Language Lab 7: Fake news and media reporting
De Oliveira, Medeiros and Mattos: 2020 remark that
“Human inefficiency to distinguish between true and false facts poses fake news as a threat to logical truth, which deteriorates democracy, journalism, and credibility in governmental institutions."
The authors of this piece divide ‘fake news’ into three categories:
(i) those of a purely fraudulent nature, whose intention is to deceive the reader by leading him to confusion;
(ii) rumors, which are information with dubious truth but publicly accepted;
(iii) and those with humorous character using sarcasm and irony to produce parodies and satire
To what extent do you think the phrase ‘fake news’ as you understand it and as it is USED in the media means one of these three things?
- Is it simply inaccurate or fraudulent reporting, that is – unintentionally incorrect or deliberately incorrect news?
- Rumours poorly referenced and not proven?
Can you find an example of each of these? Looking for satire you could look at The Onion, Newsthump or The Waterford Whisperer.
Is the phrase ‘fake news’ as Donald Trump uses it in this tweet meant to indicate any of these three definitions?
Responsible information distribution in the UK
The UK Parliament set up a parliamentary enquiry committee in the wake of accusations that the Russian Government interfered in the UK’s referendum on leaving the European Union. In its concluding report, the committee made the following comments:
“We have always experienced propaganda and politically-aligned bias, which purports to be news, but this activity has taken on new forms and has been hugely magnified by information technology and the ubiquity of social media. In this environment, people are able to accept and give credence to information that reinforces their views, no matter how distorted or inaccurate, while dismissing content with which they do not agree as ‘fake news’. This has a polarising effect and reduces the common ground on which reasoned debate, based on objective facts, can take place. Much has been said about the coarsening of public debate, but when these factors are brought to bear directly in election campaigns then the very fabric of our democracy is threatened. This situation is unlikely to change. What does need to change is the enforcement of greater transparency in the digital sphere, to ensure that we know the source of what we are reading, who has paid for it and why the information has been sent to us. We need to understand how the big tech companies work and what happens to our data. Facebook operates by monitoring both users and non-users, tracking their activity and retaining personal data. Facebook makes its money by selling access to users’ data through its advertising tools. It further increases its value by entering into comprehensive reciprocal data-sharing arrangements with major app developers who run their businesses through the Facebook platform.”
Think now about your own news consumption.
Are you someone who watches news programmes?
Do you read newspapers?
Do you read news online?
What social media platforms do you use, and how do you feel about social media ‘bubbles’?
Make a note of the newspapers you read, the news programmes you watch and listen to and the ways you get your news.
Make a note of how you discuss news on social media and who with.
The problem of 'bubbles'
This blog post will tell you more about the problem of bubbles, which can be made worse by the algorithms built into many social media platforms to bring us SIMILAR rather than different content, and to suggest that we make friends with or follow people with similar interests and beliefs:
Tagg, Caroline and Philip Seargent, December 5, 2016 ‘The filter bubble isn’t just Facebook’s fault – it’s yours’ Available at:
Of particular interest to us now is the assertion that
“because they often want to avoid conflict, people report ignoring or blocking posts, or even unfriending people, when confronted with views with which they strongly disagree. They also report taking care of what they say themselves so as not to antagonise people such as family members or work colleagues whose views differ from theirs, but whose friendship they wish to maintain.”
Is it possible 5 years on to say that this is still the case?
In your own life, how do you use social media?
Do you block users, refrain from posting political opinion, unfriend those who disagree with you?
How might we redo the research Tagg and Seargeant carried out to see if people are still seeing a large range of opinions?
The British national state funded boadcaster BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) published the following guide for young journalists regarding how to produce credible and accurate news reports.
Have a listen to it and make some notes on the advice it gives. Remember that it is directed at the producers of content rather than consumers of content.
Now go through the two articles below: one from the socially conservative Daily Mail and one from the liberal progressive Independent newspaper:
- What information is included in each?
- What appears only in one report?
- Who is ACTIVE in each report -who is a participant in action (look for labels and verbs)
- How are they evaluated by the author (look at adjectives used to describe them)
If we start this by comparing the headlines we can see that the Independent talks about ‘1.2 million people across Lancashire’. In contrast the Daily Mail journalist places the spotlight on Matt Hancock (he is mentioned twice) and ‘people who will die’, as well as ‘Lancashire’ and ‘the North East’ which are treated as stand ins for the people who live there. The Mail doesn’t name figures in its headline, though it does later.
Coronavirus lockdown: 1.2 million people across Lancashire to face new Covid-19 restrictions Ban on households mixing and non essential use of public transport set to be announced - but no curfew on pubs and restaurants as yet
Matt Hancock admits new nationwide 'circuit breaker' Covid lockdown IS on the cards as he warns people will die with spread 'accelerating' - as LANCASHIRE is placed under curfew alongside North-East
The verbs used in the Independent ‘face’ and ‘to be announced’ are worth comparing with the Mails ‘admits’ ‘Covid lockdown is on the cards’ and ‘placed’. Are any more emotive than others? What about the use of passive ‘placed’ and ‘to be announced’ – why does neither newspaper say who is doing the placing and announcing? Is it because they expect us to understand that the UK Government is doing this or to background the agents?
Even if we were to teach awareness of how journalists can choose the language they report real world events in, do you think this would solve the issue of knowing what news is made up and what is real?
