It turns out there is no generally agreed upon definition of fake news. Some define it very narrowly:
“Newspaper articles, television news shows, or other information disseminated through broadcast or social media that are intentionally based on falsehoods or that intentionally use misleading framing to offer a distorted narrative”. Kavanagh, Jennifer, and Rich, Michael D. Truth Decay : An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. Santa Monica, California: RAND, 2018.
Others include various types of mis- and disinformation under the umbrella of fake news. Clare Wardle in "Fake news. It's complicated." provides a helpful typology of 7 different types of misinformation, along with a graphic of the motivations behind each type.
The fake news universe is vast and ephemeral, and to some extent its dimensions are unknowable. The MediaMatters.org research team spent hundreds of hours trying to map out as much of it as possible. Below is what was learned and how they come to define many of the moving parts that create an ecosystem for fake news to spread and thrive.
Image created by Sarah Wasko
Fake news is information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news. This narrow definition seeks to distinguish fake news from other types of misleading information by clarifying that the former is patently false and was created and presented in a way meant to deceive consumers into thinking it is real. Fake news refers to a specific piece of information; it does not refer to any particular type of news outlet, individual, or other actor.
Fake news purveyors are websites, social media pages and accounts, or individuals who share or aggregate fake news stories. Purveyors may attempt to spread fake news stories on purpose, and unknowing purveyors may share fake news without realizing it’s fake. The vast majority of purveyors do not exclusively share fake news, but instead push some combination of fake news and other types of content, including real news or misleading information. Most -- but not all -- fake news purveyors are hyperpartisan in nature. Only the small number of sites and pages that exclusively post fake news should be considered “fake news sites” or “fake news pages.”
Fake news creators are entities responsible for conceiving of, writing, and disseminating fake news. This can include the owners and operators of sites that publish fake news stories and affiliated social media accounts, as well as the manufacturers of the fake news stories -- whether they are publicly identified or remain anonymous.
These are websites, social media pages, or accounts designed to spread information presented through a highly partisan, biased lens. Hyperpartisan websites or Facebook pages may share a combination of fake news and partisan content (misleading stories, partisan memes and videos, et cetera) that is not considered fake news, but could still contain misleading or out-of-context information designed to confirm a particular ideological view. Hyperpartisan pages and accounts are often fake news purveyors that generate shares and clicks in order to either push a particular political view or profit from user engagement on social media platforms.
Misleading or out-of-context information does not on its own constitute fake news. This kind of information is not wholly fabricated, and it can exist within a news report that is based on actual events that occurred. Hyperpartisan sites often share a combination of fake news and posts that simply contain misleading information or lack proper context. Widely shared stories that contain misinformation but do not rise to the level of fake news can feed the larger ecosystem by creating a friendly audience for fabrications.
Clickbait pieces are articles that feature headlines designed to get people to click on them, often by presenting a misleading or warped sense of what the post is about. This does not necessarily constitute fake news, as these types of headlines or accompanying posts can be technically factually true (not fabricated) but nevertheless misleading. Fake news itself also often uses a clickbait format, particularly since its goal is to spread to the maximum number of consumers for ideological or financial gain. Clickbait headlines are often paired with fake news, as well as with content from hyperpartisan sites that contains misleading or out-of-context, but not necessarily fake, information.
Satire is writing or art designed to make social commentary based on mockery and imitation of real-life events or actors. Satire is different from fake news in that its purpose is to entertain or inspire consumers, rather than to deceive them. Some fake news sites may claim to be satirists but do not openly advertise themselves as satire, therefore suggesting an intent to deceive. An example of legitimate satire is The Onion, which is widely known and transparently presented as such.
Propaganda is misleading or highly biased information that is specifically designed to confirm or promote a particular ideological viewpoint. Propaganda is distinct from fake news in that it originates from politically motivated actors with the intention of driving public discussion, apart but not separate from financial and ideological gain. It is not necessarily completely fabricated, and it is not always -- though most of the time -- designed to appear as legitimate news. Propaganda can be packaged as fake news, with the result is both (a) patently false and (b) designed to appear real.
A conspiracy theory is an explanation or interpretation of events that is based on questionable or nonexistent evidence of a supposed secret plan by a group -- often governments and mainstream media outlets -- to obscure events. Like propaganda, conspiracy theories -- which are almost always completely fabricated, even if individual elements of the theories contain nuggets of fact -- can be presented as fake news when they are packaged as factual news stories.
A legitimate news outlet that makes an error in reporting is not creating fake news. Journalists may sometimes lack necessary facts, be misled by a source, or choose poor wording to convey news stories. Instances of erroneous reporting do not reveal an intent to deceive on their own, nor do they imply the complete fabrication of a story.