Is Fake News Really Fake?

Real-life examples of misinformation tactics that use the truth to mislead //

Is ‘fake news’ really fake? To cut it short: Sometimes. But the most dangerous news stories aren’t, they are actually a selection of true facts that lead you to a conclusion which you would not make had you known the whole picture. It’s not lying, but  ‘cherry-picking’ the truth. They are dangerous because if you search for the facts you will find they are true, which will naturally seem to legitimate the conclusion. Funny enough, you are being misled with the truth. There is even a new term for it, paltering – the art of lying by telling the truth. That’s why ‘fake news’ isn’t an accurate way to call it, but rather misleading information – or misinformation.


Before we dig deeper, it’s important to differentiate facts from opinions and narratives. Information can come in different shapes. Often, it takes the form of simple statements or observations. Those statements can be subjective, when they are purely an opinion (“Putin is handsome”), but they can be also be objective, when they can be verified, measured or evidenced somehow (“Putin signed a document”) – which we usually call ‘facts’. Narratives on the other hand are a connection of facts in a logical way, implying causation – they are ‘stories’ (“Putin attacks Ukraine after its attempts to join NATO”). Sometimes narratives are dressed as facts, when they really aren’t. Saying for example “Ukraine caused the war with Russia” is actually a narrative that connects two observatons: “Ukraine did something” (e.g. trying to join the NATO) and “that something caused the war”. In other words, narratives are more objective and logical forms of opinion (sometimes also called ‘theories’). They are specially dangerous because their apparent objectivity and logic often cause the impression that they can’t be challenged (to understand more, see how to differentiate fact from opinion).

Let’s look at an example of this ‘cherry-picking’ phenomena from across the Atlantic. Brazil is a big economy which has received a fair lot of media scrutiny, especially after having elected a right-wing president. People are also usually not particularly passionate about Brazil, which allows us to discuss misinformation more temperately whilst using real-life examples.

Picking the fact: In 2008, for example, the Economist said that even the comparatively rich states of Brazil “have some way to go before they can be compared with wealthy places in the northern hemisphere”, and that the GDP per capita of one of those states is “close to that of Gabon”. Without further information, all that the reader who doesn’t know much about Brazil or Gabon will absorb from this is that even wealthier parts of Brazil are actually at “African levels” of wealth – and therefore very far from places in the Northern hemisphere such as Europe. That’s probably how you too just felt reading this. But the article doesn’t mention that Gabon is actually one of the wealthiest countries in Africa given its oil reserves and that its GDP per capita at the time was higher than that of various Eastern European countries, like Belarus, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Ukraine, among other. If instead of picking Gabon, the article had said that the given state’s GDP per capita “isn’t much higher than that of Eastern Europe”, for example, the audience’s conclusion would of course have been quite different.

As you see, news can be misleading when they are made of selected facts that clearly support an intended conclusion, without showing you the whole picture. But they are also misleading when they cherry-pick a specific angle of a fact.

Picking the angle: In May 2020, for example, CNN claimed Brazil was in the “brink of collapse”, with crowded hospirals and cases of COVID-19 overtaking those in Spain and Italy. A little later, the Guardian said Brazil overtook the UK with the second highest death toll in the world. Those absolute numbers were all true. However, looking through another angle, those numbers meant that with its current population Brazil had 8 deaths per 100 thousand inhabitants, versus 59 in Italy, 53 in Spain and 52 in the UK. In other words, for each person dying in Brazil, 6 or 7 were dying in those countries at the time. It’s a different way to look at the same numbers, but gives you a much deeper understanding of reality. Brazil also had 20 ICU beds per 100 thousand inhabitants, versus 13 in Italy, 10 in Spain and 7 in the UK, and the healthcare network never really got to full capacity. However, diverse outlets still chose to show only absolute numbers followed by dramatic pictures and expressions such as “brink of collapse”, “chaos” and “world’s worst crisis”.

Misleading statements like those are fairly easy to debunk. A simple research will usually show that there’s more to a matter than what was stated.

“Narratives are specially dangerous because their apparent objectivity and logic may make them look like facts, especially when moulded into bold statements, often causing the impression that they can’t be challenged”

However, misleading narratives are much harder to identify. When it comes to narratives, even if the facts are perfectly covered, it’s the connection between them that might be faulty. Misleading narratives typically take one of three forms:

Causal inversion: When two facts are connected, but the causality between them is inverted. For example, a narrative may argue that “the USA caused the war in Ukraine by inviting it to join NATO”. Even if an official invite had been made, the narrative would take away for example the fact that that invite was a consequence and not a cause of Ukraine’s aspirations to join the block. Of course, it would also take away the active role of other members of NATO unanimously offering the invite and of Russia’s decision to respond with war.

Inference of false causality: When an element that is merely tangential is framed as a direct cause of another fact. A narrative may tell you, for example, that “many people in Brazil are murdered for being black”, using the evidence that black Brazilians are three times more likely to be murdered than white Brazilians. However, the fact that most victims are involved in gangs and a similar share of the aggressors are also black suggests that it is not racism, but other social issues such as organised crime and a historical lack of social mobility which lead to those statistics.

Extrapolation of a minor reason: When a minor albeit real cause is framed as the main cause of a fact. A narrative may say that “increase in the use of plastic napkin holders is linked to devastating ocean pollution”. Surely, some of the plastic pollution in the ocean results from inappropriate disposal of plastic napkin holders and increase in their use must lead to some increase in pollution, but picking this specific industry over other more relevant plastic produce – or over inappropriate waste disposal as a whole – doesn’t seem appropriate to explain the devastating levels of waste.

Making conclusions is part of journalism. Journalism’s social function is to digest the multitude of available information, such as events and statistics, and present it in a way that can be easily absorbed. But good journalism should still give you the tools to challenge conclusions, which are the pieces of information that don’t necessarily corroborate their conclusions – truth is rarely black and white, and those elements always exist. Excellent journalism will also explain why the author or authors thought that those opposing elements weren’t enough to influence or change their conclusions, rather than merely ignore them.

In all those cases, it is not simple fact-checking (because it’s all true), but a more thorough research of events that allows us to get a real sense of what’s actually happening. In today’s overwhelming and fast-paced world, however, we of course don’t have time to thoroughly research all information we consume. So how can we easily identify misinformation? There are some important hacks or cues on how to spot misinformation on news stories (see how to avoid misinformation), but also the biases in our own opinions (see how to avoid biased opinions).

On Beehive, you are not alone. You can see the exercise other readers have made (what we call Smart User Ratings) and which articles have received the highest ratings on quality, trustworthiness and completeness (also using Artificial Intelligence). There are also algorithms in place to guarantee ratings aren’t biased, ratings of more frequent readers have higher relevance and more-fact based articles receive higher scores. This is important because it means you don’t have to do your all research by yourself, but, rather, that we can collective challenge and create accountability in the media.

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