Academia has no cohesive definition of ‘fake news’

May 4, 2021
We're all pretty sure we know what "fake news" is, but academia doesn't have a hard-and-fast definition for it yet. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

We're all pretty sure we know what "fake news" is, but academia doesn't have a hard-and-fast definition for it yet. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

Academics aren't in agreement on how to define, measure or study "fake news," according to a new meta-analysis that reviewed existing academic research on the topic, raising concerns that companies and governments considering restrictions on speech may be misinformed about the extent of the problem.

Researchers reviewed 42 academic articles for their meta-analysis, published April 15 in European Journal of Criminology. Of those, 13 articles defined, studied and attributed the "fakeness" of news to certain issuers of that content. The other 29 articles focused on the content of the message itself, though even here, the definition of "fake news" was diverse, and the content was not necessarily the object of the study. 

Finding references to "fake news" in academic literature before 2016 is a challenge, according to the researchers. The term hadn't really entered the public eye until the 2016 U.S. election, when fabricated stories favoring Donald Trump were shared 30 million times.

Concerns about misinformation persist in other contexts as well: Research published in February showed that Google search results fed misinformation on cancer treatments; and Interpol said 27% of countries that participated in its 2020 Global Cybercrime Survey reported the circulation of false information related to COVID-19. 

"Concern about fake news and misinformation has been growing in recent years, but the pandemic has accelerated this process and seems to have driven not only public concern but also the political will to legally limit certain discourses based on their relationship to truth or lies," said Jesús C. Aguerri, a co-author of the paper and a researcher at the Crímina Research Centre for the Study and Prevention of Crime.

In light of the concern that political and legislative action would limit speech, the researchers set out to determine how academia was defining and measuring the concept of fake news. Using the Web of Science database in connection with a Google Scholar search, the researchers refined a final dataset of 42 articles that studied fake news. The researchers found that, generally, academic study of fake news is divided into two broad groups: one group that attributes fakeness to the issuer of the message, and another that investigates the characteristics of the information itself. 

Research that defines the fakeness of news based on the source — the "fake" status of the information thus being determined by its issuer — overlooks the content and characteristics of the message, and this can pose a number of problems, according to the researchers.

The main issue is that these studies overlook other relevant actors who spread misinformation, including institutions, states, governments and political actors. It even overlooks traditional media outlets that spread fake news, on the basis that it isn't considered fake if it comes from a traditional media outlet. 

"To a certain extent, we imagined that those who had investigated the phenomenon of fake news would have somehow simplified the concept in order to be able to measure it empirically," said Fernando Miró-Llinares, a co-author of the paper and a professor at the Miguel Hernández University of Elche. 

Even so, the researchers were surprised to find the tendency for academics to assume that the definition of fake news was simply news that does not come from traditional media.

Aguerri said investigating fake news in this way avoids the "thorny task" of having to independently determine what is "fake," though this definition allows social media platforms to analyze web traffic and generate databases that train algorithms to detect certain patterns and flag content.

"But this perspective leaves out of its scope fake news spread by 'respectable or serious' media,'" Aguerri told The Academic Times. "For example, this perspective implies assuming that all news coming from Fox News — to cite a random media outlet — is always true. And this is a very important limitation."

The second method for studying fake news — focusing on the content and characteristics of the actual message — dives deeper into that task of defining what is considered "fake" content.

But even then, only two of the 29 studies in this group analyzed the characteristics of fake messages, with researchers constructing their own database of fake news based on criteria they created. The other 27 studies focused on how users relate to certain content and examined the psychology of these individuals when faced with fake news, utilizing fake news indexes developed by news agencies or media outlets that are dedicated to fact-checking. 

By utilizing these fake news indexes, Aguerri and Miró-Llinares argue that the studies' object "is no longer the fake news itself, understood as the 'original' false information." Rather, the focus of that research and the classification of the models they use "becomes the characteristics of the vehicles, accounts and messages through which fake news is disseminated and the patterns of dissemination. In other words, the research focuses on how users relate to certain content but also endows them with an active role in the production of misinformation."

Aguerri and Miró-Llinares don't currently have a definition of "fake news" themselves, since this is a very complex task, but they stressed that the academic field must at least try to develop a perspective that does not leave out the role of mainstream media.

Moreover, Miró-Llinares said it is essential in these studies that fake news be related to "disinformation, with the process of communicative manipulation through lies or half-truths," while also analyzing the role of social media platforms and their algorithms in the distribution of this disinformation. 

"Disinformation is a complex phenomenon that can easily be used to implement measures that can seriously affect fundamental rights," Miró-Llinares said. "So we must be cautious and distrustful of anyone who promises to save us from disinformation by bans."

The study "Misinformation about fake news: A systematic critical review of empirical studies on the phenomenon and its status as a 'threat,'" published April 15 in the European Journal of Criminology, was co-authored by Fernando Miró-Llinares, Miguel Hernández University of Elche; and Jesús C. Aguerri, Crímina Research Centre for the Study and Prevention of Crime.

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