What do ordinary people think fake news is? Poor journalism and political propaganda.

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How do ordinary people define fake news? Isabella, a woman we spoke to as part of a research project, explained that, for her, “fake news” is simply “news that you don’t believe is real.” She continued, “this guy has got one story, [that one] has got the other story, you decide which one is fake and you decide which one is real.”

We spoke to Isabella (not her real name) as part of a series of focus group discussions with news users in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Finland—organized by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford—to find out how members of the public think about fake news.

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These conversations add a valuable bottom-up perspective to a public debate about fake news that has been mostly top-down, driven by journalists, media critics, technology companies, policymakers, and a handful of academics.

The most striking result of the focus groups is that people see the difference between “fake news” and real journalism as one of degree, rather than drawing a clear distinction. While they do associate fake news with stories circulating online, especially on social media, they placed more emphasis on journalists and politicians as purveyors of fake news.

Take this exchange in one of our focus groups:

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Moderator: What does “fake news” mean to you?

Michael: Made up stories.

Sarah: Do you believe everything that you hear and see and read? I’m sure some of it is made up.

Alex: It’s a spectrum isn’t it?

Daniel: There’s been fake news for years, hasn’t there?

This theme came up in over and over. With only slight variations, people talked about fake news as a “spectrum,” a “question of scale,” or a difference “of degree.” Asked to provide examples, they pointed to poor journalism, to various forms of political propaganda (including both politicians who lie and exaggerate as well as hyperpartisan news and commentary), and to some kinds of advertising. They also mentioned false information designed to masquerade as news—the definition favored by most white papers and news reports about the problem—but less often. (This is in line with independent research that suggests that while a real problem, only a minority of people come across fabricated news reports in the wild, and it is a small part of their overall information diet.)

ICYMI: Here’s what non-fake news looks like


Journalism as fake news

What kinds of journalism do audiences think qualify as fake news? People associate the term with superficial, inaccurate, and sensationalist reporting, especially in areas like celebrity, health, and sports coverage. “There is a lot of celebrity fake news for instance… Oh Jennifer Aniston has a new husband. You can research it through 20 different sites, and they all could be regurgitating news furthering the lie,” says David, another participant in our US focus groups. Professional journalists might reject this definition of fake news, but it is important to recognize that this is how much of their audience sees the problem.

People also associate fake news with politicians making exaggerated or false claims. President Trump was brought up frequently, and not only in the US. “You know… at his inauguration he is saying so many thousands and thousands, and then you see actual pictures, and then he said the other day that he had the most electoral votes ever and a reporter said to him he had 304 and he said but Obama had 365,” said Jay, another focus group participant.

But here again people blame journalism, seeing much of the news media as so biased and partisan that they question its veracity. Pablo said that news media “put things in people’s mouths that haven’t happened in reality, they invent things that haven’t happened, that haven’t occurred… There are some more reliable media outlets but in general [fake news] is in everything… That makes me reject the media.”

The challenge here is clear—people do turn to trusted news sources but there is no consensus, especially in the US, on what those are. Some participants mentioned The New York Times, others Fox News. And while many of the participants in our focus groups were highly critical of President Trump and news coverage they saw as complicit with him, others expressed views like those documented in a recent survey that found that 46 percent of Americans think the media makes up stories about Trump. People we spoke to understood that the term fake news has been weaponized to attack the press—Emily calls it “a big buzzword that is being thrown around.” But they see the media as part of the problem.

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Finally, people also see potentially misleading advertising as a kind of fake news. This can include some examples of common formats such as pop-up ads, sponsored content, and “around the web” links offered on many websites. Witness this exchange in a US focus group—

Maria: You get those ridiculous fake news stories like the pop-up ads because when it is free news they are relying on ads sales.

Moderator: Are you nodding to that? Fake news? What do you mean there?

Irene: Like when you scroll down far enough and it is like “look at how these 12 child celebrities turned out,” and they are just ridiculous pictures.

Clearly, people do not always distinguish between news reports and advertising on news sites, and the contrast between a professionally reported story and the “around the web” recommendations that may accompany it can be jarring. Journalists of course see news and advertising as completely separate kinds of information. But for users, they are encountered in the same context, and perceptions of one will color perceptions of the other.

It is clear from our focus group discussions, and strongly supported by much other evidence from surveys, that the backdrop to people’s perception of fake news is low trust in more conventional forms of journalism. In 2017, only 38 percent of Americans said they thought you can trust most news most of the time. Even more strikingly, the figure is just 53 percent when people are asked specifically about the news that they themselves use.

The similarities across the four countries covered are clear, but there are also some differences—generally more discussion of fake news in the US and the UK, more explicit focus on foreign involvement in Finland, and a lively discussion of tech journalism in one of the Spanish focus groups. The context also varies—trust in media is higher in Spain and especially Finland than in the UK and the US. But the commonalities are clear. Some forms of journalism and parts of the content news media publish are seen as overlapping with fake news.

So while there are good reasons for arguing for a narrower definition of fake news, or even retiring the term altogether, the genie is out of the bottle. The term is used strategically by self-interested elites, amplified by news media, and has become part of the vernacular because it resonates with people’s lived experience of coming across all sorts of superficial, unreliable, and misleading information that they do not trust—much of it from journalists and politicians.

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Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Lucas Graves are the authors. Kleis Nielsen is Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. Graves is Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute and an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.