Fake News: What Does It Mean?

Apr 24, 2018

In an information age, it can be hard to tell the difference between truth and fiction, especially online. Misinformation can lead to faulty decision making, making it even more important for the public to understand the danger of fake news.

A new term entered the American lexicon when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016: fake news.

According to Doug Battema, Chair and Professor of Communication at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts, “fake news” has been defined in a number of ways.

“There are a few different definitions of fake news, it’s hard to tack down one,” Battema said. “One of the popular, definitions of it, which I think is inaccurate, is that fake news is simply news with which you disagree, and that you know I think is an illegitimate use of the term.”

Battema explained fake news can also be defined as instances when misinformation is used to deliberately influence opinion. And because it’s easy to create, Battema believes fake news isn’t going away anytime soon.

“It pushes people’s emotional buttons,” he said. “It feeds what they want to believe, or worse it feeds their fears. And because it can be tremendously effective at mobilizing populations, to do what you want, there’s a strong incentive to continue creating fake news.”

At the 2018 College Media Association Conference held in New York City in March, Clemente Lisi, a former editor for the New York Daily News, New York Post and ABCNews.com, discussed the conditions which allow fake news to thrive. 

“So there was a time, you know twenty, thirty years ago where people would say, ‘Don’t believe everything you read, don’t believe everything you see in a book,’” Lisi said in a later interview. “And those were things that had gatekeepers, editors, writers, so to get a book published thirty years ago, meant there was some degree of knowledge that had to be passed down, had to be money spent on that, now we live in a world where anybody can put out a tweet, or anyone can post a message on Facebook and cost nothing other than your Wi-Fi connection and the cost of a computer.”

But a decline in skepticism isn’t the only condition. According to Lisi, now a professor of journalism at King’s College in New York, the turn to the internet and away from traditional media is the result of a lack of faith in institutions.

“So, there’s people who have become anti-government, anti-establishment, and you know the media is a part of the establishment,” he said. “Most people, including many Trump voters and people across the country are dissatisfied with the media.”

Fake news on the web can have serious consequences, from shaping the worldview of Millennials, to influencing the opinions of Baby Boomers.

With that in mind, Lisi says there are ways in which fake news can be combated.

“Even as a consumer you want to not retweet things without reading them, look at the source, be aware that there are fake news sites that mimic real ones,” Lisi said. “And consumers need to be more savvy, just like consumers have gotten more savvy about the food they eat, and other things that they consume, you know consumer reports in terms of which washing machine to buy, what’s the best value for your car, it’s the same thing with news; you consume it and then you repeat it, but the problem with news is that there isn’t this good housekeeping guide, it doesn’t really exist, it’s incumbent on you to do that.”

Battema, of Western New England University, says establishing a demarcation for what is real and what is fake in the consumption of news should begin at an early age.

“We’ve become such a media-saturated society that I think not teaching media literacy in elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, is a disservice to our students and to the American body politic,” said Battema.

Kenneth Stratton is a junior journalism major and political science minor at Western New England University from Southwick, Massachusetts.