Right now, conversations about “fake news” are everywhere. Between debates about Facebook’s role in creating and promoting “fake news”, websites promising to fix or block fake providers, and the Trump administration shouting “fake news” at every opportunity possible, there’s a cloud of confusion around the idea.
But what actually is fake news? One thing is for sure – fake news was not born in 2016. It is not a sudden intrusion into the media world, and to treat it as such masks its history and context.
Let’s go back in time to the 1890s, when William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal fought for readership against Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.
Their readership contest began with the New York Journal copying the New York World’s style of mixing investigative journalism with entertaining crime stories and supplements. (Nellie Bly, the undercover journalist who exposed the terrible conditions in women’s asylums, worked for the New York World). As their rivalry escalated, both papers began to rely on scandal and emotional reactions to sell copies, by using hyperbolic headlines, exaggerated or imagined drawings of situations, and ambiguous or faked information to attract readers’ attention. This sensationalised way of presenting the news became known as “yellow journalism”.
Then, let’s jump to the late 2000s, when online news and social media became saturated with “clickbait”. In 2006, Jay Geiger defined clickbait as content which tempts a viewer to click on it by using controversial slogans, alternative ways of phrasing text, and inspirational descriptions. Other elements of clickbait include overstated headlines, impossible-seeming or manipulated images, and ambiguous titles which require viewers to read the rest of the article to make sense of them in context. Clickbait updated the tactics of yellow journalism, with artist sketches swapped out for image-editing software.
Now back to fake news. According to Google Trends, the term “fake news” has been in use since at least 2004, with 4/5 mentions a month. However, once the phrase rocketed into widespread use in October 2016, it was deployed so widely and used so vaguely that it now seems to be a catch-all for any news that the user wants to discredit.
Attempts to create a standard definition of fake news have led to a few criteria showing up multiple times. Based on the most common attempts to define it, fake news is a type of hoax or deliberate spread of misinformation in order to achieve financial or political gain. It uses eye-catching headlines or fabricated stories to attract attention. Also, it is written in a stark and strongly worded way, to encourage emotional reactions such as anger or shock so that it will be widely shared on social media.
Looking at that definition, fake news isn’t new at all. Fake news is what happens when the moralism and hyperbole underpinning yellow journalism is merged with the ambiguity and social media hijacking of clickbait. It’s a fresh coat of paint over the media’s perennial problem – sensationalism.