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Fake news: Why it works and how we can expose it for what it is

The two FAU researchers Dr. Katrin Götz-Votteler (l.) and Dr. Simone Hesper (r.) have researched the power of fake news and conspiracy theories. (image: FAU/private)

FAU researchers investigate fake news and conspiracy theories

The Earth is flat and facts have alternatives. Fake news and conspiracy theories are currently having a heyday. It is not only consumers, but also public figures from politics or the media who seem to be taken in, or in the worst case scenario even invent them themselves. Dr. Katrin Götz-Votteler and Dr. Simone Hespers from the Center for Applied Philosophy of Science and Key Qualifications (ZiWiS) at FAU have researched the matter. We spoke to them about fake news, why it works and how we can expose it for what it is.

What is the difference between false reports and fake news?

Götz-Votteler: Fake news is deliberately meant to be misleading, and is spread with a certain purpose in mind. For example, a report may be fabricated or reported inaccurately in order to discredit political opponents or institutions, or bring a certain topic or group of people to the public’s attention. False reports, however, contain errors made unintentionally by journalists and have to be rectified as soon as possible, according to the German Press Code.

Why are we so likely to be taken in by news like this?

Hespers: The success of fake news is due to several factors:

Fake news often deals with allegedly sensational topics and frequently stirs up negative emotions such as anger, annoyance, disappointment or fear. Other media are quick to jump on the band wagon to increase their own coverage. Negative emotions trigger a powerful response, in other words news which incites reactions such as these remains in our memory and we are much more likely to share it with others.

Götz-Votteler: Social media is another major factor. It offers the perfect platform for uploading, spreading and sharing news and information, making it very easy to gain a wide coverage in a short space of time. In addition, today’s technology makes it easy to manipulate images or videos, providing results which appear convincingly accurate and boost the credibility of the fake news.

How can we tell if something is fake news?

Götz-Votteler: First of all it is important to check who has published the story and where it has been published. Who are the authors? What is their professional background, what subjects do they specialise in? In which publication was the article published? Who does it belong to, who has financed it? A good place to start is the legal notice stating who is responsible for the publication.

There are lots of media which follow a high journalistic standard forbidding the use of fake news. These are the ones you should rely on for information. Other publications are published solely with the aim of fuelling controversy on certain topics. You should also bear in mind that posts in social media are not subject to any editorial monitoring.  Here anyone can air their views on anything they like, as long as it is not illegal.

Hespers: You can also take a critical stance when reading a report: does it give facts and name sources, or does it simply state unfounded claims? Does the article address emotions first and foremost? Is the content well balanced? Does it show different perspectives? Realistically, it is not possible to check every single piece of news by yourself. Fact-checking websites are available to help, however, such as the ARD-Faktenfinder in Germany, or fullfact.org in the UK.

How should society react to this phenomenon?

Hespers: It is essential that all members of society, from primary school age children to everyone of voting age, are aware that fake news is spread with a certain purpose in mind. Only then can people take a reflective approach to the phenomenon. It is important to inform the public on this topic via various channels, be it in the media, in books or in schools and universities.

The two FAU researchers have recently published their findings in a book entitled ‘Alternative Wirklichkeiten? Wie Fake News und Verschwörungstheorien funktionieren und warum sie Aktualität haben’ (Fake news: how fake news and conspiracy theories work and why they are currently so topical).

Further information:

Dr. Katrin Götz-Votteler
Phone: + 49 9131 8523048
katrin.goetz-votteler@fau.de

Dr. Simone Hespers
Phone: + 49 9131 8523048
simone.hespers@fau.de

Addition information