Fake news and other types of misinformation defined

Everyone seems to be throwing around the term 'fake news' with little agreement about what it is and how it is different from other types of misinformation. In fact many people are throwing around the term to mean different things, particularly in the fallout from the recent presidential election in the United States.

By doing this I've sought to provide some clarity on the definition of fake news.

What is misinformation?

Misinformation is false or misleading information. Of course misinformation is nothing new. In fact most children learn how to lie from about four years of age. But despite us living in the information age (or perhaps because of it), misinformation is having more and more impact on our quality of life.

In fact the World Economic Forum has identified the spread of misinformation as a major threat to our society.

Frustratingly misinformation's effects on the human brain cannot simply be rectified by retracting it or informing people that the information was false. Not only is it hard in practice to reach all the people who may have believed misinformation, but studies repeatedly show that many people continue to believe the misinformation and it even affects their behaviours long after it has been debunked (see Lewandowsky et al., 2012, Rich & Zaragoza, 2016, ). This is what is called the continued influence effect.

One of the main reasons why misinformation is so hard to counter is because it can be so interesting. While Mark Twain said 'Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't,' there is no doubt that false information can be salient and sticky.

But perhaps more importantly misinformation is so easy to accept (especially when it conforms to your biases) because it is cognitively easier to agree with information than to investigate its truthfulness.

I have categorised types of misinformation largely by using the disinformation conceptual analysis used by Fallis (2009), particularly looking at whether the misinformation is misleading and whether it is deliberately misleading, but also by looking at whether these are new phenomenons and by thinking about the motivations behind the types of misinformation.


  • Is false or only partially true
  • Is deliberately deceptive
  • Is designed to persuade, usually for political reasons
  • Not a new phenomenon

Propaganda is information that has been methodically produced with the purpose of shaping people's perceptions and behaviours, (Jowett & O'Donnell 2014, p8). Propaganda may be partially true, however propaganda is often heavily biased, for example it often omits crucial information.


  • Is false
  • Is not usually deliberately deceptive
  • Is usually designed for commercial gain, usually for product sales
  • Is not an very new phenomenon

Pseudoscience uses the language and visual elements of science to establish credibility with its readers. However pseudoscience deceives its readers into believing conclusions that are against the body of scientific evidence or draw conclusions where the evidence is unclear. It can be very hard for people to recognise pseudoscience, as it can use scientific terms and my include scientific citations, but often misinterprets them.

The writers of pseudoscience often have strong beliefs that they are writing is true, however they often ignore hierarchies of evidence and scientific objectivity. However, to protect their beliefs writers of pseudoscience often deliberately omits crucial information, like propaganda.

The conclusions drawn by pseudoscience often cannot be falsified – ie there is no hypothesis to test, so to determine whether what you might be reading is pseudoscience try to find out whether the author is trying to falsify his claim, or just confirm it.


  • Is false
  • Is deliberately deceptive
  • Is designed to persuade
  • Not a new phenomenon

Disinformation is a form of misinformation and a form of propaganda. However unlike propaganda, the target for the communication is not your potential supporters, its your known enemies. It is often used to deceive organisations (Fallis, 2009, p. 3). Operation Bodyguard is often quoted as an example of a classic disinformation campaign, where the Allies mislead Nazi commanders into thinking an amphibious assault was going to be launched in the Pas de Calais region, instead of the real landing site – Normandy.

Fake news

  • Is false
  • Is deliberately deceptive
  • Is designed for commercial gain
  • Is a relatively new phenomenon
  • Is usually published on websites

Similar to pseudoscience, fake news uses the language and visuals of journalistic news reporting to establish credibility with its readers. However, unlike journalistic news reporting it includes deliberately falsified information, often of a wildly sensationalist or controversial nature. It does this to attract website visitors for financial gain through digital advertising.

Winston Churchill probably best described the problem:

"A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on" - Winston Churchill, former British Prime Minster.

Of course fake news wouldn't be a problem if we [didn't fall for it] (https://theconversation.com/why-do-we-fall-for-fake-news-69829).

Confusingly for readers many fake news websites do deceptively state that they are satire, however usually not in a prominent location on their site.


  • Is false
  • Is not deliberately deceptive, but is the result of failing to care enough to truly invetsigate and interrogate the facts
  • Not a new phenomenon

'It consists of a lack of concern for the difference between truth and falsity. The motivation of the bullshitter is not to say things that are true “ or even things that are false", but serving some other purpose. And the pursuit of whether something is true or false is irrelevant to that ambition' - Frankfurt (2007).

