Some experts with huge experience in the field of news and journalism have started to back away from the fake news fire altogether.
“The reason I don’t like the phrase now is it’s used as a term to describe everything,” says Clare Wardle of First Draft News, a truth-seeking non-profit based at Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre. “Whether it’s a sponsored post, an ad, a visual meme, a bot on Twitter, a rumour – people just use it against any information they don’t like.”
“This is a really complex problem,” she says. “If we’re going to start thinking of ways we can intervene, we’re going to have to have clear definitions.”
Wardle says that an obsession with the phrase ‘Fake News’ is actually hurting the credibility of otherwise credible news outlets.
“My concern now is the kind of reporting we see on disinformation,” says Clare Wardle. “People are saying, ‘I don’t know who to believe or who to trust, everything’s broken.’ My concern is the way that we’re talking about some of these issues is actually doing more than the original misinformation did in the first place.”
It was in 2016 when Buzzfeed’s media Editor, Craig Silverman started to notice a strange stream of completely made-up stories that looked as if they were originating from one small place in Macedonia, in eastern Europe, called Veles. He, along with a colleague started to investigate and not long before the US election they managed to identify 140 fake news websites which were finding huge numbers on Facebook.
Veles is a small city in Macedonia where many of the fake news websites sprang up during the US election campaign and where one BBC reporter went to investigate.
She found teenagers were pumping out sensationalist stories, helping them make 1000s of euros from advertising. In a city where the average salary is £350 a month, it is not difficult to see why these young people have set aside any moral commitments to earn what they see as enormous amounts of money.
Ubavka Janevska, a senior investigative journalist with her own news website, told the BBC reporter that she’s identified seven separate teams peddling misinformation online -and she estimates there are also hundreds of school children working individually.
“I worry for young people’s morality in Veles,” she tells me. “Since the US elections, all they think about is lies and making a fast buck from lies. We have parliamentary elections here in Macedonia in December,” she adds. “And I have traced three false domains registered in Serbia or Croatia. Those sites are already putting out lies about the opposition party which could really damage the campaign.”
One 19-year-old university student claims he earned about 1,800 euros or £1500 by writing articles for a month but that his friends had been earning 1000s of euros a day. When the BBC reporter asked if he worried that his false news might have unfairly influenced voters in America, he boasted, “The Americans loved our stories and we make money from them. Who cares if they are true or false?”
“Teenagers in our city don’t care how Americans vote,” he laughed. “They are only satisfied that they make money and can buy expensive clothes and drinks!”
After copying and pasting various articles, the student packaged them under a catchy new headline, paid Facebook to share it with a target US audience hungry for Trump news and then when those Americans clicked on his stories and began to like and share them, he began earning revenue from advertising on the site.
Veles used to be part of the former Yugoslavia, when it was called Tito Veles after the then president Josip Tito. Apparently today it is jokingly called Trump Veles thanks to the welcome boom provided by the digital gold rush.
It is not illegal to post false news on lookalike American news sites but the whole idea of misleading readers has been called underhand and dirty.
The right-wing mayor of Veles, Slavo Chediev insists. “There’s no dirty money in Veles,” before adding curiously that he’s rather proud if the entrepreneurs of his tiny little city, thousands of miles from the US, have in any way influenced the outcome of the American election.
And the 19-year-old student, he told the reporter that he had now given up writing fake news but when asked what his mother would make of his dodgy online activities he said
“Do you think if your kid had made 30,000 euros a month you’d make a problem?” he asks incredulously. “Come on! You’d be so happy… you’d be… ” he searches for his words.
“Made up?” offered the reporter.
The young people in Veles may or may not have had much interest in American politics, but because of the money to be made via Facebook advertising, they wanted their fiction to travel widely on social media. The US presidential election – and specifically Donald Trump – was (and of course still is) a very hot topic on social media.
Along with others who attempt to peddle faked stories the young people of Veles wrote stories with headlines such as “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President” and “FBI Agent Suspected in Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead in Apparent Murder-Suicide”.
They were completely false. And thus, began the modern – and internet-friendly – life of the phrase “fake news”.