The Evolution of Fake News: What, Why, and How Misinformation Spreads

by Judith Alba in September 10th, 2019

Three years ago, the term "fake news" took hold in political conversations across the U.S., creating a climate of mistrust and paranoia that has strained the relationship between the American press and the public.

The anxiety of contributing to the spread of fake news has burdened conscientious readers with a need to fact-check the sources they come across and research news as if they were journalists themselves. While active readers are willing to dedicate that time, others are feeling increasingly overwhelmed. In our interviews, some have personally expressed a fear of spreading false information as a direct risk of trying to stay informed.

So, where does that leave us, the news consumers? In this post, we'll explore the threat of fake news, why it spreads, and what steps we can take to minimize its effects.

What is fake news?

The term “fake news” was originally coined by BuzzFeed News editor, Craig Silverman, who, in 2014, posted a tweet exposing a fake news site that had fabricated a story about an Ebola outbreak that supposedly quarantined an entire town in Texas.

In the context of his original tweet, Silverman defined fake news as “completely false information that was created and spread for profit.” At the time, he had no reason to believe that the term would catch on and become a defining feature of the 2016 election. He also didn’t anticipate that it would be adopted into our everyday vernacular and take on a definition of its own.

The paradox at the core of ‘fake news’ getting famous is that what I think of as actual fake news — the stuff I’ve been weirdly obsessed with for at least three years — has become a sidebar in the discussion. Encouragingly, there is without question more interest, research, and public discussion about online misinformation and propaganda than ever before. Alarmingly, and as a direct result of its presence in the public conversation, it has become a politicized, polarized topic. This jeopardizes our ability to confront it.

- Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed News Reporter

Over the years, fake news has evolved to encompass more gray areas of falsehood and inconvenient truth, making the problem even hairier. The term now covers politically-biased commentary, sensationalized distraction pieces, and the incomplete or exaggerated reporting of facts, to name a few examples. In this post, we focus on Silverman's original definition of fake news, which helps us understand the fundamentals of navigating a world with all types of fake news.

Why is fake news a threat?

A news organization's reputation rests on its credibility — its ability to disseminate accurate news coverage to its audience. Although we expect our news to be engaging and interesting, we turn to other media for true entertainment. We, theoretically, read the news because we want to understand what is happening in the world around us, and how we should act based on that knowledge. That requires journalistic coverage with a perspective that represents us.

In today's digitally-tuned world, anyone can create a blog or website and broadcast their ideas to a worldwide audience; it doesn't matter how valid or well-informed those ideas are. Unlike the work produced by professional newsrooms, these stories aren't held accountable by any sort of fact-checking process. Yet, they have a similar potential to influence readers' views on any person, group, movement, institution, or country.

In 2016, a shooting was reported at a bar/pizzeria in Washington D.C. You might remember this incident by its trending name #Pizzagate, during which the perpetrator, Edgar Maddison Welch, fired at least one shot from an AR-15 assault rifle inside the establishment. In police custody, Welch revealed that he had traveled to D.C. to investigate an online conspiracy theory that cited evidence that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was operating a child-trafficking ring out of that pizzeria.

Despite glaring issues indicating that the story was false — namely the lack of attributable sources, especially from the NYPD and FBI, who were supposedly investigating this crime — the Clinton-sex-trafficking conspiracy went viral, with some articles racking up 100,000+ reactions on Facebook.

Incidents like the #Pizzagate shooting signify just one step in a long, dark trail of real world consequences caused by fake news.

- Nsikan Akpan, PBS News Hour

BuzzFeed analysts found that, during the last three months of the 2016 Presidential campaign, the top 20 fake election news stories circulated on Facebook garnered 8.7 million shares, comments, and reactions. In contrast, the top 20 real news articles gathered just 7.3 million shares and reactions on the platform

Total Facebook Engagements for Top 20 Election Stories


One study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found evidence strongly suggesting that Donald Trump wouldn’t have won the election without the influence of these fake news sites.

“There are enormous potential ramifications to these results. False news can drive misallocation of resources during terror attacks and natural disasters, the misalignment of business investments, and can misinform elections.”

- MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

Why does fake news spread effectively?

Some of the blame for spreading fake news can be attributed to “bots” sharing these articles or promoting false ideas in the comments of other social media posts. However, those who spread falsehoods rely on a more effective tactic — exploiting human psychology.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, robots accelerated the spread of true and false news at the same rate, implying that humans, not robots, are more likely responsible for the dramatic spread of false news.

- MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy

Essentially, the human brain loves fake news for two reasons.

Reason 1: Reinforcing Pre-Existing Beliefs

Fake news spreads so quickly because it's designed to move the right levers on social media, a place that nurtures our biases by sharing content that aligns with our beliefs.

Fake news outlets can use this system to maximize views for profit because the mechanics of social media encourage the formation of echo chambers.

Online communities, such as Facebook and Twitter, are natural echo chambers — similar to how families, friends, and other social communities may validate our opinions and serve as echo chambers. In the digital world, this model has been elevated to extreme levels.

That tribal desire to organize into ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is a basic part of human nature. It’s why we have hardcore nerd fandoms and lose our minds at sports games. But when it comes to politics, that desire can push us toward some extreme views.

- Carlos Maza,Vox Reporter

Online, the strength of our acceptance into a tribe relies on the ferocity of our support for content that affirms its beliefs and attitudes. We are drawn to more extremist content because it garners the greatest amount of support from our group. In the end, we train more than algorithms; we train ourselves.