Bullshit is a particular problem in the electronic age where unqualified people can publish and disseminate information without adequate checking, peer review or referencing.

Some academics suggest that bullshit is a worse phenomenon than deliberate forms of misinformation because it shows a complete disregard for the truth “an implicit suggestion that the truth doesn't matter (Belfiore 2009, p. 345).

Conspiracy theories are often bullshit, particularly where the author themselves believes the conspiracy to be true, but has little or no evidence for the claim and little interest in trying to falsify it.

Satire and parody

  • Is false
  • Is not deliberately deceptive (although some people may be deceived by it)
  • Is designed for humour
  • Is designed for commercial gain
  • Not a new phenomenon

This is misinformation designed to mock current events or popular identities for humour's sake. While most satirists produce this for commercial gain, such as well-known satirical news publication The Onion, there are some satirists who use humour for persuasion (see Fife, 2016)

Much of the academic literature referring to "fake news" is actually referring to satire, which poses a problem for the academic understanding of fake news as I've defined it. In the future I expect this term will exclusively refer to misinformation as described above, not obvious satire and parody. From now on satirical news publications should be referred to simply as "satirical news".

Satire and parody, particularly of extreme views, can be difficult for many people to identify satire from truth, in what's known as Poe's Law.


  • Is false
  • Is not deliberately deceptive
  • Is the result of a mistake or manipulation by sources
  • Not a new phenomenon

Just like anyone else, sometimes journalists get things wrong. Sometimes they are given false information or may have not expressed themselves clearly, for example. However if proven wrong journalists and editors at credible news organisations will correct the record or retract the story.

Misreporting is different to journalistic malpractice which involves the deliberate publishing of incorrect information, usually for financial gain. This practice is very rare in most modern democracies, however it is more commonplace in developing countries or areas of military conflict or tensions.

Biased reporting

  • May not be true
  • Is often the result of subjective feelings of unfair treatment by the people or organisation
  • Not a new phenomenon

All reporting necessarily reflects a degree of bias. Just by selecting which stories to cover, how to introduce the story and deciding on the placement of that story in a news publication or program requires a degree of bias.

However there are more sinister forms of bias that share common elements of propaganda, particularly the use of omitting important information.

It is obviously important to reiterate that the level of bias in reporting is in the eye of the beholder. Just because someone says that a news report is untrue, that doesn't make it untrue. What is biased in one person's eyes is unbiased in another's.

And the level of bias in the media is often exaggerated by those who feel aggrieved by it (Budak, Goel and Rao, 2016 p.16).


I hope this clarification helps to distinguish fake news from other types of misinformation. Of course this is just initial work in an evolving area and I'd really welcome any feedback about these definitions and whether I've considered all the relevant elements of each type.


  • Belfiore, E., 2009 On bullshit in cultural policy practice and research: notes from the British case, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 15:3, 343-359, DOI: 10.1080/10286630902806080

  • Budak, C., Goel, S. and Rao, J. (2016). Fair and Balanced? Quantifying Media Bias through Crowdsourced Content Analysis. Public Opinion Quarterly, 80(S1), pp.250-271.

  • Del Vicario, M., Bessi, A., Zollo, F., Petroni, F., Scala, A., Caldarelli, G., Stanley, H. and Quattrociocchi, W. 2016. The spreading of misinformation online. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(3), pp.554-559.

  • Fallis, D., 2009. A conceptual analysis for disinformation. Tuscon, USA: University of Arizona

  • Fallis, D. (2015). What Is Disinformation?. Library Trends, 63(3), pp.401-426.

  • Fife, J. 2016. Peeling The Onion: Satire and the Complexity of Audience Response.

  • Frankfurt, H., 2007. On Bullshit Part 1 [Interview] (18 September 2007).

  • Howell L, 2013 Digital wildfires in a hyperconnected world. WEF Report 2013. Available at reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/risk-case-1/digital-wildfires-in-a-hyperconnected-world. Accessed December 22, 2016 .

  • Jowett, G. S. & O'Donnell, V., 2014. Propaganda & Persuasion. Sixth ed. London: Sage Publications.

  • Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N. and Cook, J. 2012. Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), pp.106-131.

  • Rich, P. and Zaragoza, M. 2016. The continued influence of implied and explicitly stated misinformation in news reports. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(1), pp.62-74.