The term ‘fake news’ has been uttered quite frequently in many different contexts and in various halls of power, authority and publicity in the last few years (what might be referred to as the “Trump Era”). From the–once–hallowed podium of the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room to the chaotic forums of Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, the phrase ‘fake news’ has been embraced by the President and anonymous internet surfers alike with an almost cathartic glee.
‘Fake news’ has officially entered the American Lexicon and quickly risen up the ranks of frequent usage to become one of the most popular colloquial phrases of the Trump era. The term has become so ubiquitous that, despite it’s quite literal wording–describing news that purposefully presents falsity as fact–its actual meaning has become cryptic to us. Therein lies the dilemma; the term is ubiquitous, but it’s often not being used to describe actual fake news.
“Fake news is a concrete term,” says Dave Van Zandt, “Something is considered fake news when it is done deliberately for some purpose such as profit or influence.” Van Zandt is the owner and proprietor of Media Bias Fact Check (MBFC), an independent online media outlet that attempts to educate readers about bias and deception in the media.
MBFC has a team of researchers who, it notes, are not “professional journalists,” but rather “media consumers just like you,” who are all college educated and have “a common interest in keeping media accountable for their words and information.”
MBFC has a comprehensive methodology that they use to evaluate all of more than 2,200 media outlets catalogued on their site. Van Zandt believes that fake news can be simply defined and, with MBFC, has been putting that belief into practice for decades. “Fake news is simply something that is not true and is not labeled as satire,” he said.
MBFC puts media outlets into categories along several paradigms: partisan biases (i.e. right bias, center-left bias, etc.), science vs. pseudoscience, questionable sources or satire vs. legitimate sources.
Ratings along a given paradigm don’t necessarily influence others. According to Van Zandt, “even biased information can be true.” That is why you’ll find that popular right-wing sources such as Fox News, which many on the left–including a prominent Boston Globe columnist–have labelled fake news, are still rated highly factual.
Sources with mixed factual accuracy are still not what meet Van Zandt’s definition of “fake news.” Fake news sites sources can be viewed under MBFC’s “questionable sources” tab where such household names as American Patriot Daily, World News Politics, and Gateway Pundit can be found. Sites such as these will also commonly be denoted as “propaganda,” “conspiracy,” and/or “nationalism.”
There is also another fake news tab entitled “Conspiracy-Pseudoscience,” which catalogues more scientifically (or-anti-scientifically) minded sites such as InfoWars, a site notable for its far-right conspiratorial narratives as well as deriving much of its funding from dubious herbal supplements. These sites, according to MBFC, “may publish unverifiable information that is not always supported by evidence,” and “may be untrustworthy for credible/verifiable information.”
Contrary to popular belief within the liberal bubble, fake news sites aren’t just right-wing. One site called Occupy Democrats is listed under Questionable Sources and labelled as “Extreme Left” and “Propaganda.” MBFC notes that Occupy Democrats “has a dismal fact check record according to Politifact.”
Politifact says that the site has published numerous false claims. These include an accusation that “[Former Republican Louisiana Governor] Bobby Jindal’s parents ‘used his birthright citizenship to become Americans, making him an anchor baby,’” and another claiming “President Barack Obama ‘has taken less vacation days than any other president in a generation,’ while Congress ‘has taken more vacation days than any other Congress in history.’”
These claims, and others like them, make Occupy Democrats as fake as InfoWars or Gateway Pundit. And MBFC calls out misinformation on these sources all the same. “We have been accused of both Right and Left Wing bias,” Van Zandt pointed out.
But who is MBFC to determine what is and isn’t fake news, and how do we know they aren’t biased in their fact checking?
“Absolutely, fact checking can be biased,” Van Zandt conceded, “I understand why certain people may feel Politifact and Snopes are left leaning and that is because we currently have all levels of government run by the Right,” which he says “leads to far more fact checking of Right-biased statements.”
However, he defends the service that MBFC does for its readers: “I like to think we are serving as a valuable resource. People don’t have to agree with our bias ratings, but I hope they are being led in the right direction and learning how to detect bias.”
As with PolitiFact and Snopes, MBFC has run into its fair share of accusations of peddling fake news from extremely biased outlets or questionable sources. “The far right biased and factually mixed World Net Daily (WND) wrote an article entitled the 9 fakest fact checkers or something along those lines.”
The World Net Daily piece, entitled “Phony baloney: The 9 fakest fake-news checkers,” takes aim at MBFC’s credibility and asserts that Van Zandt is both unqualified and too biased to be a reliable source.
The piece quotes Bill Palmer, editor of the Palmer Report, as claiming “Media Bias Fact Check is truly just one guy making misleading claims about news outlets while failing to back them up with anything.” The Palmer Report is rated by MBFC as a factually-mixed source, and has been described by the Atlantic as “the publication of record for anti-Trump conspiracy nuts who don’t care about the credibility of the record.”
Van Zandt also made some clarifications about the national origins of our fake news. Many Americans are familiar with sophisticated Macedonian fake news operations–for the purpose of bringing wealth into an otherwise economically stunted nation–and a Russian fake news operation aimed at creating misinformation and, allegedly, electing Donald Trump. However, Van Zandt maintains that “there are thousands of American fake news sites,” which he says are just like the foreign sites, in that “they either want to make money or influence people.”
“Sadly, many fake news sites make decent money,” Van Zandt concluded, “They churn out a story that sounds serious, but is entirely made up and it gets shared a million times on social media. If someone is able to get 1 million page views per month, they can survive on advertising and if they get 5 million they can make enough to live pretty well, certainly better than most 9-5 jobs.” With that incentive structure, why wouldn’t you want to make fake news for a living?