Organizational Communication & Information Systems (OCIS)

Making Sense of Fake News and Social Media

By Divinus Oppong-Tawiah posted 08-10-2019 09:53

Making Sense of Fake News and Social Media

Fake news. It has been mentioned a lot over the past few years. What does it mean? Is it something we should be concerned about? What role, if any, does social media play in its proliferation? To gain some insight into these questions, OCIS interviewed two of its members who conduct research on this topic.

*Note: The views expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewees.


Ali Khan, Queen’s University, Canada.
OCIS Doctoral Student Member

There has been much mention and concern expressed about fake news and its impact on society. For those of us who may not be familiar with it, can you briefly explain what fake news is?

When I first began typing in my answer, I wrote: “Simply put, ‘fake news’ is fabricated and intentionally false information presented in the guise of authentic news.”, thinking that next I’d discuss some of the caveats and provisos that go with this definition. But then I immediately realized that fake news has become such a contested phrase that this definition doesn’t do it justice by any measure, even as a conversation opener (hence my ingenuous solution: I attributed it to a younger, less wise version of myself).

The fact is, the answer to this question depends on to whom you put the question. The definition above does reflect what many academics, mainstream media, and members of the general public mean when they talk about ‘fake news’. Yet the person who  can claim credit for popularizing this phrase - Donald Trump - and those who support him have a different view of what it means: “…91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake)”.[1] This is also the implicit definition of several authoritarian governments that have introduced anti-fake news laws. To clarify, when I talk about fake news from this point forward, I am taking the viewpoint of the first group (academics).

Finally, there are those who advocate abandoning this phrase altogether. They point to the fact that it means different things to different people, that it is used to attack or restrict authentic, independent and free journalism, and that it does not cover all the challenges we’re facing with regard to online falsehood (e.g., we can deceive people by telling them the truth, if we take it out of context, or spin it in a certain way). They prefer terms such as misinformation, disinformation and false news, among others. People in this group range from academics to the UK Parliament[2]. Even Facebook appears to prefer those other terms[3]. I primarily identify with this group, but I do occasionally and reluctantly use ‘fake news’, as many scholars, including some of those with whom I work continue to use it.

Why is there concern being expressed about fake news? What is the problem?

Public concern with fake news (again, in the sense used by academics and most mainstream media) began with the highly polarizing 2016 US presidential election. Both final candidates of that election publicly cried and decried fake news during the campaigns. There was the “Pizzagate” incident during which someone took a rifle to a Washington DC restaurant - and fired several shots - to investigate the alleged child sex ring run by associates of the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, after which she warned about the “epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year” [4]. We’ve already talked about the Trumpian notion of fake news. Then came the election results, which took many by surprise, and some believed that fake news had contributed to those results. Then people started spotting the footprints of fake news all over the world: Brexit, the 2017 French presidential election, the Swedish and Brazilian general elections in 2018 and so on. There was the 2017 Indian WhatsApp lynchings and the Cambridge Analytica scandal which came to light in 2018, all of which helped make fake news a world-class celebrity.

Now, some have argued that those initial concerns about the impact of fake news on elections might have been exaggerated[5], but societies and academics have other legitimate concerns. In addition to serious immediate outcomes such as the Pizzagate incident and the WhatsApp lynchings, the prevalence of fake news might make it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction over the long run and undermine the public’s trust in science, contributing to problems such as anti-vaccination movements and climate change denial. The situation can get even worse with advances in machine learning and other AI technologies which have given rise to artifacts such as deepfakes - fake videos that look very realistic – particularly considering all the money and talent that is going into AI these days. Some of these concerns are merely speculations at this point, which means that we need more high-quality research on fake news.              

What role, if any, has social media played in the proliferation of fake news?

