The Disinformation Expansion and How to Combat Fake News

Disinformation – also known as fake news – is real, it is purposeful, and it is winning. Too many people are too busy or uninterested in combating the phenomenon that has gripped our news feeds. Hope is not lost. But to understand how to detect and dismiss disinformation, we must first understand its purpose and origins.

Defining Fake News

Disinformation advanced online, on social media, and by news outlets has grown in complexity over many years.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “fake news” as “false stories that appear to be news, spread on the internet or using other media, usually created to influence political views or as a joke.”

Dictionary.com similarly defines it as “false news stories, often of a sensational nature, created to be widely shared or distributed for the purpose of generating revenue, or promoting or discrediting a public figure, political movement, company, etc.”

When seeking to define “disinformation”, Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumors) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth.” Dictionary.com’s definition is “deliberately misleading or biased information; manipulated narrative or facts; propaganda.”

In short, disinformation is purposely inaccurate information spread in an effort to mislead the public.

Examples of Fake News

Note that none of these definitions require all parts of information to be inaccurate for it to be fake. People can create disinformation simply by eliminating or obscuring certain facts or pieces of information to intentionally mislead. This is more difficult to identify and often perpetuated by both the creator of the disinformation and receiver based on their individual biases. If we agree with it or want it to be true, we are more willing to believe it. The converse is also true.

This is considered disinformation: Eating a quarter cup of spinach every day for a year causes fingernails to become a dark green and eventually fall off entirely. It’s obviously absurd.

This is also considered disinformation: Though people associate spinach with healthy benefits, the truth is that the dark, leafy green can cause kidney stones, low blood pressure and even death due to the levels of oxalic acid found in the plant.

Every word in that sentence is accurate, but it is considered disinformation because of what was left out. It would require the rapid consumption of approximately 7.3 pounds, or 80 cups, of uncooked spinach to result in the possible death of a 145-pound adult which would be nearly impossible to accomplish. You may not realize that even based on a quick google search that would connect spinach to oxalic acid and give the superficial impression of this claim being true. It’s nearly imperceptible sleight-of-hand is what makes it so impactful.

Now that we have a foundational understanding of disinformation and the expansive possibilities for it to exist in our everyday sources of information, let’s take a look at the first of two primary culprits: news media.

Declining Trust in News Media

According to polling by Gallup, trust in the media continues to decline. When Gallup first began monitoring trust in media in the early 1970s, trust ranged from 68% and 72%. 

In 2020, only 9% of Americans say they have “a great deal” of trust in the media. 31% say they trust the media “a fair amount”. “Trust” in this poll is assessed by whether they believe the media reports the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” Unfortunately for news outlets, 60% of Americans believe they do not. Furthermore, a person’s political leanings tend to significantly influence their trust in the media.

The Pew Research Center dove into the idea that political leanings sway a person’s trust in the media. Pew polled on a more granular level. They listed 30 news sources – some leaning left politically and some right – and asked respondents to gauge trust for each outlet. 

Similar to the findings from Gallup, democrats tend to trust the news media far more than republicans. But in this poll, we are able to assess individual outlets. The majority of democrats trust CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and PBS for political and election news. On the contrary, the majority of republicans trust only one source – Fox News.

This leads to a realization that we likely don’t need all this data to tell us – Americans perceive the media as biased and primarily tend to tune into the sources that align with their political ideology.

The Expansion of Digital News and Its Impact on Accuracy

The way in which people receive their news has changed over the years. Where print was once the primary source of news, most Americans now receive their news digitally. 

According to a survey conducted in 2020 by the Pew Research Center, 86% of people receive at least some of their news on a smartphone, computer or tablet with 60% of people saying they do so often. 68% of people receive at least some of their news on television, but it’s the primary source for only 40% of people. Radio and print are still leveraged by some but they have become less appealing options for Americans to receive their news.

When accessing digital platforms for news, over two-thirds of people say they get their news from websites or apps, 65% from search engines, over 50% from social media, and a little under a quarter from podcasts. 

The point is, the delivery of news has become largely digital, making it quicker and easier to distribute to consumers. Everybody owns a smartphone with a camera. Anyone can post to social media, start a blog or produce a podcast. Professional news sources are now competing with every person online in their everlasting pursuit of your attention. This has undoubtedly caused outlets to change their new gathering and delivery methods; and not always for the betterment of their audience.

What Consumers Want

What do consumers of news want? That’s a legitimate question and not as easy to answer as you may initially believe. The obvious answer is that consumers of news want their news reporting to be factually based, truthful and without slant. But is that true?

The information detailed here is not difficult for any person with an internet connection to find. It’s easy to understand that the majority of news providers deliver the news with slant in order to perpetuate their own biases and appeal to the biases of their consumers. 