Finally look at the user comments feature. The Independent has not enabled comments for the article while the Mail has – why might this be? What function do comments have? Do they help or make worse the problem of filter bubbles?
NOW CONSIDER THE NEXT TOPIC
Do we need tighter state controls on social media?
David Buckingham has argued that while teaching digital literacy is a partial solution, in fact the problem is much more complicated. He remarks:
“ [F]ake news is news that is fabricated, and deliberately intended to mislead or deceive. As such, it’s important to distinguish it from satirical parodies of news (as published on sites such as The Onion in the US) — although some readers may not always appreciate the difference. Fake news typically appears on sites that masquerade as genuine news sites, although it is often picked up and recirculated by mainstream media. Fake news often has a political dimension: it is intended as a form of misinformation or propaganda that is designed to exert political influence. It may even constitute a form of ‘cyberwarfare’ between nations (although the history of the Cold War suggests that such activities are far from new). However, in some cases, it may have a primarily economic motivation. Fake news often functions as ‘clickbait’, which will generate revenue through advertising and the selling of user data”
A good reading which demonstrates the economic rewards of creating fake news is here on the CNN website and discusses production of fake news in Macedonia:
Soares, Eva ‘The fake news machine’ 2017.
Selling fake stories pays money. Not only that, but having a social media presence leaves us vulnerable to data harvesters. Harvesting data happens legally if we enable cookies, complete privacy agreements in haste and allow providers to remember addresses, ages, sex, ethnicity and other details. Our data can legally be harvested by companies and we can then be targeted by companies and, under certain circumstances, political parties:
Members of both the UK Labour and Conservative parties who formed the lobbying group Vote Leave to lobby voters to vote to leave the European Union came under scrutiny in the UK Government investigation into fake news. They had run a cold called (unsolicited) text message competition which required those taking part to state their voting intentions for the referendums but could not prove that they had had permission from those they had texted to send them literature about why they might want to leave the EU. The UK Information Commissioner remarked that this was borderline unethical and that data harvesting without clearly telling people why you want their details (not just for a football competition but to send political campaign literature) is illegal:
“"Spam texts are a real nuisance for millions of people and we will take action against organisations who disregard the law," said Steve Eckersley, ICO Director of Investigations. "Direct marketing is not just about selling products and services. It's also about promoting an organisation's aims and ideals. "Political campaigns and parties, like any other organisations, have to comply with the law."
Buckingham goes further and discusses in more detail how we could stop the propagation of actively made up news – lies. He points out that companies like Facebook are NOT media outlets but businesses, and that
as with other problematic aspects of online content, such as pornography, some have called for a system of labelling. Sites might be encouraged — or even required — to obtain some kind of official certificate of approval from fact checkers. ‘White lists’ of trustworthy sites might be established, or repeat offenders warned and then taken down by Internet service providers. Such responses would clearly require collaboration on the part of the technology companies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg initially denied that his company had anything to do with the spread of fake news, although he has subsequently backtracked a little. Facebook has undertaken to block advertising on self-evidently fraudulent sites, and Google has claimed it will do this via its Adsense service. Facebook has also partnered with fact-checking websites on an initiative that will tag articles whose veracity is ‘disputed’. However, any further steps along these lines seem unlikely. They would imply that these companies are not merely technology companies, but media companies — and this is something they are very keen to avoid. Requiring them to take responsibility for content would completely undermine their basic economic model, which is premised on the claim that they are simply technological services that users are free to use in any way they choose.”
In short – some of the problem lies in the conflicting uses for which newspapers and social media sites are run, and the increasing blurring of those lines. Newspapers around the world sell fewer paper copies year on year and rely on advertising – advertisers can put pressure on papers not to run stories if they want continued revenue. Advertisers have boycotted both Facebook and Fox News in recent years:
It is worth thinking about the values companies have and the values newspapers have – should the two intertwine like this?
Do some research into the kinds of values businesses have historically supported – can businesses determine moral stances or do they simply espouse the kinds of morals that will sell their products in a particular time period and to a section of their customers?
While businesses are actively cutting ties with National Rifle Association in the USA, Tyskie beer in Poland has seen sales increase since it announced what many see as support for the anti same sex family values espoused by Polish president Andrzej Duda by awarding him its Man of the Year award. Read the following two articles for more on this:
Eveleigh, Robin, July 21st 2020 “Why People Are Calling for a Tyskie Beer Boycott” Available at:
Beer, Jeff, 1st March 2018 “NRA Boycott Shows Why Brand Values Are A Vital Marketing Strategy.”
Is it wise to expect the brands we buy to have a moral code?
What if their moral code does not match our own?
Should we force it to match our own, or even the prevailing moral code of our own country?
Consider the pros and cons of such action.
Buckingham, David (2019) Teaching media in a ‘post-truth’ age: fake news, media bias and the challenge for media/digital literacy education / La enseñanza mediática en la era de la posverdad: fake news, sesgo mediático y el reto para la educación en materia de alfabetización mediática y digital, Cultura y Educación, 31:2, 213-231.
de Oliveira, N.R., D. S. V. Medeiros and D. M. F. Mattos, "A Sensitive Stylistic Approach to Identify Fake News on Social Networking," in IEEE Signal Processing Letters, vol. 27, pp. 1250-1254, 2020, doi: 10.1109/LSP.2020.3008087.
Parliament. House of Commons (2019) Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Final Report Eighth Report of Session 2017–19 Report, together with formal minutes relating to the report. London: The Stationery Office. Available at: