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Forms of 'Fake News' in U.K. Media

The next Future of Journalism 2017 session starts with Julian Petley, who begins by noting the problems with the term 'fake news'. Some such news is deliberately made up as clickbait; some is overt or covert political propaganda; some is not made up but simply seriously biased or inaccurate; and some is deliberately made up for the purposes of media critique or satire.

But fake news also has a very long history. In 1835, for example, the New York Sun reported the discovery of life on the Moon by Sir John Herschel, purporting to reprint an article from the Edinburgh Courant; other papers circulated the story further, including even the New Yorker and the New York Times. Many such stories are collected at the Museum of Hoaxes, incidentally. Such a hoax would not have been possible before the advent of the steam-powered printing press, Julian suggests; it relies on effective mechanisms for the mass circulation of the story.

But 'fake news' in its more recent forms is also unevenly distributed around the world: U.S.-style 'fake news' has not been so prominent in the U.K., for example, because its domestic tabloids are already highly partisan and sensationalist, and not particularly committed to the truth.

What drives the circulation of 'fake news', both from new sources and from conventional tabloids, are headlines: titles that stick and generate clicks. In the U.K., stories about Brussels (and the EU), human rights, the "loony left", "scroungers", Islam, refugees and other hot-button issues generally do the trick. Euromyths – a term proposed and promoted by U.K. Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, then a correspondent based in Brussels – are especially effective here.

Some such stories deliberately manipulate genuine news footage, and aim at making their content go viral; once they are criticised and debunked for deliberate bias, they are often taken down again from online news sites – but by then the damage is already done.