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The Rise of Fake News 📰

2016 saw a huge rise in the number of fake news stories all over the internet. It’s been blamed for the outcome of the US election by a number of people and is the reason why a 28-year-old father of two walked into a pizzeria with his assault rifle, fired three shots and began searching for the child sex ring reportedly ran by Hilary Clinton in the midst of her presidential campaign. 

So, what is fake news?

Fake news websites intentionally publish hoax and factually inaccurate stories that are completely made up. It’s a phenomenon that has been around almost as long as journalism itself. From the New York Sun claiming to have discovered life on the moon back in 1835 to the Sunday Sport claiming to have found a statue of Elvis on Mars in 1980, it’s evident that fake news is nothing new.

What’s caused the recent uproar?

The decline in print media and the rise of online media, specifically social media, has opened a whole new can of worms. Online news websites have now moved into the mainstream, with 62% of adults in the US claiming to get news from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It’s considerably harder to distinguish between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news when scrolling down a Facebook newsfeed, especially when people you know and trust are unknowingly sharing these fake news articles.

In short, social media has enabled fake news to spread like wildfire across the globe within a matter of seconds. Headlines such as “Woman arrested for defecating on boss’ desk after winning the lottery”“Woman murders college roommate for sending too many Candy Crush requests” and “Trump Offering Free One-Way Tickets to Africa & Mexico for Those Who Wanna Leave America” were able to go viral within minutes, all thanks to social media. 

Social media news use: Facebook leads the pack

Why are people writing fake news stories?

There may be multiple factors that influence someone into writing completely false accusations and claims online and passing them off as factual. However, most of these fake news stories originate from poorer areas of the world such as Macedonia and Romania. Why? Because there’s easy money to be made. The more popular an article becomes, the more clicks it gets, leading to more revenue generated through ads and young, tech-savvy entrepreneurs from poorer areas of the world have taken advantage of this. In fact, BuzzFeed reported that some of the most ‘successful’ fake news sites from Eastern Europe were making around $5,000 per month in 2016.

The 2016 US presidential election acted as the perfect money making scheme for these fake news reporters. In fact, just under half of all the fake news stories published in 2016 were focused on US politics, accounting for 10.6 million total shares and comments on Facebook.

It’s safe to say that fake news has become a lot more prominent since the election of Donald Trump. A quick Google Trends search shows a significant increase in the popularity of ‘fake news’ searches in the run up to the election and following his win:

How believable are these stories? 

It seems these stories are a lot more believable than you’d initially think. A recent study conducted by Stanford University shows that over 80% of students failed to tell the difference between a real news story and a fake piece of online sponsored content. Another survey carried out by Ipsos Public Affairs and BuzzFeed found that fake news headlines regarding the 2016 US election fooled American adults approximately 75% of the time.

It doesn’t help that many real news stories can be just as strange as the fake articles. In fact, there were fake news reports of a man being stabbed in a bad neighbourhood in Chicago while playing Pokemon Go just days before it came out that a man really was stabbed as he wandered around Oregon in search of Pikachu.

However, many fake news stories come from websites that clearly state they’re fake once you’ve clicked on to them. Could it be that news consumers are doing little to evaluate the context or verify the headlines that are often plastered all over our social media platforms, and instead choosing to take them at face value?