Communication Fake News
Julian McDougall
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 August 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0263


Fake news has been the subject of a rapid research response, from a range of fields, given its impact on multiple sectors, the public sphere, and everyday life. The most prominent areas and disciplines contributing research and academic writing on fake news have been journalism, media and cultural studies, media literacy, politics, technology, and education. Whilst the concept is part of a broader concern with misinformation, the term “fake news” came to widespread public attention during the 2016 US presidential election. During the campaign, inaccurate social media posts were spread to large groups of users, a form of “viral” circulation found most prominently on the Facebook platform. A subsequent investigation discovered a large quantity of the posts were generated in the town of Veles in Macedonia, leading to concerns about the automated factory production of messages, including by “bots.” A key development in the use of the term “fake news” was Donald Trump’s adoption of it, following his election, as a negative description of unfavorable media coverage, going so far as to respond to unwanted questions from reporters in press conferences with “you’re fake news.” Fake news is a recent development in a long-established area of persuasive, misleading, or disproportionate mass communication. Research into fake news and analysis of it can be broken down into a set of categories. Political fake news is intended to misinform and influence (a contemporary form of propaganda). Strategic “cyberwarfare” by one nation on another may include spreading false information through fake social media accounts, authored by “bots.” Commercial fake news operates in the form of “clickbait,” whereby advertising revenue is attracted and combined with the economic affordances of user data trading. It is important to recognize that multinational digital corporations integrate this kind of communication into their business models. The distinctive impact of fake news has been to destabilize mainstream news media and provoke a crisis of trust in journalism, contributing to polarized public discourse and an increase in discriminatory communication. Research into fake news and the broader “information disorder” has explored fake news as propaganda, the role of technology, algorithms, and data harnessing in the spreading of fake news; fake news as an existential threat to journalism; fake news as part of the process of undermining or challenging democracy; protection from fake news through verification or “fact-checking” tools and more sustainable, longer term educational approaches to developing resilience to misinformation through media literacy. The term “fake news,” however, has been the subject of disagreement, with journalists, policymakers, educators, and researchers arguing either that it presents an oxymoron as false information cannot be categorized as news as defined by journalistic codes of practice (and thus plays into the hands of those who wish to undermine mainstream media) or that it assumes a “false binary” between real and fake, ignoring the gatekeeping agendas at work in all news production.

General Overviews

Jayakumar, et al. 2020 is a comprehensive collection of global research and case studies on fake news. A field guide on fake news and information disorder, Bounegru, et al. 2017 draws together the related research on digital platforms, disinformation, propaganda, and viral media and the influence of these elements in combination on democratic societies. It opens with an excellent overview of the competing definitions of fake news (propaganda, commercial, technological, an aspect of “post-truth”) and the various solutions offered (educational, regulatory, legal, and technological). The European Commission report from the High Level Group on fake news and online disinformation also situates fake news within a multidimensional approach (European Commission 2018). Tandoc, et al. 2017 offers a typology of scholarly definitions of fake news, generated from a systematic review of the field. This typology identifies distinctions between news satire, news parody, fabrication, manipulation, advertising, and propaganda. Drilling down to the detail, Fletcher, et al. 2018, published out of the influential Reuters Institute at Oxford University, provides top-level usage statistics to measure the nature and reach of fake news in Europe. McDougall 2019 is an ethnography that explores meaning-making around fake news and draws out recommendations from interviews and workshops with journalists, students, information literacy professionals, and journalists. Nossel 2017 defines “fraudulent news” as demonstrably false information presented as factual news with the intention to deceive readers and proposes solutions at the intersection of technology, journalism, and civil society. While focused on the educational response (see Media Literacy and Education), Mason, et al. 2018 sets out the challenge presented by fake news for democracy. Hewitt 2017 presents an overview and strategies for coping targeted specifically at young people, based on the findings from research with three hundred participants ages nine to fourteen years old. It is important, however, to avoid a “false binary” between fake news and professional journalism, as though the latter are free from bias and persuasion. Edwards and Cromwell 2018 assesses the role of the UK corporate media, including the BBC, in distorting war reporting, undermining progressive politics, and suppressing awareness of climate change. A wide-spanning overview of research into fake news is collated in Chiluwa and Samoilenko 2019, an international handbook covering research studies, case studies, and deception-detection methods.

  • Bounegru, Liliana, Jonathan Gray, Tommaso Venturini, and Michele Mauri. 2017. A field guide to “fake news” and other information disorders. Amsterdam: Public Data Lab.

    An essential resource. Defines and categories fake news in terms of activity and environments rather than content with a view to positive change.

  • Chiluwa, Innocent, and Sergei Samoilenko. 2019. Handbook of research on deception, fake news, and misinformation online. Hershey: IGI Global.

    DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-8535-0

    Wide ranging, international collection of perspectives and case studies, a very useful overview.

  • Edwards, David, and David Cromwell. 2018. Propaganda blitz: How the corporate media distort reality. London: Pluto Press.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv69tg4v

    A political, polemical debunking of the notion that mainstream, establishment, and apparently “liberal” media offer the antidote to fake news.

  • European Commission. 2018. A multi-dimensional approach to disinformation: Report of the independent High Level Group on fake news and online disinformation. Luxembourg City: Publications Office of the European Union.

    A key text for understanding the policy response in Europe.

  • Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. Measuring the reach of “fake news” and online disinformation in Europe. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

    The Reuters Institute has been at the forefront of the research response to fake news, offering empirical, credible studies to generate new knowledge on the scope and nature of the problem.

  • Hewitt, Beth. 2017. How to spot fake news—An expert’s guide for young people. The Conversation, 8 December.

    Extracts applicable strategies from a research collaboration between academics and a public service broadcaster.

  • Jayakumar, Shashi, Benjamin Ang, and Anwar Nur Diyanah, eds. 2020. Disinformation and fake news. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

    The strength of this text is its currency, interdisciplinarity, and international scope across political, cultural, and technical aspects of fake news.

  • Mason, Lance E., Daniel G. Krutka, and Jeremy Stoddard. 2018. Media literacy, democracy, and the challenge of fake news. Journal of Media Literacy Education 10.2: 1–10.

    DOI: 10.23860/JMLE-2018-10-2-1

    An interdisciplinary overview at the intersection of media ecology, media studies, and education.

  • McDougall, Julian. 2019. Fake news vs media studies: Travels in a false binary. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-27220-3

    An ethnography providing a “thick description” of perspectives on fake news from journalists, teachers, students, and librarians; makes a case for media education to build resilience.

  • Nossel, Suzanne. 2017. Faking news: Fraudulent news and the fight for truth. New York: Pen America.

    A detailed overview that also proposes solutions to the problem of fake news, at the intersection of intersection of technology, journalism, and civil society.

  • Tandoc, Edson C., Jr., Zheng Wei Lim, and Richard Ling. 2017. Defining “fake news”: A typology of scholarly definitions. In Special issue: Trust, credibility, fake news. Digital Journalism 6.2: 137–153.

    DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2017.1360143

    Offers a typology from substantive research based on a review of existing studies in the field. Seeks to clarify definitions and inform future research.

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