Additionally, we did not provide revolutionary awareness that news posted on social media should be questioned for accuracy and legitimacy. We believe that most social media consumers understand that fact when they sign up for the account. Why then do digital platforms continue to rise in popularity as a primary source for news consumption?

It’s called Selective Exposure Theory in psychology circles and refers to one’s tendencies to select news outlets and content that feed their pre-existing views and dismiss those outlets and pieces of information that challenge their views. There have been several studies that show this theory’s existence in our regular decision making process. But we know this is true. 

We seek out those outlets and those stories that feed our appetite for having our viewpoints confirmed more often than we seek those that challenge our biases. We know this. More importantly, news media and social media outlets also know this and use it to their advantage.

Digital Media Challenges

The advent of the internet opened up wonderful opportunities for information access unlike anything we had ever imagined. With the click of a button, websites from around the globe provide us with news and information on-demand and in real time. 

Digital social networking platforms now organize the content we wish to see from our digital (and real) friends and provide it in an easily digestible feed. These platforms also provide opportunities for two-way interactivity as we can like, dislike, share and comment on their content.

These new realities provide wonderful opportunities to create a more informed and engaged society. Unfortunately, they also provide easy access to those who wish to influence and do harm.

This isn’t only done by “bad actors” we think of as sitting in a dark basement and hacking into our news feeds to promote propaganda. Disinformation strategies are embraced by once highly respected news organizations, elected officials and community leaders.

Popularity = Legitimacy?

Scientific American looked at how the massive volume of content that fills our news feeds has resulted in many people using popularity as a guide to quality. If a social media post or piece of information has a large amount of engagement, our tendency is to deem it a legitimate piece of information that has been vetted by others rather than conduct our own individual quality assessment. This practice has opened the door for people and bots to quickly disseminate disinformation by superficially creating large amounts of engagement.

Scientific American went on to surmise that, “…programmers who design the algorithms for ranking memes on social media assume that the “wisdom of crowds” will quickly identify high-quality items; they use popularity as a proxy for quality. Our analysis of vast amounts of anonymous data about clicks shows that all platforms—social media, search engines and news sites—preferentially serve up information from a narrow subset of popular sources.”

Even with all of these daunting challenges, it is incumbent upon every individual to combat fake news.

Combating Fake News

We understand the levels to which fake news exists and those who are creating and perpetuating it on digital media. But what can we do about it?

The Brookings Institute offered several strategies for combating fake news, including:

  • Governments should promote news literacy and strong professional journalism in their societies. 
  • The news industry must provide high-quality journalism in order to build public trust and correct fake news and disinformation without legitimizing them. 
  • Technology companies should invest in tools that identify fake news, reduce financial incentives for those who profit from disinformation, and improve online accountability. 
  • Educational institutions should make informing people about news literacy a high priority. 
  • Finally, individuals should follow a diversity of news sources, and be skeptical of what they read and watch.

If the strategies suggested by Brookings Institute were to be widely adopted and implemented, our lives would be much easier. Unfortunately, we know that none of these things are actually happening and the possibility for them are miniscule. 

Instead, the solutions lie with us. 

5 Strategies

The following strategies are the only effective and lasting way to combat fake news.

  1. Turn off the funding. Free providers of news and information such as network news and social media are funded by your attention. So cut off the funding supply. Turn off, tune out, and delete sources of fake news – even those that appeal to your beliefs. 
  2. Expand your perspectives. On any given issue, the truth typically lies somewhere closer to the middle and rarely near an extreme position. Seek out diverse perspectives. Not in an effort to change your viewpoint, but to make a better determination for yourself where truth lies.
  3. Don’t follow the crowd. On social media, popularity of content is not a direct indicator of quality. Automated bots and paid influencers seek to increase the appearance of engagement to drive a narrative and influence users. Instead, rely on people you can trust to provide honest, transparent information – even if you ultimately don’t agree with it.
  4. Push back on political polarization. Gallup found that political polarization is as prevalent as it ever has been in America – with significant negative impacts. Don’t support those who take advantage of this reality. Instead, support those who focus on solutions not driven solely by political ideology.
  5. Don’t become the problem. USC News points out that “ultimately, people are the superspreaders of fake news and misinterpreted information.” Emilio Ferrara, a research team leader at USC Information Sciences Institute and an associate professor at the USC Viterbi and USC Annenberg, said “Most misinformation is spread by people — not by bots, foreign actors or troll accounts.” Point is, don’t spread information that you aren’t sure is accurate.

Final Thought

We like to think that we are independent thinkers and do not fall for fake news traps. We’re wrong. The concerted efforts of too many influential people and once trusted news outlets has made independence and accuracy two very difficult and rare attributes to find in today’s news. Through the strategies described here, we can disincentivize the practice of fake news and swing the pendulum back to the trusted and truthful news sources we once enjoyed.