The topic of "fake news" has dominated the headlines lately, but what exactly counts as fake news, and how can it be stopped?
A new report from media and internet scholars at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law addresses those questions.
The report, "Identifying and Countering Fake News" (PDF), identifies the distinct types of fake news: hoaxes, propaganda, trolling and satire, along with the motivations behind them. It also proposes a set of model solutions to reduce production and dissemination of fake news.
"The term 'fake news' has now been used to refer to so many things that it seems to have lost real meaning," said lead author Mark Verstraete, a privacy and free-expression research fellow at the College of Law and a postdoctoral research associate at the UA's Center for Digital Society and Data Studies. "Our goal is to bring clarity to that problem and prompt discussion about possible solutions. Before we can stop fake news, we have to define it."
Verstraete co-authored the report with UA law professors Jane R. Bambauer and Derek E. Bambauer, who also are affiliated faculty with the Center for Digital Society and Data Studies in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
What Is Fake News?
The researchers created a visual matrix to organize different types of fake news based on two criteria: whether the author intends to deceive readers and whether there is financial motivation for creating the story. The four types are:
- Satire: purposefully false content that is financially motivated but not intended to deceive
- Hoax: purposefully false content that is financially motivated and is intended to deceive
- Propaganda: purposefully biased or false content that is politically motivated and is intended to deceive
- Trolling: presenting information that has biased or fake content that is motivated by an attempt at personal humor and is intended to deceive
"Making sound determinations about authorial intent is important because potential solutions should not sweep up satire in an attempt to filter out hoaxes," the report says. It goes on to acknowledge the complications surrounding those two categories in particular, stating: "Many commentators disagree about where satire ends and hoaxes begin."
How Can Fake News Be Stopped?
"Fake news is a complex phenomenon that resists simple or quick solutions," the report's authors write.
They propose a set of solutions they say are intended to generate debate and dialogue among policymakers. Each solution is rooted in one of the four modes of regulation identified by Harvard Law School professor and noted internet scholar Lawrence Lessig. They are:
- Using the law as a regulator, expand legal protections for internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter so that they feel free to curate content without the risk of lawsuits.
- Using markets as a regulator, create new funding models for online platforms that do not rely on advertising and thus are not incentivized to promote distribution of popular but false content.
- Using internet code as a regulator, design technical fixes to help users flag fake news and to allow platforms to whitelist genuine news and satire sources while blacklisting fake-news sources.
- Using social norms as a regulator, have platforms display disclaimers and warnings alongside inaccurate information.
"While no single solution can possibly remove the deleterious effects of hoaxes and propaganda, this report offers practical ways to start tackling a complex problem," Jane Bambauer said.
Noticeably absent from the report's proposed solutions: efforts aimed at news consumers. The authors say that's because the online ecosystem — with rapid-fire news feeds, targeted advertising and one-click publishing from any source — naturally drives uncritical consumption of fake news. Furthermore, it's human nature to accept information that confirms something you already believe.
"Efforts to educate readers to become more sophisticated consumers of information are laudable but likely to have only marginal effects," the report states. "Thus, solutions must center on platforms and authors."