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The Real Meaning Behind the Fake News Phenomenon

The term fake news has become so deeply entrenched in our discourse, it’s more than just an everyday word that elicits eye rolls from both sides of the political aisle. The President of the United States regularly tweets that CNN and other major news outlets are “fake news” and we’ve been hearing about “alternative facts” on loop for months since Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway first coined the term.

But the real origin of the idea of fake news is much more sinister and harder to understand. Testifying last month to the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI agent Clint Watts spoke of how Russians used bots on Twitter and other platforms to spread false stories and conspiracy theories to try to influence the November election. These bots, or sock puppets as they’re often called, posed as American voters to lend more credibility to their claims.

Popular culture has caught on too. It’s even a topic of conversation on the Showtime series Homeland, which has dedicated some of its most recent season to the phenomenon. The show featured an online army of internet trolls hired to propagate fake news stories.


But, according to one Santa Clara professor, there is a much larger issue at play. The real problem lies in the fractured, individualized news sources readers have grown accustomed to, like a social media feed that is perfectly curated to avoid opinions too abhorrent to consider.

Dr. Katharine E. Heintz, a Senior Lecturer at Santa Clara University, is a researcher, media analyst, and educator specializing in the impact of electronic media on children and families.

Heintz says that fake news is such a broad term now, it’s not even really useful anymore. There’s also a big difference between the news that’s patently untrue, which usually looks true but isn’t, and the term we’ve come to associate with news that we personally disagree with.

Heintz says at the University they’re trying to heighten awareness about this difference. “We’re inundated with information but we need to be aware of the ‘filter bubble’ effect. I try to encourage students to explore alternative forms of news.”

Heintz says educators need to do a better job of helping people with critical thinking skills, and readers need to fact check. She says it’s worth noting that most news organizations make a very good attempt at presenting unbiased facts, despite the negativity aimed at the media claiming they are biased. “Now we call everything fake news if we disagree with it. News has become so polarized.”

But, she says it’s important to hold our sources accountable if the information is not complete or incorrect. She says readers should speak up. It’s important to show a variety of sides of every story.

“If we can’t come to the table and compromise, we end up with echo chambers. It’s so easy to avoid differing opinions now.”

The University has also joined forces with news outlets and journalism educators to pilot the Trust Project, examining what people find trustworthy in order to come up with an algorithm that will help readers determine the credibility of a source of information. More information about their newly released report and the Trust Project can be found at:


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