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I have become increasingly concerned about the idea of "fake news". While I have little sympathy for professional crapmongers who laugh all the way to the bank with their expertly tangled websites of lies, the fact that openly questioning what my country's mainstream news media says could get me labeled a fake news outlet disturbs me.

Is there a distinction between "fake news" in the sense of stuff that is supposed to get flagged and deleted from social media sites and genuine political dissent?

I'm seeing two ways to see it:

  • Fake news is distinguished from genuine dissent in that it is published in bad faith - that is, the publishers either know it is false or have intentionally closed their eyes to journalistic best practices and principles of scientific inquiry. Publications made honestly and in accordance with best practices in research and inquiry are never fake news regardless of how false they actually turn out to be.
  • Publications that fail to "toe the line" to accepted political truth is the very definition of fake news.

As a hypothetical, suppose the mainstream news media in my country have pretty much all agreed that there is enough research showing that Chemical X is a danger to the environment that they are now reporting it as fact. I have honestly investigated this research and found it flawed and also done my own research which indicates that the chemical is not actually that harmful. I Tweet my findings and am promptly flagged for fake news because my findings contradict the generally accepted facts. Am I a fake news peddler or a dissident?

To be clear, the kinds of "fake news" that I'm primarily thinking of are things like the claim that SARS-CoV-2 was made in a lab. This used to be open-and-shut "fake news", but now apparently isn't anymore. Maybe it's not actually true, but the debate has moved away from Truth vs Fake News to an actual investigation and debate where both sides are respected rather than labeled liars. Does this mean that "Covid made in a lab!!1!!1one" was never fake news at all, but has always been genuine dissent?

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    "As a hypothetical, [...]" - that means you can write anything, but keep in mind that the situation you describe is more of a power fantasy than reality. Usual news media just report things and it's the scientists who "agree" that there is enough research. And that only happens after several experts in the field tried to do that "honestly investigated this research and found it flawed" thing.
    – R. Schmitz
    Aug 7 at 8:28
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    Also keep in mind that "I done my own research" nowadays means "I watched someone's biased youtube video while on the toilet". A process far removed from concepts like "double-blind study", "statistical significance", "control group" - and even explicitly stating (singular "I") that nobody else double-checked anything . In short, believing anything based on that phrase - even uttered by yourself - nowadays is just straight up naive.
    – R. Schmitz
    Aug 7 at 9:04
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    @RobertColombia: You have a very strange definition of "fake news." Fake news = false to facts. "Not following the party line" is not fake news.
    – JRE
    Aug 7 at 14:48
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    Some J. Random without expertise or qualifications on the matter shouting "Covid made in a lab!!1!!1one" online on some fishy site is quite different from professionals analysing the available information and pondering if there, after all, might be something about the idea of the virus being lab-based. Neither of those is dissent, though, and I have a hard time finding how it makes any sense to even connect "fake news" with dissent to compare them. Unless we think of an administration labelling any facts they don't like and dissenting arguments as (being based on) fake news...
    – ilkkachu
    Aug 8 at 13:08
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    @R.Schmitz : On the other hand there can be "studies" pushed in the media for political reasons which are on shaky legs, specifically because they don't show any statistical significance, they lack a control group, etc. So in this case, pointing these flaws out, would put me into the "I watched someone's biased youtube video while on the toilet" category? And also there are cases where "someone's biased youtube video" can be a valid argument. If a party-sponsored news source claims there is no example of something, than even a few examples contradict it, no need for double-blind studies.
    – vsz
    Aug 8 at 18:29
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Let's look at the Wikipedia definitions first.

Fake news is false or misleading information presented as news. It often has the aim of damaging the reputation of a person or entity, or making money through advertising revenue. Source: Wikipedia

Dissent is an opinion, philosophy or sentiment of non-agreement or opposition to a prevailing idea or policy enforced by a government, political party or other entity or individual in a capacity of contextual authority. Source: Wikipedia

The key difference is that fake news is 'information presented as news' while dissent is described as an opinion or philosophy. As such, the distinction between the two terms is not necessarily the intent of the author but the way the information is presented.

