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Fake news. It’s complicated.

Fake news. It's complicated.
Claire Wardle in First Draft News. All annotations in context.

By now we’ve all agreed the term “fake news” is unhelpful, but without an alternative, we’re left awkwardly using air quotes whenever we utter the phrase. The reason we’re struggling with a replacement is because this is about more than news, it’s about the entire information ecosystem. And the term fake doesn’t begin to describe the complexity of the different types of misinformation (the inadvertent sharing of false information) and disinformation (the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false).

 

To understand the current information ecosystem, we need to break down three elements:

1. The different types of content that are being created and shared

2. The motivations of those who create this content

3. The ways this content is being disseminated

 

As Danah Boyd outlined in a recent piece, we are at war. An information war. We certainly should worry about people (including journalists) unwittingly sharing misinformation, but far more concerning are the systematic disinformation campaigns. 

 

Back in November, I wrote about the different types of problematic information I saw circulate during the US election. Since then, I’ve been trying to refine a typology (and thank you to Global Voices for helping me to develop my definitions even further). I would argue there are seven distinct types of problematic content that sit within our information ecosystem. They sit on a scale, one that loosely measures the intent to deceive.

 

Why is this type of content being created?

I saw Eliot Higgins present in Paris in early January, and he listed four ‘Ps’ which helped explain the different motivations. I’ve been thinking about these a great deal and using Eliot’s original list have identified four additional motivations for the creation of this type of content: Poor Journalism, Parody, to Provoke or ‘Punk’, Passion, Partisanship, Profit, Political Influence or Power, and Propaganda.

This is a work in progress but once you start breaking these categories down and mapping them against one another you begin to see distinct patterns in terms of the types of content created for specific purposes.

 

Dissemination Mechanisms

Finally, we need to think about how this content is being disseminated. Some of it is being shared unwittingly by people on social media, clicking retweet without checking. Some of it is being amplified by journalists who are now under more pressure than ever to try and make sense and accurately report information emerging on the social web in real time. Some of it is being pushed out by loosely connected groups who are deliberately attempting to influence public opinion, and some of it is being disseminated as part of sophisticated disinformation campaigns, through bot networks and troll factories.

 

When messaging is coordinated and consistent, it easily fools our brains, already exhausted and increasingly reliant on heuristics (simple psychological shortcuts) due to the overwhelming amount of information flashing before our eyes every day. When we see multiple messages about the same topic, our brains use that as a short-cut to credibility. It must be true we say — I’ve seen that same claim several times today. :arrow:

 

When humans are angry and fearful, their critical thinking skills diminish.

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