Deceptive news websites proliferate, infecting public debate with their lies

Partisans have labeled legitimate news outlets as ‘fake news,’ but there is a whole world of websites out there spreading truly false information

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“Fake news” is a term that has come into the national spotlight since 2016, but the term itself is actually somewhat misleading. Media content that is completely fabricated is just one of many forms of what First Draft, a leading resource on the spread of disinformation, calls “information disorder.” 

In many cases, false and misleading stories that circulate on the web contain some truth, but have been manipulated to serve an agenda. Thus, they are not purely “fake news,” but distortions of reality. Increasingly prevalent, however, are “fake news” websites that may appear to be legitimate news organizations. These sites traffic in disinformation, which is false or misleading content intended to deceive. That content becomes misinformation when it is shared by people unaware of its origins who may believe it to be real. 

Screenshot from CNN

Josephine Lukito of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, found that mainstream news outlets inadvertently amplified Russian disinformation leading up to the 2016 U.S. election. Here, Lukito discusses her research on CNN in 2019.

As misinformation spreads, it has the potential to be picked up by news organizations, fake and mainstream alike. This happened in 2018 when mainstream news outlets published tweets sent out by Russians posing as hyper-partisan Americans, according to Josephine Lukito, who researched disinformation while a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that everyone is susceptible to sharing misinformation,” Lukito says. “I think as journalists and political actors, people in these privileged positions who have a voice, who have an audience … really are in a unique position to accidently amplify misinformation.”

In total, First Draft lists seven kinds of dis- and misinformation, which range from satire, which has no malicious intent, to completely fabricated content, sometimes spread by actual fake news sites. Several organizations, including PolitiFact, FactCheck.org and Media Bias/Fact Check, have aggregated lists of hundreds of these websites, but due to their sheer proliferation, the lists can quickly become out of date. 

Many fake news sites nonetheless have common attributes that make identifying them easier: Headlines are often “clickbaity,” information about the authors is scant, and “About Us” pages offer little insight. Wisconsin Watch investigated one such site, 24 News, “America’s News Hub.”

24 News’ homepage is sparse, and many of the stories are obviously designed to rile up partisans, specifically conservatives against liberals. A story from late spring declared: “Results from Breaking Study Show 100% CURE Rate Patients Infected with the Coronavirus.” Sites like this are often referenced on social media pages like the ones mentioned above.

A final thing to note is that fake news sites sometimes take advantage of the fact that people often trust local news more, and will cast themselves as local outlets like the Denver Guardian, even featuring local stories. For example, a social media post which impersonated the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel falsely reported that Wisconsin students would have to repeat the 2019–20 school year in light of COVID-19 related school closures. 

When it comes to this type of content, if journalists and sources are not identified, images uncredited and narratives divisive, it’s likely fake news. 

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