Fake news stories — especially political ones — are designed to thrive within these echo chambers, targeting people who are already aligned with a specific political agenda.

For example, during the 2016 election, pro-Trump and anti-Clinton propaganda spread rapidly on Facebook; fake headlines, such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” reached almost one million viewers, according to BuzzFeed analysts.

Even though many of these headlines were blatantly — almost shamelessly — false, people who were already inclined to vote for Trump in 2016 were much more likely to believe these articles that painted him in a positive light.

When people are sharing the most extreme forms of political content, that sends the strongest, clearest signal about what their identity is, and it signals very clearly who the outgroup is.

- Jay Van Bavel, Associate Professor, NYU

In a video essay titled, “Why every social media site is a dumpster fire,” Vox video producer Carlos Maza explored various reasons why hyper-partisan content spreads effectively on these platforms. In this video, Maza highlights a key feature of fake news outlets: the use of hyperbolic, subjective, and emotional language to elicit powerful, emotional responses from the viewers. Online, this translates to “likes” and “shares.”

By creating incendiary, divisive content that preys on our tribalism, fake news outlets use the underlying mechanics of social media to create content that provokes a reaction and increases their chances of going viral. These outlets validate our strongest biases and they operate on social media platforms that keep us blind to opposing views.

Reason 2: Repetition = Credibility

The Great Wall of China can be seen from space. Humans only use 10% of their brains. Eating carrots will sharpen your eyesight. Chances are, you've heard these phrases before. You may have even believed they were true. All of these statements are false, yet they've endured and continue to influence people's worldview.

When we encounter the same phrase multiple times, it becomes more recognizable and familiar. Over time, we begin to accept it as a truth. This correlation between repetition and legitimacy represents a flaw in our mental processing known as the illusory truth effect.

Add multiple sources to the mix and that lie gains credibility. Those sources also don’t have to be reputable news publications or perceived experts, such as government officials. They can be our neighbors or family members. Humans are social creatures, and we value the information we receive from our peers. Furthermore, as time passes, we tend to remember the statement itself and not the source.

When you see the fact for the second time it's much easier to process. You read it more quickly, you understand it more fluently. Our brain interprets that fluency as a signal for something being true.

- Lisa Fazio, Psychologist, Vanderbilt University

We might assume that repetition could also correct falsehoods, but in actuality, repeating a retraction is nowhere near as effective. Under certain circumstances, this strategy backfires because if the retraction repeats the original falsehood, it can unintentionally reinforce its perceived validity. For example, in trying to insist that the Great Wall of China can not be seen from space, you may accidentally strengthen someone’s mental connection between the Great Wall of China” and “seen from space.” This interesting phenomenon is known as the familiarity backfire effect, which is a contributing factor to the continued influence effect discussed below.

Even if you find a way to phrase a correction without falling into the familiarity backfire effect’s trap, it is incredibly difficult to replace that initial piece of information once it has taken hold in the mind. Falsehoods can continue to influence one’s worldview even if the individual is aware that the information is incorrect. This is known as the continued influence effect (CIE), which psychologist Colleen M. Seifert defines as “people’s ongoing reliance on corrected misinformation.”

In other words, the impression left by the falsehood persists, continuing to influence our worldview and our actions. To explain this “ongoing reliance” in more detail, Seifert shares a relatable experience:

Case Study: An Everyday Example of How Debunked Information Can Still Color Your Worldview

Even when we are presented with new evidence that disproves a pre-existing belief, it is still possible for that initial assumption to influence our thinking, This flaw in our mental processing, known as the continued influence effect, has the power to affect our perception of the world in significant and minor ways.
To illustrate an everyday example of how CIE can inform our actions, psychologist Colleen Seifert describes how a misinformed belief led to a change in her daily habits. One day, as she unloaded groceries after a long day of shopping, Seifert realized that one of her bags had gone missing. Living in a small college town, she always felt safe leaving her car unlocked while she ran errands, so she was shocked and dismayed to realize that there was a thief in her community. The next day, she returned to the store to alert the owner, but instead discovered that she had simply forgotten her bag at the counter that day. Although Seifert was now aware that she had made a mistake, and the thief had never existed, she adopted this new habit of locking her car as a result of this incident.
She writes, “You can’t ‘unring the bell,’ or behave as if the information was never presented.”

Repetition and the continued influence effect underscore the resilience of first impressions and explain the efficacy of striking first, fast, and repeatedly in spreading mis/disinformation.

Resources for Fighting Fake News

Now that we’ve identified the real-world consequences of spreading fake news and the factors that make humans susceptible to it: What can we do about it?

Over the past few years, we’ve seen efforts from news consumers, publishers, and technologists attempt to address the fake news problem. Below, we’ve highlighted specific initiatives that may help you navigate the world of misinformation.

1. The Blindspot Report

The Blindspot Report puts a spotlight on news stories that publications from one side of the political spectrum or the other had little-to-no reporting on, to help understand where a perspective's "blindspot" may be.

2. is a nonprofit project by the Annenberg Public Policy Center with a community of scholars within the University of Pennsylvania that address public policy issues at the local, state, and federal levels.

3. IsThisCredible is a free tool that allows you to input a URL and use their AI to vet the article and provide a rating. The tool itself is by The Factual, a startup focused on balancing your perspective on news.

Overall, we've learned how fake news / false news / misinformation isn't a new issue ... but part of a longstanding behavioral problem that has evolved and taken many forms. Here at Below the Fold, we invest time and resources to help ensure every story covered in our newsletter is researched across reputable sources and various perspectives in mind. Subscribe for yourself to see us in action.

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