What Is ‘Fake News’?


(By Jeff Zallaps) What is “fake news”? It is all over the media and the source of much back and forth between the “main street” media and the “alternative” media. A former Presidential candidate is now calling to regulate it. But what is it? If we are going to debate the issue – and, more importantly, if it is to be considered for regulation – the term needs to be defined with precision and clarity. Why? Because we are talking about not just eroding – but outright altering – the fundamental freedoms of speech and press. These are foundational rights within in a free society and they are rights the US Supreme Court has vigorously protected against anything that might even chill those rights. These are rights we should not forego lightly or without a rigorous debate and fight.

So what is fake news? To attempt to define it, we need to understand its inverse – “real” news. Historically, the role of “news” was to convey facts and information regarding relative events in society. In its purest form, the news would convey the relevant facts and let the reader interpret those facts and form an opinion.

However, in our generation, the “real” news has morphed into something different. It has morphed into a medium that conveys selected (and often distorted) facts with the “journalist’s and “editors” interpretation and opinion. Sometime that news may even be shaped by a political candidate to make sure such “news” is consistent with a political narrative. In reality, the “real” news has morphed into a medium that is more focused on ratings, revenue, political maneuvering and the manipulation of public opinion than the conveyance of facts to the public. In almost seems there is a lack of trust, or even disdain, for the public’s ability to make it’s own informed and intelligent opinions. As such, the public trust in the “real” news is at all time lows – but yet the media the public does not trust is deemed the “real” news.

One last thought on “real” news before we focus more clearly on the definition of “fake” news. “Real” or “fake” news is not, and can never be, defined by the source of such news. The source of news may impact the credibility of news reporting but it cannot be used as a tool to define if the actual reporting is “real” or “fake.” The blanket definition of news sources as fake or real is outright scary. Who gets to make this decision and what are their motivations and political views? What are the standards? What does it mean to have the concentration of “real” new sources in selected outlets? Just because a news story comes from a national or internationally known media outlet does not make the facts reported “real” or “fake.” Any media outlet that would allow the source to be determinative of “real” or “fake” should be worried because they will always be at the mercy of those that make such determination – subject to change at any time. In the end, only the accuracy of the reporting is relevant – but only to a certain extent.

So let’s go back to “real” versus “fake” news. As we narrow the definition, lets exclude two elements of the current component of “news”. As I mentioned above, interpretation of fact and opinion are now embedded in “real” news. Should interpretation and opinion be included in the definition of “real” or “fake” news. I believe both are relevant and appropriate in today’s media. However, these components of the “news” should not be determinants of what is “real” or “fake.” Interpretation and opinion are clearly subjective and personal to the author (and their editors). Both of these elements of the news component are subject to the author’s (and their editors) personal bias and belief. Conversely, to exclude interpretation and opinion from freedom of the press and freedom of speech is to restrict the freedom of thought and expression. In short, interpretation and opinion are appropriate in the media, but the accuracy or source thereof should not be used to determine if something is “real” or “fake.”

That leaves us with the facts to determine if news is “real” or “fake.” The facts are always the best place to start when making such a determination. However, in determining what is “real” and “fake,” even the facts have limitations. Why? The most important limiting factor of facts is that ALL of the facts in any given event are never really known. The degree of known facts varies relative to any given event, the timing of such event and the timing of the reporting. Any “missing” fact can impact the interpretation of any known and verifiable facts. In addition, the selective reporting of facts, or the intentional omission of a fact, can impact the interpretation of a fact and the opinion of the reader.

What are the implications of the above? In this day and age, reporting happens in real time and there is a rush to push the story to the public. Does the improper reporting of a fact as it develops make it fake and subject to regulation? Does the omission of a critical fact from a report make it “real” or “fake” and who determines whether such omission is material and subject to the “fake” designation? What happens if the evolution of new facts makes the interpretation of the original facts clearly erroneous? What is the consequence? If a media outlet reports a “fact” incorrectly, do they become a “fake” source?

To those claiming the Russian’s influenced the Presidential election (via propaganda or otherwise) – prove it. Simply saying that 17 US intelligence agencies have made such an assertion is not proof. It is a statement without factual support. Can you really trust intelligence agencies to tell you the truth? I cannot think of anything more important than the integrity of a Presidential election. If the Russian’s had a material influence on the Presidential election, provide the facts that support such an allegation.

Do those alleging the Russian’s are behind alternative news – provide supporting facts. Statements without fact are simply opinion – or something else with a different motive. Without any supporting fact or detail, I view such allegations to be without credibility or “fake.”

The same principles apply to social media. I encourage our social media friends in Silicon family to publish their standards and policies for “real” and “fake” news. For that matter, they need to state their criteria for “hate” speech. If you have nothing to hide – publish your standards and methodology for restricting freedom of thought and expression. Rights almost everyone agrees are fundamental to a free society. It is unacceptable to pull freedom of thought and expression without explaining your methodology.

If we are to protect freedom of thought and press, “real” and “fake” news cannot be regulated or restricted via social media channels or by government. This path is fraught with peril. The real determinant of “real” and “fake” news is you the reader. However, with this right comes responsibility. Everything you read – including this article – should be intellectually challenged. “Facts” and “news” should not be thoughtlessly passed on without intellectual curiosity to its veracity and a verification of the facts. Never blindly trust what you read and always question what you read. In the end, only you as the reader should determine what is “real” or “fake” news. Any regulation to the contrary is a terrifying restriction on freedom of thought and expression.