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Fake news: What’s the real story?

Randall Mikkelsen  North American Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence

Randall Mikkelsen  North American Managing Editor, Thomson Reuters Regulatory Intelligence

Warped, misleading or outright false "news" is a detriment to free societies. To minimize its impact, news organizations can clarify and broadcast their missions, and consumers can exercise judiciousness and discernment.

A woman in the town-library meeting room eyed me suspiciously during my talk on fake news, and she challenged when I cited a hoax involving Hillary Clinton. “Have you heard about ‘pizzagate?'” she said. She was referring to a debunked conspiracy theory about a pedophile ring linked to Democratic officials and centered in a Washington restaurant.

“It’s entirely fake. It’s fantasy. It’s been disproven,” I said.

“I think it’s very real, and I think everyone needs to look it up,” she asserted. With that, she picked up and left.

Who, where, what, when and why – looking for answers

But that wasn’t the typical response. In the year that I have been giving public presentations on fake news, audiences have filled auditoriums to listen, ask questions and express concern about the flood of misinformation overwhelming their daily news diet.

“Media literacy seems to be incredibly important right now if one is going to be an active citizen,” said Mary Hubbard, assistant director of the Peterborough, New Hampshire town library. It is the oldest taxpayer-funded public library in the United States.

It was the New Hampshire public library system that first responded with invitations when I made an offer via social media offer to lecture on fake news. I have since spent time with callers to New Hampshire Public Radio, addressed college students on “First Amendment Day” and spoken to oil-industry executives, public relations professionals and my Thomson Reuters managers.

I made the offer shortly after the 2016 presidential election, when I learned of a Stanford University study finding that “young and otherwise digital-savvy students can easily be duped” by disinformation about civic issues.

It can’t just be students who are struggling with fake news, I figured. The adult audiences who hear me bear this out. They raise their hands, along with me, to affirm they have clicked on a phony headline that seemed outlandish but just-maybe plausible. They acknowledge sharing stories on social media without reading or verifying them. And they ask how to cope with it all.

What is “fake news”?

The meaning and significance of “fake news” has evolved since the social-media hoaxes and misinformation of the U.S. election campaign seized the public imagination. It has become a term of political denunciation, and a signifier of an age in which there is no longer a consensus over the values of truth and reality. But the core concern of how to identify and obtain reliable information about current events remains central to personal, political and commercial life.

The easy part of my presentations is how to spot the hoaxes: Verify the news outlet, look for phony internet addresses, look up articles on a reputable fact-checking site. Then it gets more complicated. Does a story reflect manipulation – as revealed by unsupported headlines or emotive language? Does news first reported by one outlet get twisted when other publications pick it up? How is the information attributed.?

State propaganda has gained increased prominence in the year since I began speaking, and putting it in context is tricky. The revelations and charges of Russian intervention in the U.S. election and in Europe have put a new cast on the issue, and raised the stakes for modern democracies, but the U.S. has a long record of its own covert and overt propaganda.

A chart produced by Denver attorney Vanessa Otero, plotting news organizations on a two-way scale of sophistication and political slant, draws significant interest and discussion by the audiences.

Coping strategies for news consumers

Then comes the inevitable question, how does a news consumer cope with it all? For a news professional, whose life’s mission has been to understand and convey the affairs of the world, the answer can be ironic.

I speak as a 30-year veteran of Thomson Reuters, with experience covering the major stories from perches including the White House, foreign countries and central editorial desks.

The sobering conclusion is that even though fake news has always existed, this is a new environment in which internet economics, political rhetoric, and propaganda all challenge the news consumer in ways that never have before.

We as news consumers have to set limits, and be selective in media diets. We have to control our social media feeds, and be responsible in our sharing habits. We have to balance the desire to be open to alternative perspectives, with a need to avoid doubting every news story we encounter.

This perspective is gaining currency. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web in 1989, told a banking conference I attended in Toronto that the initial promise had given way to disillusion. “We imagined that people would form groups that crossed cultural boundaries. They didn’t. People used the internet to reinforce their existing culture. Sometimes to a nastier extent.”

“Lots of other people are reading a lot of garbage out there,” he said. “It will affect my life,”

But he said it was too early to give up.  “We shouldn’t throw up our hands about humanity quite yet. We should look at the individual problems and just tackle them.”

“We get what we pay for.”

A questioner at one of my talks asked if I saw any reason for hope. What came to first to mind was the post-election surge in paid subscriptions and a renewed search for news outlets considered to be credible and professional.

I often cite the Trust Principles that ensure that freedom from bias is central to the mission of Thomson Reuters, and I note innovations such as Reuters Tracer that show the company seeking new ways to safeguard the reliability of news and information.

News organizations will face big challenges in overcoming increasingly sophisticated efforts to erode media credibility, at a time when their historical business model is challenges. “We have to pay for it,” I told the questioner. “We get what we pay for.”

An earlier version of this post appeared as an article in the non-profit global forum News-Decoder

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