »