Since Donald Trump's election victory in November, one term has come to dominate the discussion about what the hell happened on November 8th. While the world was introduced to the word "cuck" and swastika-for-the-21st-century Pepe the Frog before election day, after election day "fake news" came to dominate discussions.

Almost as quickly as the term became popularised it was also rapidly stripped of all meaning, with everyone and anyone applying it to not only false information, but also anything they were suspicious of, or just didn't like the sound of.

Trump supporting, conspiracy theory ubermensch Alex Jones announced a "Fake News Analysis Center to combat lies and fake stories being pushed by the Mainstream Media" in the week after the election.

Jones unwittingly demonstrated many of the problems with the term, declaring Amy Schumer's Twitter account a source of fake news, probably something most of us don't consider the mainstream media, and getting annoyed with the New York Times for using the term "globalism" in a way he didn't agree with.

Now, after a month or so of fake news being the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced, it seems to have infected every part of our society and life. The weather forecast said it would be sunny but it rained? Fake news! Someone posted something on Facebook that doesn't fit with what I already believe? Fake news! Domino's said they'd deliver in 45 minutes, but now it's 46 minutes after I ordered? Fake news!

So before "fake news" loses all meaning, let's take a look at what it's really about. Fake news is produced and shared for a combination of four reasons; profit, politics, propaganda, and passion.

Buzzfeed reported on Macedonian fake news websites publishing information about the US election that were primarily concerned about turning a profit rather than accuracy, relying on the passionate politics of those who would who share them and get them the clicks to support their fake news business.

Television comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe an argument or assertion that people felt was right, without regard to evidence and fact. Fake news is growing because of Truthiness 2.0, where now people are profiting from producing "news" that people share because it feels right to them.

It's easy to pick on sites run by Macedonians and conspiracy theorists as a source of fake news, but the mainstream media is guilty of propagating fake news for profit. Mainstream news websites, such as the hugely popular Mail Online, frequently use thinly sourced videos to accuse IS of terrible atrocities, which in more than one example have turned out to be totally inaccurate. In one example footage from a documentary about IS and slavery was described as genuine footage of an IS slave market, despite the shout of "action!" at the start of the video.

News websites do not have to worry about IS suing them for inaccurate coverage of their war crimes. A catchy headline earns you plenty of ad revenue, and if someone points out your error a headline change and correction a few weeks later is usually the worst consequence the websites have to bear. If websites across the world copy your original story, citing you as a source, then you're hardly to blame for them not checking their sources properly.

Donald Trump
The surge of 'fake news' online during the US election season apparently was supported by a Russian propaganda campaign, the Washington Post reported Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

The one type of fake news that is getting everyone really scared is government propaganda. Some cast a wider net than others when talking about propaganda, but there are genuine efforts to create false information and introduce it into the media narrative.

The Russian government has been particularly productive in this regard, turning the use of falsified satellite imagery into a full time job for the Russian Ministry of Defence, and with their fighters in Ukraine producing fake videos of pro-government groups threatening the Dutch and claiming to be IS members fighting for the Ukrainian government. The spread of these fakes are ably assisted by Russian backed troll factories and hackers, and picked up by Russian government funded news organisations like Sputnik and Russia Today.

If we ever want the spread of fake news to stop we have to take responsibility for calling out those who share it.

But you don't need to have state funded organisations and institutions to spread false news, sometimes the passion of individuals is enough to spread fake information, because they're trying to do the right thing. In the final days of the siege of Aleppo there were widespread allegations of executions and other war crimes committed by pro-government forces, and soon photographs and videos claiming to show these atrocities were shared on social media.

However, it turned out all of these photographs and videos were in fact from other places and dates, and over-eager well-wishers thought they were sharing evidence of what was happening in Aleppo, but were in fact doing a lot to undermine the claims made about the crimes committed in Aleppo by sharing misattributed images.

This leads to one question, what do we do about fake news? There's already discussions and debates about who is responsible for policing fake news, if anyone, but now even the most basic steps to check if something is fake is being ignored. Something as simple as a reverse image search, which takes less than 20 seconds, can reveal if an image is old:

In fact, if you're reading this on the Chrome browser you can right click an image and select "Search Google for image" to see if an image is old in two mouse clicks. Sites like First Draft News and Bellingcat produce more in depth resources and case studies for those wanting to do more thorough fact-checking, and even in-depth investigations.

But the situation is clear, if we ever want the spread of fake news to stop we have to take responsibility for calling out those who share fake news (real fake news, not just things that feel wrong), and start doing a bit of basic fact-checking ourselves.


Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog, a visiting research associate at King's College London and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.