InquiryAn Interdisciplinary Journal of PhilosophyISSN: 0020-174X (Print) 1502-3923 (Online) Journal homepage: https://www.tandfonline.com/loi/sinq20Fake news is counterfeit newsDon Fallis & Kay MathiesenTo cite this article: Don Fallis & Kay Mathiesen (2019): Fake news is counterfeit news, InquiryTo link to this article: shed online: 06 Nov 2019.Submit your article to this journalView related articlesView Crossmark dataFull Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found ation?journalCode sinq20
79Fake news is counterfeit newsDon Fallisand Kay MathiesenDepartment of Philosophy, Northeastern University, Boston, MA, USAABSTRACTFake news poses a serious threat to knowledge and democracy. In order toaddress this threat, it is important to understand exactly what fake news is.After surveying the various deﬁnitions that have been proposed in thephilosophical literature, we argue that fake news is best understood ascounterfeit news. A story is genuine news if and only if it has gone through thestandard modern journalistic process involving professionally trainedreporters, fact checkers, and editors. And a story is counterfeit news if andonly if it is not genuine news, but is presented as genuine news, with theintention and propensity to deceive. This analysis is a contribution to‘systems-oriented social epistemology’ (Goldman, Alvin I. 2011. “A Guide toSocial Epistemology.” In Social Epistemology: Essential Readings, edited by AlvinI. Goldman, and Dennis Whitcomb, 11–37. New York: Oxford University Press).Various social institutions, such as science and journalism, provide importantepistemic beneﬁts to society. But unscrupulous agents are often motivated toleverage the epistemic authority of these institutions by counterfeiting them.People can thereby be misled and/or lose faith in these institutions. Thus,society may suﬀer signiﬁcant epistemic costs when such counterfeits proliferate.ARTICLE HISTORY Received 29 December 2018; Accepted 18 July 2019KEYWORDS Fake news; deception; conceptual analysis; social epistemology; counterfeits1. IntroductionWhile people have always wanted to know ‘What’s new?,’ our modernconcept of ‘the news’ ﬁrst developed in the early twentieth century withthe rise of non-partisan papers, the National Press Club, and schools ofjournalism (see Kaplan 2002; Lazer et al. 2018, 1094–95). Today in theUnited States, people collectively spend almost 80 billion minutes perweek consuming the news from newspapers (see Statistica 2018), radio,TV, and their smartphones (see Ingram 2017). The news, and themembers of the press who report it, are essential to creating an informedpopulace (see Gelfert 2018, 87–88). People rely on the news for accurateinformation about what the weather will be, what their governmentCONTACT Don [email protected] 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
2D. FALLIS AND K. MATHIESENoﬃcials are doing, and what is happening in their local community andaround the world.Unfortunately, many people looking for the news now end up consuming fake news. During the 2016 Presidential election, for instance, themade-up story ‘Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Trump for President’received 960,000 ‘engagements’ (e.g. clicks, likes, shares, and comments)on Facebook (see Silverman 2016). The fake news entrepreneur, JestinColer, created a website for the bogus Denver Guardian newspaper andused it to publish the fabricated story ‘FBI Agent Suspected In HillaryEmail Leaks Found Dead In Apparent Murder-Suicide,’ which was sharedover half-a-million times on Facebook (see Sydell 2016). Many otherfalse stories about Hillary Clinton were posted on the internet by teenagersfrom a small town in Macedonia in order to generate thousands of dollarsa month in advertising revenue (see Associated Press 2016; Silverman andAlexander 2016). Finally, more than half-a-million Americans followedTwitter accounts, such as @TodayPittsburgh and @TodayMiami, whichappeared to belong to local news outlets, but which were actually operated by the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency (see Wang 2017).Such fake news has real consequences. The obvious danger is thatmany people will acquire false beliefs from fake news (see Silvermanand Singer-Vine 2016a). Moreover, people may also end up being overlyskeptical and fail to acquire many true beliefs from legitimate newsoutlets (see Fallis 2004, 465). And these epistemic downsides can haveserious practical implications. For instance, recent research suggests thatfake news had an impact on the 2016 Presidential election (see Benkleret al. 2017; Chalfant 2018) and there are concerns about its potentialimpact on future elections (see Siddiqui 2019).Of course, even highly reliable news sources sometimes publish inaccurate stories, despite doing their very best to get it right. For instance,the Chicago Tribune famously reported in 1948 that Dewey had defeatedTruman for President (see Jones 2007). More recently, a White House correspondent for Time mistakenly reported that Trump had removed a bustof Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Oﬃce (see Gibbs 2017). It is truethat people can be misled by such errors. But with fake news, it is no accident that people are misled (see Fallis 2016, 338; Gelfert 2018, 105).Given the ongoing threat to knowledge and democracy that fake newsposes, an ever increasing number of proposals for what to do about it havebeen made by social media companies (e.g. Facebook 2017), public policyinstitutes (e.g. West 2017), congressional committees (e.g. United StatesSenate Select Committee on Intelligence 2018), and academic researchers
INQUIRY3(e.g. Lazer et al. 2018). In order to eﬀectively address this threat, it is helpfulto know exactly what fake news is.2. Conceptual analysis and fake newsAs far back as Socrates and Plato, philosophers have tried to ﬁnd concisedeﬁnitions that help us to better understand important concepts, such asjustice, knowledge, and beauty. In line with this tradition, a number of philosophers (e.g. Levy 2017; Rini 2017; Gelfert 2018; Aikin and Talisse 2018;Jaster and Lanius 2018; Mukerji 2018) have recently proposed deﬁnitionsof fake news.As usual with conceptual analysis, we would like a deﬁnition of fakenews that agrees with our intuitions about whether particular cases areor are not instances of fake news. For example, the deﬁnition shouldcount ‘Pope Endorses Trump’ as fake news, but should not count‘Dewey Defeats Truman’ as fake news. Also, we would like a deﬁnitionthat can help us deal with the threat to knowledge and democracyposed by fake news (see Gelfert 2018, 101–02). In this paper, wepropose a new deﬁnition of fake news. We argue that it satisﬁes thesetwo desiderata better than the previous proposals.It should be noted at the outset that carrying out a conceptual analysisof fake news is a particularly diﬃcult task. Indeed, a few philosophers (e.g.Talisse 2018, Habgood-Coote 2019) have suggested that such a project isdoomed to failure. Unlike many other terms of philosophical interest, suchas knowledge and lying, fake news is a fairly new term.1 Moreover, whatpeople take to be prototypical instances of fake news has changed overtime (see Gelfert 2018, 92). A few years ago, the term fake news wasmore likely to be applied to satirical news sources, such as the DailyShow and The Onion, than to fraudulent news sources, such as theDenver Guardian. And even now, diﬀerent people use the term in apparently diﬀerent and incompatible ways (see Habgood-Coote 2019). Furthermore, Robert Talisse (2018) argues that the phenomenon of fake news is sopolitically charged that we cannot agree on what counts as fake news. Forinstance, people of diﬀerent political persuasions clearly disagree aboutwhether or not CNN is a source of fake news. Thus, we might worrythat, in the case of fake news, competent speakers of the language donot have the stable and shared intuitions about cases that conceptualanalysis requires.1The term fake news does go back at least as far as the 1930s. American newspapers applied it to propaganda produced by Joseph Goebbels that was disguised as radio news reports (see Lepore 2018, 454).
4D. FALLIS AND K. MATHIESENDespite these diﬃculties, we think that enough clear cases of fake newsand non-fake news can be identiﬁed to guide our conceptual analysis.Moreover, it is important to remember that the goal of conceptual analysisis not simply to capture how people use a term. That is just a means to anend (see Austin 1956, 8). The goal here is to understand an actual phenomenon in the world that clearly has important epistemological implications.And, contra Joshua Habgood-Coote (2019), we argue that the phenomenon of fake news is not adequately captured by existing epistemologicalterminology, such as ‘lies, misleading, bullshitting, false assertion, falseimplicature, being unreliable, distorting the facts, being biased, propaganda, and so on.’3. Previous deﬁnitions of fake news3.1. False newsOne common deﬁnition has it that fake news is simply false news (see, e.g.Levy 2017). This seems to be how President Trump uses the term, callingany reporting with which he disagrees ‘fake news.’ This deﬁnition certainlycaptures the aforementioned examples of fake news. For instance, thePope did not endorse Trump for President. But this deﬁnition is toobroad. It incorrectly counts honest mistakes, such as the ‘Dewey DefeatsTruman’ headline, as fake news (see Rini 2017; Gelfert 2018, 99; Jasterand Lanius 2018).Depending on how the details of this deﬁnition are cashed out, it mayalso incorrectly count stories published in satirical news sources, such asThe Onion, as fake news. On rare occasions, false stories like ‘RuralWhites Prefer Ahmadinejad to Obama’ do mislead people who do notget the joke (see Fallon 2012). However, unlike fake news, these falsestories are meant to be seen through—otherwise, they would not befunny. Consequently, these false stories do not pose a serious threat toknowledge and democracy.3.2. Intentionally deceptive newsThe very term fake implies an eﬀort to fool people. Thus, another possibledeﬁnition is that fake news is intentionally deceptive news (see, e.g. Rini2017; Gelfert 2018). On this view, what is deﬁnitive of fake news is thatthe purveyors intend people to acquire false beliefs—such as that thePope endorsed Trump—from reading their stories. Roughly speaking,the suggestion here is that the purveyors of fake news are lying.
