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Fake News

This article offers you thoughts on the difficult ethical questions that arise when dealing with possibly false information online.
Ansgar Graw

How Can I Identify Fake News?

Fake news is defined by Oxford Languages as “false information that is broadcast or published as news for fraudulent or politically motivated purposes”. Although the spreading of false information is probably as old as human communication itself, this definition tells us that, with journalism being the accumulation, editing, and distribution of news and related analysis or commentary, fake news must inextricably be linked to it. 

Reporting dates back to 59 BC in ancient Rome under Julius Caesar, when the Acta Diurna (Daily Acts), an officially authorized daily record of important events and public speeches, was produced and hung in prominent places such as the Forum Romanum. Soon after, it can be assumed, the first fake news appeared.

What is Credibility in Reporting?

Not only government officials have historically published narratives about major events like natural disasters, or crucial developments such as regime changes and political conflicts; the same goes for many ancient authors and the very first historians. In all cases of reporting, credibility is paramount. And credibility is mostly the result of veracious and thorough research of the facts an author presents in their articles. 

A prominent war reporter once described how he makes sure to identify and avoid fake news: “With regard to my factual reporting of the events of the war, I have made it a principle not to write down the first story that came my way and not even to be guided by my own general impressions; either I was present myself at the events which I have described. Or else I heard them from eyewitnesses whose reports I have checked with as much thoroughness as possible.”

That reporter’s name is Thucydides, the Greek general and “father of historical science” who wrote a 500-page book about the Peloponnesian War between the Delian League and the Peloponnesian League in fifth century B.C. His description on how to treat news and how to get as close as possible to the truth could even serve as a guideline of journalism today. He wrote: “Not that the truth was easy to discover. (…) Most people, in fact, will not take the trouble in finding out the truth, but are much more inclined to accept the first story they hear.”

There are ample examples of journalists who have been negligent with the truth: In 1835, “The Sun”, a tabloid from New York City, published a series of six articles claiming that the British mathematician and astronomer Sir John Herschel had discovered temples, animals and a civilization created by bat-like winged “humanoids” on the moon. The result: The circulation of “The Sun” increased significantly. 

In 1903, the Clarksburg Daily Telegram set a trap for its competitor Clarksburg Daily News that they suspected of plagiarizing and faking their stories. To catch them, the Telegram published a made-up story about the fatal shooting of a man with the remarkable name of “Mejk Swenekafew”, and found it, as expected, some hours after they had printed it with minor editing in the News. If the plagiarizers would have spelled “Swenekafew’s” family name backwards they might have smelled a rat: “We fake news…”

During World War I, various publications in London from the Times to the Daily Mail reported about alleged “cadaver factories” in Germany where, according to an anonymous source that claimed to have visited this “Kadaververwertungsanstalt” (or cadaver disposal factory), the corpses of fallen soldiers from Germany and its enemies were used to make soap and margarine. Yes, there have been a lot of atrocities in every war. But this one was, thank God, no more than propaganda.

In those analogue times, printing houses, publishing companies, government officials, news agencies, TV and broadcast stations, and newspapers had the exclusive means and tools to spread news. They were gatekeepers of the flow of information, identifiable for the public – which meant if they spread misinformation or even faked information, it was their reputation that was on the line. Therefore, it is doubtful that the aforementioned “Great Moon Hoax” was a smart idea. 

Nevertheless, it happened again and again that these gatekeepers misused their power. Under dictators like Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, press pictures were edited to cut out former companions who had fallen out of favor with the Communist Party. The National Socialist German dictator Adolf Hitler even had a false flag attack staged on the German radio station “Sender Gleiwitz” in the town with the same name next to the then Polish border, as a justification for the invasion of Poland and the start of World War II on September 1, 1939. In 2021, Chinese state media cited an alleged Swiss biologist by the name of “Wilson Edwards” as having made comments on the origins of Covid-19, and further blaming the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “political tool” against Beijing. They later deleted their stories, after the Swiss government declared that no person with that name existed in Switzerland.

