Fixing the Fake News Problem Requires Knowing What We’re Talking About First

Steve Mullis
Dec 4, 2016 · 5 min read

Fake news.

It’s the spooky monster on the lips of everyone working in the “real news” business that is to blame for all of the things we got wrong this election. But not really. There were a ton of other factors as well. Chief among them a bunch of people in comfy little bubbles waving at and razzing folks in other little bubbles. But I digress. For the sake of this post, let’s just focus on this particular monster — fake news.

One commonality I’ve seen in a lot of print and TV coverage of the “fake news epidemic” is that the term “fake news” is used as a catch-all or umbrella term for a wide variety of different types of stories that have some level of fakeness. But in order to really tackle this issue, we need to know what we’re talking about and be clear about it. In service of that effort, let’s break down some of the different tiers of fake news.

Actual Fake News

Actual fake news stories are the ones completely fabricated by companies and agencies whose sole purpose is to deceive and get clicks. These are the type of stories that gained a lot of prominence this election and, with the help of Facebook, turned fake news into a big business that was highly profitable. Several news organizations, including NPR and The Washington Post, have talked to creators of these sites and stories. They make a lot of money, which means they have no reason to stop any time soon.

Some examples:

Fake news is harmful. Most people, I hope, wouldn’t really argue that point. It spreads misinformation, sows distrust in legitimate media sources that operate by some code of ethics, and they completely muddy the waters and erase the line between what is fact and what is fiction. Fake news stories exist almost entirely to confuse the news consuming populace and foremost, to make a profit for those pedaling them. The business model for that profiteering lay almost entirely at the feet of Google and Facebook. To their credit, both of those companies say they are taking steps to address fake news.

Misleading News

These are the stories from established sites that aren’t necessarily fake news sites, and often see themselves as legitimate media sites. These stories are based on a kernel of truth, but then spun, twisted and framed in a way that intentionally misleads the reader toward a particular conclusion (often false) about a story. The easiest example of this would be or The Drudge Report, but also your standard grocery store tabloid.

Most stories in those publications have some basis in reality, but the combination of sensational headlines, exclusion of key information and the spinning of false narratives, create an intentionally misleading story meant not to point the reader to the actual to truth, but a truth that has been decided upon by the publication.

False News

There is a distinction to be made between fake news as defined above, and news that appears true but later turns out to be false or based on a falsehood. The difference is that fake news is created solely to deceive and false news is something that at one time was thought to be true. It sounds like splitting hairs a little, but I think it is important.

One of the clearest examples is the story of anti-Trump protesters being bussed into Texas, a story that spread widely but turned out not to be true. The New York Times did a fantastic dissection of this story and how it all started. It all began with one man’s tweet:


At the time this was taken, Eric Tucker, the man who tweeted it, believed this to be true. He wasn’t a fake news writer or profiteer, he was simply a guy who saw something that he believed to be true, tweeted it, and then the internet ran with it. Despite walking it back later once some reporters started to look into it, the false story was already out there being promoted on Reddit, Facebook and by multiple websites. The danger here, and with the other types of fakes news, is that even once the record is corrected, the fake, false and misleading narrative is already out in the wild and spreading like a fire through dry brush. Rarely, if ever, does the correction get shared as widely as the original story.

Conspiracy Theory Stories (update)

After the Pizzagate nonsense, I thought it worth adding a sub-category to false news, since stories based on conspiracy theories operate a little differently. The main difference here is that these stories generally start with a conclusion that someone or a group of people believe to be true — in this case that a pizza place is a den of pedopheilia tied to powerful, liberal elites. Evidence and stories supporting this conspiracy are then created, shared, iterated upon and shared again, until it all becomes a large fake evidence feedback loop. The origins of the “evidence” become so murky, the masses then assume it to be true and continue promoting the false story.

Satirical News

It’d be irresponsible not to mention Godfather of fake news, the satirical news story. This is your Onion, Clickhole, Andy Borowitz at the New Yorker and similar sites on the other side of the spectrum. These sites traffic in humor and hyperbole in their stories in order to draw attention to the absurdity and extremes in our society and our news media. They do have a place, but when we’re talking about fake news we shouldn’t ignore them. Because as we’ve seen, even people in Congress can fall for them and believe them to be true.

What Now?

Fake news, in all its forms, presents a problem and a danger to the global conversation. The potential for the spread of misinformation using channels, platforms and tools that have become ubiquitous forms of communication is higher than ever. How the mainstream and independent media, the platforms themselves and the public at large will combat this will remain to be seen. But I think we have to start by having clear definitions of what is being talked about when we talk about fake news. Once we’re clear about that, we can start working on solutions.

Did I leave something out? Do you think there needs to be further distinction and delineation of types of fake news? Let me know below.

Steve Mullis is a digital editor at NPR News in Washington, D.C.

Steve Mullis

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