Accidental and/or intentional spread of falsehood is not a new challenge. We have dealt with issues such as rumors, scares and propaganda throughout history. In modern times, the Soviet Union was known to extensively rely on disinformation as part of its “active measures” against the West. But what sets apart this new, online wave of falsehood is its reach and appeal, which rely heavily on popularity, features (or affordances), and business models of social media. Facebook has upwards of 2 billion active monthly users, and others such as Twitter, Instagram, and Reddit have several hundred millions. Research shows that many of these users use social media as their primary source of news. In addition to the shear extent of outreach, social media incentivize and facilitate the spread of fake news at several levels. Some have argued that the ad-driven business models of social media essentially incentivize the generation and circulation of fake news, since both the platforms and the purveyors of fake news make substantial revenues out of popular stories[6]. Further, unlike traditional media, social media are not or were not until recently, liable for the content shared on them, under existing laws in many jurisdictions[7]. Social media also allow us to connect to like-minded people and communities and to share, like, and comment on their posts, giving rise to concepts such as filter bubbles and echo-chambers. To make matters worse, social media try to keep us in our bubbles and echo-chambers by displaying content that they know we like, to keep us continuously engaged which could translate to more ad revenue for them.      

What actions, if any, are social media platforms taking to address the issue of fake news? Can you give an example or two?

Actions taken by social media platforms are driven by a few contradictory forces. On the one hand, they are probably reluctant to battle fake news because it means losing part of their revenue; at the same time it incurs costs of monitoring, identifying and purging fake news, both of which could weigh down their stocks. On the other hand, they have to deal with the backlash from the public and their representatives and governments across the world, which could also translate into lost revenue, increased costs and weigh down their stocks. There is also the question of how far platforms can go in fighting fake news without being accused of suppressing free speech. So, I think they are taking some steps but they are not going out of their way to combat fake news. Facebook has partnered with several third-party fact-checkers in some countries to identify and flag fake news. But there were reports of discontent among some fact-checkers[8] and Facebook stopped flagging fake news because it wasn’t working, as predicted by IS fake news research by Moravec, Minas and Dennis (in press, MIS Quarterly)[9]. There is another feature that appears as an overly “i” icon on newsfeed stories and gives users some information about the source of an article or link. YouTube started showing a Wikipedia link on climate change alongside videos that appear to promote climate change denial. They also recently announced that they’re going to tweak their recommendation algorithms so that they don’t overtly recommend videos that promote conspiracy theories such as flat earth and miracle cures[10].        

Tell us a little bit about what research you have conducted on the topic of fake news and social media.

My research is part of my doctoral thesis which is in progress and currently at an early stage. So far, I’ve looked at different conceptualizations and definitions of fake news and their strengths and weaknesses (I partially discussed some of the findings in response to the first question) and then I developed my own conceptualization of fake news. This conceptual work is currently under review and therefore I cannot discuss its details; but briefly, my view is that neither fake news nor other proposed alternative conceptualizations such as “information disorder” [11] fully capture the concept. In the same work I also looked at some features and affordances of social media that help or hinder the spread of fake news. Currently, I’m studying an extended body of literature to see if it supports, challenges, or complements my theorizing. In the near future, I plan to conduct quantitative studies to empirically test my theorizing. 

What are the interesting insights you have gained from conducting this research?

One interesting insight I gained from my theoretical and conceptual work so far concerns the contradictory and conflicting views surrounding fake news, despite the fact that people from left and right, authoritarian and democratic governments and the elite and the ordinary appear united in their despise of and concern about fake news. Therefore, we need to clarify what we mean by fake news, and hopefully, use a more robust terminology.

I need to acknowledge that some prominent and passionate researchers of fake news with whom I’ve had discussions believe that we should not dwell too much on definitions. They’re worried that our usual academic musings on concepts and terminologies may distract us from addressing the more practical questions laid out above. I think this is a fair point, but also I think we can devote some time to elaborating and debating the conceptual aspects so that we and our work can talk to each other rather than past each other and to ensure that we’re not answering the wrong questions or reinventing the wheel[12].            

What advice would you offer about how to combat fake news on social media?

You’re probably asking for the advice based on my research, but allow me to answer this question at a higher level. I think fake news qualifies as a “wicked problem” that is difficult and elusive to solve, or perhaps less sinisterly, as a “grand challenge” that requires the collaboration of several stakeholders. We definitely want social media platforms to do their part in combatting fake news in terms of monitoring and containing the spread of fake news. More importantly, they probably can leverage their vast human, technological, and financial resources to come up with innovative business models that are less reliant on advertisement and user engagement. But we also need to educate ourselves and our fellow citizens to spot and disregard fake news[13]. We need politicians that put truth and facts above ideologies, and we need governments that are more proactive and up-to-speed in regulating technological advancements. Our research can help all these stakeholders to make better decisions. Finally, I think all stakeholders (that is, all of us) need to engage in civil conversations and try to be more consensus-building and less partisan.     