I would posit that content that clearly presents itself as an opinion of the author is generally not fake news. Of course someone might be misrepresenting themselves, but that's better described by the term 'lying' than 'fake news', in my opinion.

If something is presented as truthful information about definite known facts, but the journalists do not have evidence that reasonably supports that certainty, then you get into 'fake news' territory. This can range from verifiably proven false information, to complete fabrications, or even to just grossly exaggerating the evidence. An article that takes something heard as a rumor and, with no further investigation, presents it as clear and undisputed truth, is 'fake news'. Still, falsehoods don't have to be fake news, they may be mistakes which are later retracted.

Intent also plays some role, for example satire may be presenting falsehoods as truthful information for comedic purposes even though that's not considered fake news.

A publisher may hire writers based on the knowledge that they privately believe in conspiracy theories that may further the publisher's cause. Or they may hire freelance journalists to promote certain view points and make it look as if it's coming from some independent journalist. Whether that constitutes fake news depends in part on how the information is presented to their audience. Does undisclosed affiliation immediately mean it's fake news? I don't think so, but it's certainly a grey area where deception meets fake news.

To sum up, I think the two relevant factors when considering fake news are:

  • How is the content presented, does it claim to be truthful information or is it presented as an opinion?

  • (from your question) How does the content adhere to "journalistic best practices and principles of scientific inquiry"? If there a lot of effort to deceive readers about the origins of the content then you get closer into fake news territory.


As a hypothetical, suppose the mainstream news media in my country have pretty much all agreed that there is enough research showing that Chemical X is a danger to the environment that they are now reporting it as fact. I have honestly investigated this research and found it flawed and also done my own research which indicates that the chemical is not actually that harmful. I Tweet my findings and am promptly flagged for fake news because my findings contradict the generally accepted facts. Am I a fake news peddler or a dissident?

If your tweet is supported by your own research that you believe to have been conducted correctly, then I would say it's not fake news. It may be wrong despite your best efforts, but it's not fake news as long as you present the information (that the mainstream conclusion is wrong) as being the result of your own research which you also provide (maybe as a link). Others may disagree with your research, perhaps because they disagree with the way you conducted the research. If that's the case then they may label it fake news, after all that's their opinion of your research.

As you can see, it's quite subjective where the line can be between fake news, a genuine mistake (on your part) or being labelled fake news incorrectly (because your research turns out to be right). In your hypothetical, Twitter is the one to determine if they allow your tweet on their platform. That's not so much an issue of whether your report is right, it's about Twitter having the final say over content on their platform.

If you were publishing the information elsewhere, it may have to be settled in court. Generally speaking, I think your claim would be allowed by free speech. On the other hand, there may be limitations, for example when your statements hurt someone or some company (maybe the manufacturer of that Chemical X) who decides to sue.

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    I think a reason for the confusion is that outlets like Fox News don't clearly distinguish their news versus opinion programs. Viewers think that Hannity and Fox&Friends are news programs.
    – Barmar
    Aug 6 at 23:51
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    @Barmar: I remember a segment on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he pointed out some section on their website, or maybe it was a filing in a lawsuit or something like that, where Fox News explicitly stated that their programs are not news programs and their hosts are not journalists, and thus they are not required to be factual and are not bound by journalistic ethics. It's been many years though, so my memory may be incorrect, and/or Fox News may have changed. Aug 7 at 8:58
  • @JörgWMittag Yeah, I worded that poorly. I'm sure they have fine print somewhere, but it's like the details in a software license agreement -- no one actually reads it. To the viewers, all the programs blend together.
    – Barmar
    Aug 7 at 16:07
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    @JörgWMittag I think that was more of a comedy routine than truthful reporting. See also Did Fox News win a court case for the right to lie?. and Is Fox News not classified as a news channel?, both on Skeptics.
    – JJJ
    Aug 7 at 16:27
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    I think "verifiably false" is a stronger standard than necessary for what qualifies as fake news. A statement presented as a known fact can be fake news if it is merely not verifiably true, given access to the publisher's information sources. Note also that a factual statement not being independently verifiable doesn't affect whether it's truly fake news, but does make it harder for others to assess its genuineness.
    – Douglas
    Aug 7 at 17:03
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Journalism done well falls into three basic categories (setting aside arts and interest pieces for the purposes of this discussion):

  1. News proper: This reports factual events without much interpretation or exposition. This happened today in that place; someone will be in town tomorrow evening for an event; these people in Congress said such and such...
  2. Investigative reporting: A 'deep dive' into some topic, usually involving:
    • curation of sources and acquisition of novel evidence and information
    • an evaluative moment, expressed as a critique of or opposition to some person, organization, or activity.
  3. Opinion pieces: work that expresses a political or social position, which — while usually expected to be grounds in fact — are not constrained to reporting events or analyzing detail.

