What Is Meant by “Fake News”?

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Having experienced an unprecedented usage increase of 365% since 2016, “fake news” is the Collins English Dictionary’s 2017 word of the year.[1] Although officially defined as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting,”[2] fake news has come to mean many things in the year 2017.

Headlines such as “Death Row Inmate Eats an Entire Bible as His Last Meal” and “Elderly Woman Accused of Training Her 65 Cats to Steal from Neighbors” rank among the top 50 fake news stories of 2017 that were circulated on Facebook, generating approximately 23.5 million shares, reactions, and comments.[3] However, both these headlines come from World News Daily Report, a site devoted to writing political satires as if they were official news reports. Other such sites include The Onion, Private Eye, The Daily Mash, National Report, and The Daily Currant. Unfortunately, reports from these sites are not propagated solely through social media. Mainstream news outlets have frequently participated in furthering stories originating from these sites. Jack Murtha reports in the Columbia Journalism Review:[4]

Last fall, The San Francisco Business Times erroneously aggregated a fake news piece about Yelp suing the creators of South Park.[5], [6] Earlier that year, Bloomberg Politics wrote a post based on a bunk article on Nancy Reagan’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president.[7] In 2014, The New York Times picked up a fake bit about Kanye West’s love for his own butt.[8], [9] In 2013, The Washington Post fell for a fake news story by the notorious Daily Currant, which claimed that Sarah Palin had taken a job with Al-Jazeera.[10] That same year, a bogus story alleging New York Times columnist Paul Krugman had filed for bankruptcy wound up on Boston.com–albeit through an automated third-party service that fed content to the site.[11] Breitbart then aggregated the story.


Assistant professor of communications and media at Merrick College, Melissa Zimdars, has compiled a list of hundreds of websites that regularly publish misleading or intentionally false reports.[12] Many of these sites use names that sound official or are similar to reputable sources, such as bostontribune.com, or cbsnews.com.co. Originally, the term “fake news” was used to denote reports originating from such sources; however, the term evolved in 2016.

Henri Gendreau’s article “The Internet Made ‘Fake News’ a Thing—Then Made it Nothing” in Wired provides an outstanding overview of how the term “fake news” changed.[13] Following accusations that editors in Facebook’s trending section were pushing liberal ideology and suppressing conservative news, Facebook replaced its editorial team with an automated system.[14], [15], [16] Three days later, Facebook apologized for trending a story that falsely claimed Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had been fired for being “a closet liberal who actually wants Hillary to win.”[17]

In October The Washington Post ran the headline, “Facebook has Repeatedly Trended Fake News Since Firing its Human Editors,”[18] and BuzzFeed reported, “Hyperpartisan political Facebook pages and websites are consistently feeding their millions of followers false or misleading information, according to an analysis by BuzzFeed News.”[19] According to Wired, “Buzzfeed’s extensive analysis finds that hyperpartisan Facebook pages most likely to post inaccurate stories received far more shares, likes, and comments than mainstream news pages.”[20]

Following the election of Donald Trump as president, reporters and pundits were desperate for an explanation as to how they could have been so wrong in their predictions. Building upon the recent reports of fake news, Max Read offered an explanation in his article “Donald Trump Won because of Facebook,” writing, “The most obvious way in which Facebook enabled a Trump victory has been its inability (or refusal) to address the problem of hoax or fake news.”[21] Henri Gendreau observes, “Liberals embrace[d] it as an existential threat to democracy while conservatives use[d] it as a joke to tweak liberals looking to blame [Hillary] Clinton’s loss on anything other than their own shortcomings.”[22] And according to Syracus University professor Jeff Hemsley, “Anger and humor are probably the two big reasons why it spread. I think people were angry about the idea that Facebook could have influenced the election.”[23]

In December, President-elect Donald Trump began responding to fabricated news stories as fake news, beginning with CNN’s claim, “Donald Trump will remain as an executive producer on NBC’s ‘Celebrity Apprentice,’ even while serving as president of the United States.”[24] President-elect Trump Tweeted, “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!”[25] One month later CNN alluded to a compromising dossier,[26] and BuzzFeed expounded, writing, “A dossier making explosive — but unverified — allegations that the Russian government has been ‘cultivating, supporting and assisting’ President-elect Donald Trump for years and gained compromising information about him has been circulating among elected officials, intelligence agents, and journalists for weeks.”[27] Once more, President-elect Trump Tweeted, “FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!”[28]

During a press conference the next day, President-elect Trump refused to field a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta, saying, “Your organization is terrible,” and “Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. You are fake news.”[29] Video of this press conference went viral, and the president officially co-opted the term “fake news.” Soon he began referring to the entire mainstream media as fake news, such as his Tweet, “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, [sic] it is the enemy of the people!”[30]

Today the term “fake news” is meant by some to refer to any news report with which they disagree, by others to refer to dishonest reporting, by others to refer to intentionally distorted or fabricated reports, and by others to refer to news sites that regularly publish misleading or intentionally false reports. Despite the occasional abuse of the term, “fake news” continues to primarily mean, “deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public.”[31] Sometimes these lies are obvious, and other times they are introduced by selective reporting of the facts, conflating facts with opinion, juxtaposing emotional images with the report, or tainting opinion with unidentified sources and speculation.

