What the Heck is Fake News? (Something everyone should know by now)

Oleg Kagan
Nov 5, 2019 · 3 min read
Can you define fake news? Some people can’t.

Sigh. It’s been years and people still don’t understand what “fake news” is. In October 2019, this was brought to the fore by Citrus County Commissioner Scott Carnahan (video here) — who in my mind immediately became known as “Fake News” Carnahan — when he refused to sign-off on the library’s request to renew a New York Times digital subscription for the public because it was “fake news,” declaring, by way of reasoning, that he supported Trump.

Sigh. It’s been years and people still don’t understand what fake news is. For example, “Fake News” Carnahan thinks that Donald Trump knows what it, which is a joke because Trump thinks it’s a term for anything with which he disagrees. Following in his mentor’s footsteps: Carnahan dislikes the NY Times so it must be fake news! Imagine all the fake news coverage of why “Fake News” Carnahan’s personal tastes shouldn’t determine what the library buys complete with fake words like ethics, censorship, and ignorance.

Could this be much ado about nothing? Librarians make purchasing decisions every day. Why not give “Fake News” Carnahan a chance to be an honorary librarian? First though, let’s send him to mini library school by teaching what fake news actually is. This will also help him better understand his new nickname: Scott “Fake News” Carnahan…I’m really getting too much mileage out of that.

Now then, throw on those truth goggles and let’s go!

A research guide from the University of Michigan Library defines fake news as:

“…those news stories that are false: the story itself is fabricated, with no verifiable facts, sources or quotes. Sometimes these stories may be propaganda that is intentionally designed to mislead the reader, or may be designed as “clickbait” written for economic incentives (the writer profits on the number of people who click on the story).”

It’s not a surprise that fake news is easily misunderstood. Like good con artists, fake news makers ply their trade by misleading, imitating, playing on our fears and biases, all to deliberately control of our beliefs. For example, they create websites that look like legitimate news sources, but publish alternative facts! Or, worse, publishing articles that are almost true, but for some important detail that changes the news angle. Almost true!

Sometimes, though, it’s user error. Like when people mistake editorials or human interest stories for news…Fake news! They’re sort-of correct, opinion pages are fake news, but only in the sense that they are not news.

Likewise, it’s easy to point at mistakes credible media sources make when reporting on rapidly developing stories. In those situations, journalists have to strike a balance between getting the news out quickly and juggling competing and complicated events. Imagine reporting from a war zone —how impossible is it to see the entire battlefield from the ground? The difference between professional, ethical, journalists and fake news con artists is that the former are trying at truth while the latter intend to mislead.

I recently wrote that libraries are about choices; as information professionals, we make regular decisions about our library’s collections, which includes spending taxpayer dollars on movies we personally dislike, books we hate, and resources we’ll never use. Our responsibility is not to build a collection we’ll personally enjoy, but one that our communities will find entertaining, enlightening, and educational.

Part of that is also assessing the credibility of non-fiction resources. So if “Fake News” Carnahan wants to be a librarian, he’ll need to get on the ball about how to do that! I’m sure his friendly neighborhood librarians will be happy to help. I’m sure they’ll show him that yes, it’s possible to take a non-partisan stance on appreciating the importance of an award-winning newspaper while still supporting a politician that doesn’t.

Hate fake news? Support libraries!


Stories about libraries and librarians around America.

Oleg Kagan

Written by

Writer and librarian. More at lifeinoleg.com


Stories about libraries and librarians around America. We cover the breadth of experiences that people have through their libraries, and showcase the amazing people who work there.

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