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Sept. 1, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

There’s a long list of old-fashioned parallels to today’s fake news. Here’s one that’s actually helpful

Plus: Why fake news spreads so fast on Facebook, a fake news “taxonomy,” and a few podcast episodes for your weekend listening.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

Hoaxes and Hurricane Harvey. The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser has a running list of all the Hurricane Harvey hoaxes and unverified viral stories. “Why do hoaxes go viral during natural disasters?” wonders The Verge’s Alessandra Potenza. A few reasons: People are checking social media more for news and updates, so there’s a larger captive audience; people want to feel as if they are helping in some way and also feel more vulnerable; and, well, people are people and “want to feel like they’re part of the event.” It’s “the same psychological motivation that drives gossip,” First Draft News’ Claire Wardle tells Potenza.

Also, as usual, some dudes are kinda jerks. (“Of course I knew it was fake, it was part of the reason I shared the bloomin’ thing.”)

What old fears about The Radio! teach us about fake news now. In The New Yorker, Adrian Chen writes about early radio’s parallels to the Internet. “Everywhere you looked in the thirties, authoritarian leaders were being swept to power with the help of radio.” The same fears now apply to the Internet, where “stanching the torrent of fake news has become a trial by which the digital giants can prove their commitment to democracy. The effort has reignited a debate over the role of mass communication that goes back to the early days of radio.”

Also, this!

The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, co-founded by the social psychologist Clyde R. Miller, with funding from the department-store magnate Edward Filene, was at the forefront of the movement. In newsletters, books, and lectures, the institute’s members urged listeners to attend to their own biases while analyzing broadcast voices for signs of manipulation. Listening to the radio critically became the duty of every responsible citizen…much of the progressive concern about listeners’ abilities stemmed from the belief that Americans were, basically, dim-witted—an idea that gained currency after intelligence tests on soldiers during the First World War supposedly revealed discouraging news about the capacities of the average American.

Chen’s story draws on a wide range of sources, like ProPublica’s recent investigation into Facebook’s racist censorship policies, and is a helpful as well as interesting read.

How to make fake news spread fast on Facebook. Bloomberg’s Mark Buchanan distills a dense paper by Christoph Aymanns, Jakob Foerster, and Co-Pierre Georg on the spread of fake news in social networks.

They found that the most important catalyst of fake news was the precision with which the purveyor targeted an audience — a task that can easily be accomplished using the data that tech companies routinely gather and sell to advertisers. The key was to seed an initial cluster of believers, who would share or comment on the item, recommending it to others through Twitter or Facebook. False stories spread farther when they were initially aimed at poorly informed people who had a hard time telling if a claim was true or false…

It’s hard to see how this can change without altering the advertising-centric business model of social media. Aymanns suggests that big social media companies could counteract fake news by preventing advertisers from targeting users on the basis of political views, or even by suspending all targeted ads during election campaigns. But this might be impossible, given how important such advertising has become to the economy.

How do academic studies define fake news? A paper in the journal Digital Journalism (paywall) looks at how the term “fake news” has evolved across scholarly studies. Edson C. Tandoc Jr., Zheng Wei Lim, and Richard Ling, all from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, looked at 34 papers on fake news published between 2003 and 2017. They found that “fake news” was most often used to refer to satirical “mock news programs” like The Daily Show, or parodies like The Onion — followed by “(3) fabrication, (4) manipulation, (5) advertising, and (6) propaganda.” But any definition needs to take into account both “level of facticity” and “author’s immediate intent to deceive.” Parody and satire rank low for “intent to deceive,” and it seems safe to assume that most scholarly studies moving forward will be looking at numbers 3-6. “Fake news needs the nourishment of troubled times in order to take root,” the authors write. “Social tumult and divisions facilitate our willingness to believe news that confirms our enmity toward another group. It is in this context that fake news finds its audience.”

Three podcasts for your Labor Day travels. First, a conversation between BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel and Craig Silverman. (Also, if you’re interested in pro-Trump media more generally, Recode’s Peter Kafka talked to Warzel and CNN’s Oliver Darcy about it.)

Second, Brooke Binkowski, the managing editor of, discusses fake news with Rewire’s Lindsay Beyerstein on The Breach. Binkowski:

This is exactly how propaganda gains a foothold. If you study the patterns of how propaganda is used and weaponized, it starts out with flooding techniques so that people have so much going on that they’re confused all the time. They’re emotionally overwrought. They don’t know what’s real or what’s not. Finally, they’re just reacting to whatever they hear. To me, it just sounds like it should all be called propaganda at this point, or disinformation.

Third, MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman talks on Dig Deeper, a monthly podcast about critical thinking in the digital age, about why digital literacy may not be the answer to fake news. From a writeup of the episode:

The central problem, Zuckerman argues, is that one of the supposed antidotes to fake news — increased digital literacy — doesn’t always work in today’s hyper-partisan political environment. “We tell people to triangulate, look for a piece of information from at least three different sources,” he notes. “And what’s problematic about that is that depending on what you’re searching for, you might find three sources all repeating an untruth.”

Illustration from L.M. Glackens’ The Yellow Press (1910) via The Public Domain Review.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Sept. 1, 2017, 8:30 a.m.
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