By David M. J. Lazer, Matthew A. Baum, Yochai Benkler, Adam J. Berinsky, Kelly M. Greenhill, Filippo Menczer, Miriam J. Metzger, Brendan Nyhan, Gordon Pennycook, David Rothschild, Michael Schudson, Steven A. Sloman, Cass R. Sunstein, Emily A. Thorson, Duncan J. Watts, Jonathan L. Zittrain (Science Mag),
The rise of fake news highlights the erosion of long-standing institutional bulwarks against misinformation in the internet age. Concern over the problem is global. However, much remains unknown regarding the vulnerabilities of individuals, institutions, and society to manipulations by malicious actors. A new system of safeguards is needed. Below, we discuss extant social and computer science research regarding belief in fake news and the mechanisms by which it spreads. Fake news has a long history, but we focus on unanswered scientific questions raised by the proliferation of its most recent, politically oriented incarnation. Beyond selected references in the text, suggested further reading can be found in the supplementary materials.
What Is Fake News?
We define “fake news” to be fabricated information that mimics news media content in form but not in organizational process or intent. Fake-news outlets, in turn, lack the news media's editorial norms and processes for ensuring the accuracy and credibility of information. Fake news overlaps with other information disorders, such as misinformation (false or misleading information) and disinformation (false information that is purposely spread to deceive people).
Fake news has primarily drawn recent attention in a political context but it also has been documented in information promulgated about topics such as vaccination, nutrition, and stock values. It is particularly pernicious in that it is parasitic on standard news outlets, simultaneously benefiting from and undermining their credibility.
Some—notably First Draft and Facebook—favor the term “false news” because of the use of fake news as a political weapon (1). We have retained it because of its value as a scientific construct, and because its political salience draws attention to an important subject.
The Historical Setting
Journalistic norms of objectivity and balance arose as a backlash among journalists against the widespread use of propaganda in World War I (particularly their own role in propagating it) and the rise of corporate public relations in the 1920s. Local and national oligopolies created by the dominant 20th century technologies of information distribution (print and broadcast) sustained these norms. The internet has lowered the cost of entry to new competitors—many of which have rejected those norms—and undermined the business models of traditional news sources that had enjoyed high levels of public trust and credibility. General trust in the mass media collapsed to historic lows in 2016, especially on the political right, with 51% of Democrats and 14% of Republicans expressing “a fair amount” or “a great deal” of trust in mass media as a news source (2).
The United States has undergone a parallel geo- and sociopolitical evolution. Geographic polarization of partisan preferences has dramatically increased over the past 40 years, reducing opportunities for cross-cutting political interaction. Homogeneous social networks, in turn, reduce tolerance for alternative views, amplify attitudinal polarization, boost the likelihood of accepting ideologically compatible news, and increase closure to new information. Dislike of the “other side” (affective polarization) has also risen. These trends have created a context in which fake news can attract a mass audience.