Thank you for participating in this interview and to enlighten us about fake news.

Thank you for providing me with this opportunity to discuss my views on fake news.


Selma Leticia Capinzaiki Ottonicar, Sao Paolo State University, Brazil.
OCIS Doctoral Student Member

There has been much mention and concern expressed about fake news and its impact on society. For those of us who may not be familiar with it, can you briefly explain what fake news is?

Fake news is information that has been manipulated so some groups can achieve their goal. They are generally sensationalist news items, hence fake news influences peoples’ emotions. They are usually associated with prejudices that already exist in a society. The aim is to negatively affect competitors or those who think differently.   

Why is there concern being expressed about fake news? What is the problem?

Some people have used fake news to confirm their biases or to influence the opinion of others. There are already individuals and companies specialized in spreading fake news: politicians have hired such businesses to spread falsehoods about their competitors in order to win an election.

In a work context, some companies have shared fake news to fool their competitors. Fake news can interfere with decision-making by managers or other professionals within a company. A recent strategy is for a company to invent an innovative product and share it on social networks so that its competitors feel inferior and become worse at decision-making.

Beyond that, fake news can lead to widespread myths which cause fear in the population. There was a recent murder case in Brazil associated with fake news: someone spread a news item in a small town about a witch who snatched children to sacrifice them in dark magic rituals. At the same time, a crowd saw a woman offering a banana to a child and automatically associated that woman with the fake news item. The crowd decided to take justice into its own hands and beat the woman to death.[14]   

What role, if any, has social media played in the proliferation of fake news?

Social media is the means by which fake news is shared. Anyone can produce information in social media, not only those with formal qualifications, and that information can be shared very quickly.

Tell us a little bit about what research you have conducted on the topic of fake news and social media.

There are various ways to fight against fake news. One way is media literacy and information literacy, also known as how to access, evaluate, and use information. The focus of this research is to train people to be critical throughout their lives. People always learn by means of information, but information-literate people can evaluate the information source to verify its quality. They ask questions such as: “What is the author’s ideology?” ; “What is the ideology of the media itself?” ; “Is there a commercial motive behind it?” ; “Does it reinforce a social prejudice?” ; “Does it have a strong emotional resonance?”. This skill can be applied in courses, and it can also be studied through people’s lived experiences. People learn from experience throughout their lives, so experience is the key factor to make them critical.   

What are the interesting insights you have gained from conducting this research?

Some social networks have adopted strategies to reduce the incidence of fake news. However, those actions have not been effective. Therefore, people need to be critical and to do their own research. Algorithms are a helpful tool, but they are still vulnerable to fake news. Education must focus on criticism of information. Children can be encouraged to share their opinion, and they can learn how to respect other people’s opinion. Furthermore, individuals can learn how to investigate news so they can find quality information.

There is not a lot of research in this field. Because of that, fake news and information literacy is an opportunity for future research. Information and media literacy are fundamental to construct critical knowledge. We, researchers, need to know the weakness of our research and information. I would like to highlight that some journalists’ actions have frequently denounced fake news. Because of that, journalists and information professionals are very important to our society.

What advice would you offer about how to combat fake news on social media?

-         Search for the same information in many alternative sources

-         Analyze the information source and its ideology

-         Compare new information with your previous knowledge and co-worker’s knowledge

-         Think critically about the consequences of that information for society

-         Read different opinions, criticize and construct your own opinion

-         Be careful with memes and news during elections

-         Know that a text is connected to the author`s worldview

-         Become a lifelong learner












[12] Some of the ideas I discussed throughout this interview were insights I gained from conversations with Dr. Jean-Grégoire Bernard, Dr. Alan Dennis, Dr. Dennis Galletta, and Dr. Jane Webster to all of whom I am very thankful.






09-19-2019 06:08

Very interesting research area. I'm wondering if the processes underlying the diffusion of fake news and conspiracy theories is the same, and why the two concepts seem both distinct and overlapping.

08-19-2019 08:25

Very interesting read. Access to information and misinformation is as high as it has ever been. Algorithmic solutions are not particularly robust at present. With so many still having limited access to education, how to we ensure the general population is able to critically evaluate the (mis)information it consumes?