INQUIRY5This deﬁnition captures the ‘Pope Endorses Trump’ story, which wasspread by a young Romanian, Ovidiu Drobota, in order to get people tovote for Trump (see Townsend 2016).2 It also captures the fake newsspread by the Internet Research Agency. The main goal of the Russian government may be to make it harder for us to sort fact from ﬁction bydestroying our faith in the traditional news media (see Giles 2016, 58–59). Nevertheless, disseminating information that is intentionally misleading is a necessary means to that end.In addition, unlike the false news deﬁnition, this deﬁnition correctlyexcludes honest mistakes and satire, as there is no intention to deceivein these cases. It might be suggested, however, that it is too broadbecause it does not require fake news to be false. But while fake news typically is false (such as the Pope story and the FBI agent story), it is notalways false (see Fallis 2016, 338–39; Gelfert 2018, 100; Aikin and Talisse2018; Mukerji 2018). As Yochai Benkler et al. (2017) point out, fake newscan involve ‘the purposeful construction of true or partly true bits of information into a message that is, at its core, misleading.’Still, even if the intentionally deceptive news deﬁnition is not too broad, itis too narrow. Not all purveyors of fake news intend to deceive people intobelieving the stories that they post. Take, for example, the Macedonianteenagers who are just in the fake news business for the money.3 Theydo not care whether people believe their stories. They just want to getas many people as possible click on them, because each click meansmore advertising money in their pockets.Now, it may be that people are more likely to share stories with friends ifthey believe that these stories are true. With this in mind, even if she ultimately just cares about making money, a Macedonian teenager mightintend people to believe her stories. But this intent does not seem to berequired for fake news. For instance, instead of thinking explicitly aboutthe beliefs of their readers, most of the Macedonian teenagers appearto be working by trial-and-error to ﬁnd stories that generate more clicksand shares. As Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander (2016) report,2This story did not originate with Drobata, but his website made it popular (see Silverman and Singer-Vine2016b). Even though this story was completely made-up, it might have been true, for all Drobota knew,that the Pope endorsed Trump. However, knowing that the claim in question is false is probably notnecessary for deception (see Mahon 2015, §3.1).3As it happens, the Macedonian teenagers may have been supported by people who did intend to deceivethe public (see Silverman et al. 2018). Nevertheless, the Macedonian teenagers themselves are only in itfor the money generated by clicks. Also, there are purveyors of fake news who are not inﬂuenced bypolitical motivations at all (see Silverman and Singer-Vine 2016b).
6D. FALLIS AND K. MATHIESENthe best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist andoften false content that caters to Trump supporters some in Veles [Macedonia] experimented with left-leaning or pro-Bernie Sanders content, butnothing performed as well on Facebook as Trump content. (see also Sydell2016)4Moreover, research indicates that purveyors of fake news can get many oftheir readers to share fake news even when these readers are aware thatthe stories are made up (see Barthel, Mitchell, and Holcomb 2016).3.3. Bullshit newsAnother possible deﬁnition is that fake news is bullshit news (see, e.g.Mathiesen and Fallis 2017; Mukerji 2018). The philosophers who proposethis deﬁnition have in mind Harry Frankfurt’s (2005 , 33–34) ideathat ‘it is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indiﬀerence to how things really are—that [is] the essence of bullshit.’ Unlike theintentionally deceptive news deﬁnition, the bullshit news deﬁnition capturesthe case of the Macedonian teenagers. While they may not be trying to gettheir audience to believe false stories, they publish whatever stories arelikely to generate the most clicks. Thus, the Macedonian teenagersclearly do not care whether they are conveying the truth.Admittedly, the Macedonian teenagers may not be prototypical bullshitters. Frankfurt (2005, 18) claims that a bullshitter is typically trying to‘convey a certain impression of himself.’ As he points out, many politicianscertainly ﬁt this mold. They ‘talk a lot of crap’ (another term for bullshit) inorder to convince us that they are the kind of people who share our values.Yet there are all sorts of reasons why people say things without caringwhether what they convey is true. For instance, advertisers talk a lot ofcrap, not in order to bolster their image as politicians do, but just inorder to sell products. Similarly, the Macedonian teenagers write a lot ofcrap just in order to get people to click on their stories. Unlike politicians,advertisers and the Macedonian teenagers do not really want to benoticed at all. Nevertheless, they are bullshitters on Frankfurt’s analysisbecause they are not concerned with the truth of what they convey (seeFrankfurt 2002).Furthermore, even though a bullshitter may not always intend todeceive with respect to the content of her statement, Frankfurt (2005, 54) claims that a bullshitter ‘does necessarily attempt to deceive4Of course, fake news is not limited to one end of the political spectrum. For instance, fake news about theTrump-Russia investigation has gotten traction among Democrats (see Beauchamp 2017).
