New University of Arizona Report Examines What Counts as Fake News, How to Stop It

Monday, July 24, 2017

The topic of “fake news” has dominated the headlines lately, but what exactly counts as fake news, and how can it be stopped? A new report from media and internet scholars at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law addresses those questions.
The report, “Identifying and Countering Fake News,” (PDF) identifies the distinct types of fake news: hoaxes, propaganda, trolling, and satire, along with the motivations behind them. It also proposes a set of model solutions to reduce production and dissemination of fake news.
“The term ‘fake news’ has now been used to refer to so many things that it seems to have lost real meaning,” says lead author Mark Verstraete, a privacy and free expression research fellow at University of Arizona Law and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arizona Center for Digital Society and Data Studies. “Our goal is to bring clarity to that problem and prompt discussion about possible solutions. Before we can stop fake news, we have to define it.”
Verstraete co-authored the report with University of Arizona Law professors Jane R. Bambauer and Derek E. Bambauer, who are also both affiliated faculty with the Center for Digital Society and Data Studies.
The researchers created a visual matrix to organize different types of fake news based on two criteria: whether the author intends to deceive readers and whether there is financial motivation for creating the story. 

Satire: purposefully false content that is financially motivated but not intended to deceive

Hoax: purposefully false content that is financially motivated and is intended to deceive
Propaganda: purposefully biased or false content that is politically motivated and is intended to deceive
Trolling: presenting information that has biased or fake content that is motivated by an attempt at personal humor and is intended to deceive
“Making sound determinations about authorial intent is important because potential solutions should not sweep up satire in an attempt to filter out hoaxes,” the report says. It goes on to acknowledge the complications surrounding those two categories in particular, and that “Many commentators disagree about where satire ends and hoaxes begin.”
“Fake news is a complex phenomenon that resists simple or quick solutions,” the report’s authors state. They propose a set of solutions they say are intended to generate debate and dialogue among policymakers.
Each solution is rooted in one of the four modes of regulation identified by Harvard Law School Professor and noted internet scholar Lawrence Lessig. They are:
  • Using the law as a regulator, expand legal protections for internet platforms such as Facebook and Twitter so that they feel free to curate content without the risk of lawsuits.
  • Using markets as a regulator, create new funding models for online platforms that do not rely on advertising and thus are not incentivized to promote distribution of popular but false content.
  • Using internet code as a regulator, design technical fixes to help users flag fake news and to allow platforms to whitelist genuine news and satire sources while blacklisting fake news sources.
  • Using social norms as a regulator, have platforms display disclaimers and warnings alongside inaccurate information.

Says report co-author Jane Bambauer, “While no single solution can possibly remove the deleterious effects of hoaxes and propaganda, this report offers practical ways to start tackling a complex problem.”
Noticeably absent from the report’s proposed solutions: efforts aimed at news consumers. The authors say that’s because the online ecosystem—with rapid-fire news feeds, targeted advertising, and one-click publishing from any source—naturally drives uncritical consumption of fake news. Furthermore, it’s human nature to accept information that confirms something you already believe.
“Efforts to educate readers to become more sophisticated consumers of information are laudable but likely to have only marginal effects,” the report states. “Thus, solutions must center on platforms and authors.”

Read the full report here (PDF)



Media Contacts:
Mark Verstraete
Privacy and Free Expression Research Fellow
University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law
Tracy Mueller
Assistant Dean, External Communications and Marketing
University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law