Since the 2016 United States presidential election, the term fake news has been tossed around about as often as accusations of racism and sexism. But compared to these accusations of prejudice, the accusations of false or misleading reporting are true much more often.
Even though this is the case, there are still plenty of people that will falsely accuse something of being fake news just because it goes against what they believe. These people (among others) hold several misconceptions of what is and isn’t fake news. Not all bias is fake news, but there is far more to fake news than just false information.
Deliberately False Reporting
The most obvious form of fake news is deliberately false reporting, including making false statements (like saying it is illegal to download data from Wikileaks, with the exception of the media) and withholding important information (like selectively editing a clip calling for violence to distort the message into one calling for peace). This doesn’t mean that anything published by that news organization is definitely false, but it does mean that the reliability of anything put out is questionable.
A common misconception is that all biased media must be fake news. Bias, as defined, is an inclination of temperament or outlook. In other words, bias is a result of one’s worldview. Reporting the facts of a situation does not require a worldview, but news analysis does. This means that bias will always be present in anything besides a concise, simplistic list of the facts of whatever is being covered.
Does this mean that all news analysis is fake? Of course not. There’s nothing wrong with interpreting information through a worldview. An Austrian economist is clearly biased towards the Austrian school when explaining economic trends, but this does not mean what he says is false or unreliable (quite the opposite, in fact). We would not criticize the Austrian economist for devoting equal effort to explaining every viewpoint. We would expect him to explain what he thinks is the most accurate interpretation.
What does constitute fake news is unacknowledged and uncontrolled bias. If a media organization is presenting information through an ideological lens, that should be clearly stated. Organizations like Being Libertarian, Rational Standard, Think Liberty, The Libertarian Institute, and The Libertarian Republic all publish content with an ideological bent towards libertarianism. They also clearly state their bias within the name of their respective organizations and websites. These organizations clearly acknowledge their bias, and it does not interfere with the validity of their content (in fact, I would argue that it enhances it).
Then there are organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, who are often criticized for what they publish. In the SPLC’s case, the criticism is warranted, but not because of their ideological bias. Rather, they are criticized because they are biased to the extent of going so far as to print libel against individuals like Maajid Nawaz (who they have since apologized to and retracted their statements). Bias is only a problem when it interferes with the facts.
Many fall victim to the fallacy of origins during online debates. A right-winger may reject a citation from the Huffington Post solely because it is from the Huffington Post, while a left-winger will reject the contents of a Breitbart article just because it is from Breitbart. To reject a claim or argument based on its source alone is to surrender to the genetic fallacy.
It may be the case that the contents of both articles are fake news, but one cannot claim such using only the source as a reference. What one can do is keep the ideological bent of the source in mind when reading. It’s likely that both will be biased in regards to their worldview, but whether or not the contents are true must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The prevalence of fake news is a legitimate problem, and it’s a good thing that it’s being called out as such. Unfortunately, it appears that the fake news label is also being applied far too often to opposing ideas and uncomfortable truths by those holding the above misconceptions.
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