Q&A: How does fake news work?

ASU scientist on fake news narratives and why people believe them


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A new study in the journal Science found that fake news spreads faster and reaches more people than real news on Twitter, and that humans are more to blame for the spread of fake news on the social platform than bot accounts.

Arizona State University’s Scott Ruston talks about fake news narratives and why people believe them. Ruston is a research scientist in ASU’s Global Security Initiative, and is co-author of “Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism, and the Struggle for Strategic Influence.”

Question: What is fake news?

Answer: Fake news has many connotations.

During the 2016 election campaign, for example, a number of news stories were attributed to the Denver Guardian, a website that purported to be a local newspaper serving the Denver region. The website was, in fact, set up to spread false and misleading information. A more accurate term for this phenomenon is disinformation.

Some use fake news to refer to information of dubious veracity that is circulating through legitimate news media and other legitimate venues. The information might be true, it might be exaggerated, or it might be false. It can be hard to say. Gossip and rumor fall into this category.

Recently, fake news has been used as a rhetorical strategy to blur the lines between disinformation — intentionally false or misleading information intended to deceive and manipulate audiences — and information that hasn’t been confirmed to the level of professional journalistic standards, or academic standards, for that matter. This has led to what is arguably the most insidious use of the term, which is a slur against any news item or news outlet that a politician or other leader simply doesn’t like.

Q: How do perceptions of truth play into acceptance or rejection of fake news stories?

A: A large swath of the American public has come to believe that major news organizations are not to be trusted. This distrust is really driving the issue of fake news today.

Also, there are people who believe that truth is objective, that there is a black and white world where things are true or untrue. There also are people who believe in a socially constructed idea of truth.

People understand the world through stories, and people accumulate stories over time and create larger structures for understanding the world. Effective strategic communications, even the deployment of fake news, works within all of these systems.

Fake news stories tap into belief systems people already have in place, and social media has opened barriers that would have filtered a lot of these stories many years ago.

Q: How does fake news work?

A:  Disinformation and fake news operate similarly to gossip and rumor. These pieces of information often take the form of stories presented as sequences of events taken by figures, with an overt or implied motivation.

For example, during the last presidential election, we saw fake news stories that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic party leaders used a Washington D.C. pizza parlor to run an illicit sex ring. That’s a ridiculous and grossly false story that was widely circulated in disinformation websites and social media. This story on social media received a high proportion of overseas-based bot-generated retweets. While some portion of the spread was intentional, the story also went viral because for many people who already believe stories about Clinton and criminal acts, this fit a pattern they are familiar with.

This is an important principle about how we, as human beings, understand the world around us. We organize events and people into stories, because story structures help us make conclusions about cause, effect and consequence. Notably, though, these story structures don’t depend on an objective version of truth. They can accommodate and agree with objective truth, but story structures make sense and lead us to conclusions based on their coherence — the story is logic-consistent; and fidelity — the story aligns with other stories already accepted.

There are people who believe the “pizzagate” story as fact, not because it is true, but because it was a logically consistent story about a criminal similar to previously believed stories about Clinton and criminal acts. Others didn’t take it as literal truth, but their existing opinions of Clinton led them to accept the broader implication of the rumor — that Clinton is a bad person.

Q: How do rumors play into fake news narratives?  

A: News outlets often cover rumors, sometimes to get a “scoop” and be the first outlet covering a topic. They will allow verification to follow. Also, news outlets are in the business of telling stories. Rumors are forms of stories — they might be fragments of bigger stories, or they might be stories told to fill in gaps. Thus, the mere existence of a rumor, and the traction it gets can be a news story.

Rumors may be along the lines of, “Elon Musk may sell Tesla to Apple,” or they may be more scandalous than that, such as rumors about affairs. The term “rumor” sometimes carries a connotation of unimportance, and as a result, some people may dismiss rumors by saying, “Oh, that’s just a rumor.”

But the case we made in “Narrative Landmines” is that rumors are very important because they operate within the same field of people’s understanding as other news stories. This is the case whether rumors turn out to be true or completely false. Rumors will seem plausible because they sound like other stories people already believe.