How to Deal with Misinformation, Disinformation and Mal-Information?

Fake news comes in a wide range. We have to differ between misinformation (unintentional mistakes like wrong captions under photos or wrong facts or figures in articles), disinformation (false information as intentional lies) and mal-information (accurate information released to inflict harm on a person, e.g., criticizing somebody in the web and revealing their address and/or phone number). All these forms of false information are older than the Internet. But social media makes it much easier to spread the message faster.

New all-digital technologies enable yet another form of conscious deception: Deep Fake News. Advanced tools enable users to edit pictures and videos or audio almost perfectly. Additionally, AI can even generate portraits of non-existing individuals.

How should media and journalists deal with this development? 

  1. We can call on social media to delete false information. The problem: Do we trust that these platforms (and the employees working there) always know what is wrong and what is correct? And couldn’t some of them have a personal agenda? It might be easy to identify reports about microchips that are injected into individuals through Covid-19 vaccines as absurd disinformation. But the effectiveness of the second or third booster vaccination is controversial even among top experts. Or let’s take Donald Trump: He has been caught in countless lies. But when the Trump-friendly New York Post reported on incriminating information on a laptop of Hunter Biden, the son of his opponent, shortly before the 2020 presidential election, they were dismissed in most of the mainstream media. Facebook limited the reach of the Post-article and Twitter even blocked users from posting the link to the story. Months after the election it turned out that this computer in fact did belong to Hunter Biden (although it did not reveal any illegal behavior). That means the digital gatekeepers have censored their content.
  2. We can advocate for a government agency that blocks or at least labels fake news. But do we trust government officials in all countries? Even democracies might have far-left or far-right or populist governments. Should their representatives decide what information we can share in the internet or how it is labeled? 
  3. We can accept false information up to the limit where it breaks existing laws, incites crimes, calls for violence against minorities and fuels racial or religious hatred in a concrete way. In these cases, the reports must be blocked by the platforms they are published on, and court proceedings must be initiated. The downside: Such a relaxed approach to fake news could encourage some contemporaries to spread even more forgeries or maliciousness. But perhaps that is the price we have to accept for a world in which, thanks to digital communication, anyone can spread their information, even if it’s through mere allegations or distortions. But it must be clear that as soon as these offenders break the law, they have to face legal consequences. 

What are the Differences between Misinformation and Censorship?

There is only a very fine line between avoiding misinformation and giving off the impression of exercising censorship, and in both ways, it can undermine the dearly needed trust in media. Yes, it has become easier in our digital world to misuse new tools for spreading information. But it is not one-sided. We can answer false information with accurate facts, and do it at the same speed. 

At the same time, we as journalists have to be self-critical. The fakers are not always “the others”. Jayson Blair faked news stories for the New York Times, Claas Relotius for the German Spiegel, Johann Hari for the British online newspaper The Independent, Jack Kelley and Gabriela Miranda for USA Today. Therefore, we, as authors or as editors, must be even more conscientious in checking information before publication and distinguish between facts and opinions in a way that our audience can perceive the difference. Let’s not report based on “hearsay” but refer to first-hand accounts and witnesses. Are the quoted sources accepted and serious? If the source has a low level of professionalism or even a poor reputation, we must not just double- but even triple-check. 

And perhaps we should trust in our audiences. Don’t underestimate readers, viewers and listeners. Media users will increasingly learn to distinguish between facts and fake news. And ultimately, they will reward the media that report truthfully.

About author
Ansgar Graw

Ansgar Graw is the director of the Media Programme Asia at the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung Ltd. in Singapore. The journalist and former TV host has published numerous books on Donald Trump, international affairs and German politics, amongst others, and has a strong focus on business journalism through his work with the German media outlets Die Welt (e.g. as correspondent in Washington D.C.) and The European.

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