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News and Media: Fake news

Fake news: introduction

Three running men carrying papers with the labels "Humbug News", "Fake News", and "Cheap Sensation".

Reporters with various forms of "fake news" from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper.

You've heard the term "fake news", but what exactly does it mean? 

Collins Dictionary’s made 'fake news' the word of the year in 2017 and it’s remained (and grown in prominence) in the headlines ever since.

Although the phrase might appear to be a modern invention, examples of it can be found throughout history. Take a look at the Examples of fake news tab.

Fake news has become more and more of an issue in today’s information society. Stories can spread in a matter of seconds across the globe. Sharing news has become the norm and social media platforms has made this dissemination of information/news/stories much easier. Now more than ever it’s crucial that we check the facts before we share anything online. 

On this page of the guide, you will find out what it is, why the spread of it is dangerous and how you can help prevent it.

Image result for abraham lincoln internet

What is fake news?

  • Fake news is what it sounds like, stories that are published that are not based on facts. 

  • False information can be spread quickly and in various ways - both unwittingly or deliberately.

  • Fake news can be shared on social media, intensified by journalists, shared again by connected groups in an attempt to influence and persuade public opinion.

  • Fake news often uses sensationalist, dishonest, or outright invented headlines to hook you and make you read or view the information further.  

Why does fake news exist?

The creation of fake news can exist because of:

  • poor journalism
  • parody
  • provocation
  • passion
  • profit
  • political influence or advantage
  • propaganda
  • financial gain

What does fake news look like?

Fake news takes all forms and formats - and it looks convincing. It can be distributed in print, online, podcasts, YouTube videos, radio shows and images.

close-up photography of person lifting hands

You have the power! Stop and think before you share.

  • Read past the title or headline
  • Always take a closer look 
  • Don't fall into the trap of the illusory truth effect
    • The illusory truth effect means that the more you see and hear a story, this will make you more likely to believe it's accurate and true. It may not be true or accurate!
  • Try putting the article to the the test - use a fact checking website
  • Check the facts - don't assume the information is accurate
  • Report any posts or stories that are harmful or inappropriate
  • Check out the poster opposite on how to spot fake news

Take a look at the Importance of evaluating and fact checking information page for more details and advice on evaluating what you find. 

There are various types of fake news including:


This is where websites have eye-catching headlines, titles or images (with very little true or accurate information attached) to attract attention in order to gain more website visitors and to encourage you to visit a particular web page. Its purpose can be to generate clicks on links and advertisement money, but it can also be used to influence opinion.



These are stories or false facts that are deliberately created to mislead readers and to promote a biased point of view or particular political set of ideas or agenda. 


Parody / Satire

A parody is creative work aimed to copy or imitate the original source it is based on in an exaggerated way, usually to entertain. 

Although the phrase might appear to be a modern invention, examples of fake news can be found throughout history.


King George II

George sitting on a throne

Portrait by Thomas Hudson, 1744

Inaccurate and false news was circulated about George II, King of Great Britain and Ireland in the mid 1700s. As a King, he was to be seen as a strong, healthy leader. At that time, the King was facing a rebellion. False news about the King being in poor health was printed from sources on the side of the rebels. Other printers republished these false stories and this harmed the King's public image. It was difficult to judge fact from fiction. The rebellion did not succeed, but having these stories in print and republished time after time shows how easily this type fake news could attribute to change people's perceptions and opinions. 


Creatures and Life on the Moon, 1835 


Lithograph of the Ruby Amphitheater on the Moon

On 21 August 1835, The New York Sun published an article about how life on the Moon had been scientifically discovered (with a super-powerful telescope!) which inhabited such animals as unicorns, flying bat-men and two-legged beavers. The story was falsely attributed to a well known astronomer called Sir John Herschel which helped people believe the story was true. The articles were reprinted throughout Europe helping to spread the news. The news story proved popular and the number of readers buying the paper increased rapidly as they wanted to find out more about the discovery. 


War - "Germans and their Dead"

Kaiser (to 1917 Recruit). "And don't forget that your Kaiser will find a use for you—alive or dead."
Punch, 25 April 1917

In 1917 during the First World War, The Times and Daily Mail published stories from anonymous sources claiming to have visited the Kadaververwertungsanstalt, or corpse-utilisation factory where Germans were extracting fat from the bodies of dead soldiers on both sides of the war to make soap and margarine. The story came from and attributed to an official British government department, the M17 and was spread to the press to publish the stories in order to help persuade and convince readers that Germany had to be defeated.


Most recent

COVID-19 fake news

Covid-19 | New Scientist

Coronavirus fake news or false information stories has spread rapidly during the pandemic. Here is one of the most circulated COVID-19 stories: 

'If you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, then you don't have the virus'. 

The message had been shared more than 30,000 times on Facebook reaching people all over the world claiming to tell people to try the simple test and "if this can be done without coughing, without difficulty this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection. It is recommended to do this control every morning to help detect infection."  


For more information on the history of fake news, take a look at Ian Hislop's Fake News: A True History, BBC Documentary available through Box of Broadcasts.


How to spot fake news