In 2017 the mainstream media was more interested in pushing the narrative that President Donald Trump is bad for America and should be removed from office than they were about honest reporting. In fact, a Pew Research report found that only 5% of the mainstream media coverage of President Trump was positive in 2017, and they were seven times more likely than right-leaning outlets to directly refute or correct a statement by President Trump or a member of his administration.[32] This biased coverage, combined with the media’s obvious objective, has prompted the President to Tweet, “I will be announcing THE MOST DISHONEST & CORRUPT MEDIA AWARDS OF THE YEAR on Monday at 5:00 o’clock. Subjects will cover Dishonesty & Bad Reporting in various categories from the Fake News Media. Stay tuned!”[33]

Regardless of what transpires at the White House on Monday, the President believes he has identified a pattern of lying and distortion of the truth by our nation’s most trusted news outlets. Irrespective of the source, and regardless of the motive, deliberately distorting truth to propagate a predetermined narrative only feeds a culture of lies. And this should concern us because Jeremiah 9:1–9 teaches that a culture of lies can invoke God’s judgment upon a nation. Realizing this, we would do well not to dismiss talk about fake news as divisive and irrelevant. Instead, we should welcome it as an opportunity to demand meaningful change from those who serve as the gatekeepers of information.

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Timothy Zebell

As a former missionary to Asia for twelve years and the author of several books, Timothy is passionate about helping people understand the relevancy of God's Word in today's world. His goals are to help Christians discern truth from error, empower Christians to speak into cultural matters with relevancy, and to help Christians capitalize on the opportunities that these matters provide for sharing the truth about God and His gospel message.
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1. “Word of the Year 2017.” Collins English Dictionary, n.d. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/woty.

2. “Fake News.” Collins English Dictionary, n.d. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/fake-news.

3. Silverman, Craig, Jane Lytvynenko and Scott Pham. “These are 50 of the Biggest Fake News Hits on Facebook in 2017.” BuzzFeed, December 28, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/these-are-50-of-the-biggest-fake-news-hits-on-facebook-in?utm_term=.ujoWlwKznr#.onrV2nzjd6.

4. Murtha, Jack. “How Fake News Sties Frequently Trick Big-Time Journalists.” Columbia Journalism Review, May 26, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.cjr.org/analysis/how_fake_news_sites_frequently_trick_big-time_journalists.php.

5. Hamill, Jasper. “News Website Falls for Hoax Claim South Park Faced $10m Lawsuit Despite Including Quotes from a Dolphin.” Mirror, October 21, 2015. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/technology/news-website-falls-hoax-claim-6676223.

6. McDermid, Riley. “CORRECTION: Yelp Says $10 Million Lawsuit Against ‘South Park’ is a Hoax.” San Francisco Times, October 21, 2015. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2015/10/correction-yelp-says-10-million-lawsuit-against.html.

7. Feldman, Josh. “Bloomberg Runs, then Pulls Hoax Story about Nancy Reagan Endorsing Hillary.” Mediaite, April 10, 2015. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.mediaite.com/online/bloomberg-runs-then-pulls-hoax-story-about-nancy-reagan-endorsing-hillary/.

8. Wadler, Joyce. “Fear of Kim Kardashian’s Derrière.” The New York Times, November 21, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/23/style/fear-of-kim-kardashians-derriere.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1&referrer=.

9. Silverman, Craig. “New York Times Column Used Quote from Fake News Site ‘Without Attribution.’” Poynter, November 23, 2014. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.poynter.org/news/new-york-times-column-used-quote-fake-news-site-without-attribution.

10. Parker, Suzi. “Sarah Palin Tries to Stay Relevant.” The Washington Post, February 12, 2013. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2013/02/12/sarah-palins-when-politics-and-celebrity-meet/?utm_term=.85cfd273bb44.

11. Weigel, David. “I Want to Believe.” Slate, March 11, 2013. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2013/03/daily_currant_satire_the_fake_news_website_keeps_fooling_journalists.html.

12. Zimdar, Melissa. “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” Google Docs, n.d. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://docs.google.com/document/d/10eA5-mCZLSS4MQY5QGb5ewC3VAL6pLkT53V_81ZyitM/preview.

