One of the challenges in combatting fake news is developing a principled distinction between fake and real news. One reason for this is providing a defense against the misuse of the term “fake news” to attack news on ideological or other irrelevant grounds. I make no pretense of being able to present a necessary and sufficient definition of fake news, but I will endeavor to make a rough sketch of how the real should be distinguished from the fake. My approach is built around three attributes: intention, factuality, and methodology. I will consider each in turn.
While determining a person’s intent can be challenging, intent does serve to differentiate fake news from real news. An obvious comparison here is to lying in general—a lie is not simply making an untrue claim, but making such a claim with an intent (typically malicious) to deceive. There are, of course, benign deceits—such as those of the arts.
There are some forms of fake news, namely those aimed at being humorous, that are benign in intent. The Onion, for example, aims to entertain as does Duffel Blog and Andy Borowitz. Being comedic in nature, they fall under the protective umbrella of art: they say untrue things to make people laugh. Though they are technically fake news, they are benign in their fakery and hence should not be treated as malicious fake news.
Other fake news operators, such as those behind the stories about Comet Ping Pong Pizza, seem to have different intentions. Some claim they created fake news with a benign intent—they wanted people to become more critical of the news. Assuming this was the intent, it did not seem to work out as they hoped. To their credit, they wanted to fail in their deceit—but this is as morally problematic as having a trusted figure lie to people about important things to try to teach them to be skeptical. As such, this sort of fake news is to be condemned.
Some also operate fake news to make a profit. Since news agencies also intend to make a profit, this does not differentiate the fake from the real. However, those engaged in real news do not intend to deceive to profit, whereas the fake news operators use deceit as a tool in their money-making endeavors. This is certainly something to be condemned.
Others engage in fake news for ideological reasons or to achieve political goals; their intent is to advance their agenda with intentional deceits. The classic defense of this approach is utilitarian: the good done by the lies outweighs their harm (for the morally relevant beings). While truly noble lies could be morally justified, the usual lies of fake news seem to not aim at the general good, but the advancement of a specific agenda that is likely to create more harm than good. Since this matter is so complicated, it is fortunate that the matter of fake news is much simpler: deceit presented as real news is fake news; even if the action could be justified on utilitarian grounds.
In the case of real news, the intent is to present claims that are believed to be true. This might be with the goal of profit, but it is the intent to provide truth that makes the difference. Naturally, working out intent can be challenging—but there is a fact of the matter as to why people do what they do. Real news might also be presented with the desire to advance an agenda, but if the intent is also to provide truth, then the news would remain real.
In regards to factuality, an important difference between fake and real news is that the real news endeavors to offer facts and the fake news does not. A fact is a claim that has been established as true (to the requisite degree) and this is a matter of methodology, which will be discussed below.
Factual claims are claims that are objective. This means that they are true or false regardless of how people think, feel or believe about them. For example, the claim that the universe contains dark matter is a factual claim. Factual claims can at least in theory, be verified or disproven. In contrast, non-factual claims are not objective and cannot be verified or disproven. As such, there can be no “fake” non-factual claims.
It might be tempting to protect the expression of values (moral, political, aesthetic and so on) in the news from accusations of being fake news by arguing that they are non-factual claims and thus cannot be fake news. The problem is that while many uncritically believe value judgments are not objective, this is actually a matter of considerable dispute. To assume that value claims are not factual claims would be to beg the question. But, to assume they are would also beg the question. Since I cannot hope to solve this problem, I will instead endeavor to sketch a practical guide to the difference.
In terms of non-value factual claims of the sort that appear in the news, there are established methods for testing them. As such, the way to distinguish the fake from the real is by consideration of the methodology used (and applying the relevant method).
In the case of value claims, such as the claim that reducing the size of government is the morally right thing to do, there are not such established methods to determine the truth (and there might be no truth in this context). As such, while such claims and any arguments supporting them can be criticized, they should not be regarded as news as such. Thus, they could not be fake news.
As a final point, it is also worth considering the matter of legitimate controversy. There are some factual matters that are legitimately in dispute. While not all the claims can be right (and all could be wrong), this does not entail that the claims are fake news. Because of this, to brand one side or the other as being fake news simple because one disagrees with that side would be unjustified. For example, whether imposing a specific tariff would help the economy is a factual matter, but one that could be honestly debated. I now turn to methodology.
It might be wondered why the difference between fake and real news is not presented entirely in terms of one making fake claims and the other making true claims. The reason for this is that a real news could turn out to be untrue and fake news could turn out to be correct. In terms of real news errors, reporters do make mistakes, sources are not always accurate, and so on. By pure chance, a fake news story could get the facts right, but it would not be thus real news. The critical difference between fake and real news is thus the methodology. This can be supported by drawing an analogy to science.
What differentiates real science from fake science is not that one gets it right and the other gets it wrong. Rather, it is a matter of methodology. This can be illustrated by using the dispute over dark matter in physics. If it turns out that dark matter does not exist, this would not show that the scientists were doing fake science. It would just show that they were wrong. Suppose that instead of dark matter, what is really going on is that normal matter in a parallel universe is interacting with our universe. Since I just made this up, I would not be doing real science just because my imagination happened to get it right.
Another analogy can be made to math. As any math teacher will tell you, it is not a matter of just getting the right answer, it is a matter of getting the right answer the right way. Hence the eternal requirement of showing one’s work. A person could simply guess at the answer at the problem and get it right; but they are not doing real math because they are not even doing math. Naturally, a person can be doing real math and still get the answer wrong.
Assuming these analogies hold, real news is a matter of methodology—a methodology that might fail. Many of the methods of real news are, not surprisingly, similar to the methods of critical thinking in philosophy. For example, there is the proper use of the argument from authority as the basis for claims. As another example, there are the methods of assessing unsupported claims against one’s own observations, one’s background information and against credible claims.
The real news uses this methodology and evidence of it is present in the news, such as identified sources, verifiable data, and so on. While a fake news story can also contain fakery about methodology, this is a key matter of distinction. Because of this, news that is based on the proper methodology would be real news, even if some might disagree with its content.