Social media,
Online Disinformation
and Elections

Why "fake news" is a flawed term

The term "fake news" is regarded as inadequate both by scientists and policy makers as it is too nebulous and imprecise. A recent study of thirty four academic papers (Tandoc et al., 2017) concluded that fake news encompasses a wide range of phenomena: news satire, news parody, fabrication, manipulation, advertising, and propaganda.

Moreover, fake news is misleading, as it is also increasingly used by politicians "to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable. In this way, it's becoming a mechanism by which the powerful can clamp down upon, restrict, undermine and circumvent the free press." (Wardle and Derakhshan, 2017).

The term "fake news" has also been rejected by the High Level Expert Group (HLEG) appointed by the European Commission to advise on fake news and online disinformation (p.10; Buning et al., 2018), as well as the non-profit coalition First Draft News, which is dedicated to improving skills and standards in the reporting and sharing of online information (Wardle, 2017).

The UK Parliamentary Inquiry into disinformation and fake news makes the following recommendation:

"The term 'fake news' is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition. The term has taken on a variety of meanings, including a description of any statement that is not liked or agreed with by the reader. 

"We recommend that the government rejects the term 'fake news', and instead puts forward an agreed definition of the words 'misinformation' and 'disinformation'. With such a shared definition, and clear guidelines for companies, organisations, and the government to follow, there will be a shared consistency of meaning across the platforms, which can be used as the basis of regulation and enforcement."

Therefore, instead of "fake news" we adopt the information disorder theoretical framework (Wardle, 2017; Wardle and Derakshan, 2017), which defines three types of false and/or harmful information:

Types of information disorder


Misinformation: Unintentional mistakes such as inaccurate photo captions, dates, statistics, translations, or when satire is taken seriously.

Misinformation and/ or intent to harm

Disinformation: Fabricated or deliberately manipulating audio/visual content. Intentionally created conspiracy theories or rumours. 

Intent to harm

Malinformation: Deliberate publication of private information for personal or corporate rather than public interest, such as revenge porn. Deliberate change of context, date or time of genuine content.

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