13. Gendreau’s, Henri. “The Internet Made ‘Fake News’ a Thing—Then Made it Nothing.” Wired, February 25, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.wired.com/2017/02/internet-made-fake-news-thing-made-nothing/.

14. Nunez, Michael. “Former Facebook Workers: We Routinely Suppressed Conservative News.” Gizmodo, May 9, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://gizmodo.com/former-facebook-workers-we-routinely-suppressed-conser-1775461006.

15. Herrman, John. “Inside Facebook’s (Totally Insane, Unintentionally Gigantic, Hyperpartisan) Political-Media Machine.” The New York Times Magazine, August 24, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/28/magazine/inside-facebooks-totally-insane-unintentionally-gigantic-hyperpartisan-political-media-machine.html.

16. Wong, Joon, Dave Gershgorn and Mike Murphy. “Facebook is Trying to Get Rid of Bias in Trending News by Getting Rid of Humans.” Quartz, August 26, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://qz.com/1123094/bonds-through-the-ages-70-years-of-bond-market-history/.

17. Gunaratna, Shanika. “Facebook Apologized for Promoting False Story on Megyn Kelly in #Trending.” CBS News, August 29, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/facebooks-trending-fail-news-section-reportedly-highlights-fake-news-on-megyn-kelly/.

18. Dewey, Caitlin. “Facebook has Repeatedly Trended Fake News Since Firing Its Human Editors.” The Washington Post, October 12, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/10/12/facebook-has-repeatedly-trended-fake-news-since-firing-its-human-editors/?utm_term=.f6ac7b26b290.

19. Silverman, Craig, Lauren Strapagiel, Hamza Shaban, Ellie Hall and Jeremy Singer-Vine. “Hyperpartisan Facebook Pages are Publishing False and Misleading Information at an Alarming Rate.” BuzzFeed, October 20, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.buzzfeed.com/craigsilverman/partisan-fb-pages-analysis?utm_term=.flqd9Mlpg0#.stw1PErRyl.

20. Gendreau’s, Henri. “The Internet Made ‘Fake News’ a Thing—Then Made it Nothing.” Wired, February 25, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.wired.com/2017/02/internet-made-fake-news-thing-made-nothing/.

21. Read, Max. “Donald Trump Won because of Facebook.” November 9, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://nymag.com/selectall/2016/11/donald-trump-won-because-of-facebook.html.

22. Gendreau’s, Henri. “The Internet Made ‘Fake News’ a Thing—Then Made it Nothing.” Wired, February 25, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.wired.com/2017/02/internet-made-fake-news-thing-made-nothing/.

23. Ibid.

24. Byers, Dylan. “Donald Trump Will Remain EP on ‘Celebrity Apprentice.’” CNN, December 8, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://money.cnn.com/2016/12/08/media/trump-apprentice-ep/.

25. Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. December 10, 2016. Accessed January 5, 2018, 6:11 AM. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/807588632877998081.

26. Perez, Evan, Jim Sciutto, Jake Tapper and Carl Bernstein. “Intel Chiefs Presented Trump with Claims of Russian Efforts to Compromise Him.” CNN, n.d. Updated January 12, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://www.cnn.com/2017/01/10/politics/donald-trump-intelligence-report-russia/index.html.

27. Besinger, Ken, Miriam Elder and Mark Schoofs. “These Reports Allege Trump has Deep Ties to Russia.” BuzzFeed, January 10, 2017. Updated January 10, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.buzzfeed.com/kenbensinger/these-reports-allege-trump-has-deep-ties-to-russia?utm_term=.enKVJjYKPz#.rf19q0YGjD.

28. Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. January 10, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018, 5:19 PM. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/818990655418617856.

29. Savransky, Rebecca. “Trump Berates CNN Reporter: ‘You are Fake News.’” The Hill, January 11, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://thehill.com/homenews/administration/313777-trump-berates-cnn-reporter-for-fake-news.

30. Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. February 17, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018, 1:48 PM. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/832708293516632065?lang=en.

31. Sullivan, Margaret. “It’s Time to Retire the Tainted Term ‘Fake News.’” The Washington Post, January 8, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/its-time-to-retire-the-tainted-term-fake-news/2017/01/06/a5a7516c-d375-11e6-945a-76f69a399dd5_story.html?utm_term=.d4a6bccbb118.

32. Mitchell, Amy, Jeffrey Gottfried, Galen Stocking, Katerina Matsa and Elizabeth Grieco. “Covering President Trump in a Polarized Media Environment.” Pew Research Center, October 2, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018. http://www.journalism.org/2017/10/02/covering-president-trump-in-a-polarized-media-environment/.

33. Trump, Donald. Twitter Post. January 2, 2017. Accessed January 5, 2018, 5:05 PM. https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/948359545767841792.


Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright ©2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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