Dissent is usually expressed either in form #2 or #3. Investigative journalism is the go-to method for examining, critiquing, and opposing government figures, wealthy or powerful actors, or problematic organizations, by digging into their activities. Opinion pieces, by contrast, are meant to promote or oppose specific political agendas using a variety of rhetorical and analytical tactics to encourage or discourage dissent. Dissent in well-formed journalism is generally an argument, not an overt claim; one is trying to convince the reader that something untoward is happening.

The problem we've experienced throughout the Trump era is that dissent has almost exclusively been an attack on form #1: news proper. Few people have risen to the level of investigative journalism, or crafted arguments meant to convince others to join their cause. Instead, people have merely attacked the credibility of news sources that report factual events that contradict party-line bullet points. For instance (to use the given example), those investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2 — both scientists and journalists — have never excluded the possibility that the virus originated in a lab. They have examined that possibility, and considered it unlikely because it was unsupported by the given evidence. That might change with more evidence, obviously, but those opposing this perspective have not sought out more (and more damning) evidence. They've merely attacked the scientists who offer such nuanced perspectives, and the news media who report what the scientists say.

There have always been scientists and journalists who earnestly question the given scientific understanding — that's both normal and good — but that is a different breed from those who question the very facts and events that should simply be reported as given. The scientist or journalist doing a 'deep dive' into covid research and coming up with troubling or questionable problems is not purveying 'fake news'. But a random internet personality doing his own research and coming up with contradictory or contrary opinions has a fairly high (analytical and evidentiary) bar to meet to have his research accepted. If s'he doesn't meet that bar — through lack of skill, resources, or effort –then s'he is definitely purveying 'fake news'.

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    Re COVID, it's not just that the lab origin was unsupported, it was that the animal to human origin was supported by similar cases of animal to human transmission of coronaviruses, e.g. SARS and MERS.
    – jamesqf
    Aug 7 at 16:49
  • in the view of some, 1 is a lie and it’s always 3 “all journalism is activism”
    – jmoreno
    Aug 8 at 13:54
  • @jmoreno: In the view of those who are victims of propaganda, sure. Propagandists have to convince targets that #1 is a lie because sober, unbiased reporting will constantly 'fact-check' lies and distortions that the propagandist wants to present as unwavering truth. It's a kind of Animal Farm moral equivocation: all opinions are created equal, but some are more equal than others. So don't listen to them; listen to me. Aug 8 at 14:03
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Am I [hypothetically] a fake news peddler or a dissident?

You are different things to different people.

This question blurs the objective definition of "fake news" with its subjective application. Was Benedict Arnold a hero or a traitor? It depends on whom you ask.

Objectively, fake news means just what you'd expect it to mean given its component words. If a party in power brands its opposition's statements as "fake news," that doesn't mean that the statements are objectively fake. At the same time, the party in opposition may well be branding the government's statements with the same epithet. Who's right?

In theory, it should be possible to arrive at a consensus about your hypothetical research into Chemical X. Even if your view is outside the mainstream, it isn't fake if you hold it sincerely. It should be possible for others to reproduce your research and draw their own conclusions. But on today's climate, it seems that it's more about who tells the more convincing policy story than about facts and figures. And, of course, different people find different stories more convincing, often depending on how close the story is to what they want to hear.

Does this mean that "Covid made in a lab!!1!!1one" was never fake news at all, but has always been genuine dissent?

It was fake news to the extent that people based their claim on fake evidence. It was sincere to the extent that people based the claim on real evidence. Otherwise it was just speculation and opinion.

Whether it was dissent depends on the government's position at the time of the statement.

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