INQUIRY7us about his enterprise.’ The Macedonian teenagers, for instance, do intendto deceive people about what they are up to. In particular, they try to maketheir websites look like legitimate news outlets when they are not.This deﬁnition captures Drobota’s ‘Pope Endorses Trump’ story as wellas the stories from the Macedonian teenagers. Although Frankfurt (2005, 59–61) treats bullshitting and lying as distinct categories in hisbook, Frankfurt (2002, 341) later admitted that there can be overlap. Forexample, advertisers are bullshitting if they do not care whether theyare conveying the truth, but they are lying as well if they are highlyconﬁdent that they are saying something false. In a similar vein, Drobotawas bullshitting and lying.However, even though it captures many instances of fake news, thisdeﬁnition is too narrow. Some purveyors of fake news do care whetherthey are conveying the truth. In particular, some purveyors of fake newsare what Saint Augustine (1952 , 87) calls ‘real liars,’ who care verymuch that they convey something false. For instance, Coler, a registeredDemocrat, does not just publish fake news in order to make money likethe Macedonian teenagers. He says thatthe whole idea from the start was to build a site that could kind of inﬁltrate theecho chambers of the alt-right, publish blatantly or ﬁctional stories and then beable to publicly denounce those stories and point out the fact that they wereﬁction. (quoted in Sydell 2016)Since Coler is concerned that (at least some of) his readers believe something false, he is not a bullshitter on Frankfurt’s analysis.3.4. News that lacks truthfulnessAnother possible deﬁnition is that fake news is either intentionally deceptivenews or bullshit news (see, e.g. Jaster and Lanius 2018). This deﬁnition captures all of the aforementioned examples of fake news. For instance, Coleris producing intentionally deceptive news, the Macedonian teenagers areproducing bullshit news, and Drobota is producing both.A potential worry regarding this deﬁnition, however, is that it is disjunctive. If a deﬁnition appeals to two or more independent criteria, it isreasonable to worry that we are really dealing with two or more separatephenomena (see Kingsbury and McKeown-Green 2009). But as RomyJaster and David Lanius (2018) point out, intentionally deceptive newsand bullshit news do have something in common. Those who producesuch news do not have any commitment to the accuracy of what they
8D. FALLIS AND K. MATHIESENpublish. Thus, this disjunctive deﬁnition is really equivalent to the suggestion that fake news is news that lacks truthfulness. On this view, what isdeﬁnitive of fake news is that the purveyors do not intend people toacquire true beliefs from reading their stories.In section 5 below, we discuss a case that suggests to us that thisdeﬁnition is too narrow. And in section 6 below, we discuss a case thatsuggests to us that this deﬁnition is too broad. But even if the news thatlacks truthfulness deﬁnition captured all and only fake news, we claimthat it does not get at the essence of what makes fake news dangerous.It fails to explain why fake news, in particular, is so pernicious. After all,a lot of information on the internet is less than truthful.4. Counterfeit newsOur preferred deﬁnition is that fake news is counterfeit news. In other words,a story is fake news if and only if it is not genuine news, but is presented asgenuine news, with the intention and propensity to deceive. By genuinenews, we mean stories that have gone through the standard modern journalistic process (see Mathiesen 2019, Pepp et al. forthcoming, section 3). That is,genuine news has been produced by professionally trained reporters, factcheckers, and editors, who are attempting to pr
3. Previous deﬁnitions of fake news 3.1. False news One common deﬁnition has it that fake news is simply false news (see, e.g. Levy 2017). This seems to be how President Trump uses the term, calling any reporting with whichhe disagrees‘fakenews.’ Thisdeﬁnitioncertainly captures the aforementioned examples of fake news. For instance, the