Our definition rules out several close cousins of fake news 1 unintentional

Our definition rules out several close cousins of

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people in our survey described below reported believing the headline. Our definition rules out several close cousins of fake news: 1) unintentional reporting mistakes, such as a recent incorrect report that Donald Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office in the White House; 2) rumors that do not originate from a particular news article; 1 3) conspiracy theo- ries (these are, by definition, difficult to verify as true or false, and they are typically originated by people who believe them to be true); 2 4) satire that is unlikely to be misconstrued as factual; 5) false statements by politicians; and 6) reports that are slanted or misleading but not outright false (in the language of Gentzkow, Shapiro, and Stone 2016, fake news is “distortion,” not “filtering”). Fake news and its cousins are not new. One historical example is the “Great Moon Hoax” of 1835, in which the New York Sun published a series of articles about the discovery of life on the moon. A more recent example is the 2006 “Flemish Secession Hoax,” in which a Belgian public television station reported that the Flemish parliament had declared independence from Belgium, a report that a large number of viewers misunderstood as true. Supermarket tabloids such as the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News have long trafficked in a mix of partially true and outright false stories. Figure 1 lists 12 conspiracy theories with political implications that have circu- lated over the past half-century. Using polling data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute (2013), this figure plots the share of people who believed each statement is true, from polls conducted in the listed year. For example, substantial minorities of Americans believed at various times that Franklin Roosevelt had prior knowledge of the Pearl Harbor bombing, that Lyndon Johnson was involved in the Kennedy assassination, that the US government actively participated in the 9/11 bombings, and that Barack Obama was born in another country. The long history of fake news notwithstanding, there are several reasons to think that fake news is of growing importance. First, barriers to entry in the media industry have dropped precipitously, both because it is now easy to set up websites and because it is easy to monetize web content through advertising platforms. Because reputational concerns discourage mass media outlets from knowingly reporting false stories, higher entry barriers limit false reporting. Second, as we discuss below, social media are well-suited for fake news dissemination, and social 1 Sunstein (2007) defines rumors as “claims of fact—about people, groups, events, and institutions—that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another, and hence have credibility not because direct evidence is available to support them, but because other people seem to believe them.” 2 Keeley (1999) defines a conspiracy theory as “a proposed explanation of some historical event (or events) in terms of the significant causal agency of a relatively small group of persons—the conspirators––acting in secret.”
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