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Fake news is back in the news again (thanks to Mark Zuckerberg). But did it ever really leave? For some people, legitimate news from traditional media has become unreliable, no longer to be trusted. Is this at all fair?

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Keeping the news in a state of good health, in the age of social media, has become more urgent than ever. The way we talk about things, in debates over the defining issues of our time, ends up determining what we do about them. Fake news can be deliberately manipulated by those with vested interests to shape and frame and control public opinions, which result in the problematic actions (and inactions) on existential issues, such as climate change or human rights.

Many, like Zuckerberg, may not be motivated to see these little words on a page as a major problem. Cynics among us might point out that this is really nothing new, and newsflash, fake news is just a kind of propaganda, which has long lived on the dark side of the printed word. Zuckerberg’s strange reluctance to ban or fact-check certain paid political propaganda that employs the long, global reach of Facebook to intentionally broadcast lies to an unsuspecting public is yet another facet of how powerfully language in the information age can be weaponized by those with the means to do so.

Although the tricks of persuasion may be as old as time, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t worry. Fake news is sometimes hard to recognize for what it is, constantly evolving to fit seamlessly into the community spaces many of us feel safe and comfortable in, those social places and platforms where we share stories and connect with people we’re inclined to trust: our friends, families, and colleagues (rather than the once widely respected gatekeepers of reliable information, the traditional press).

What is unprecedented is the speed at which massive misinformation, from deliberate propaganda and fake news to trolling to inadvertent misunderstanding, flows around the world like “digital wildfire,” thanks to social media. Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow’s recent study “Social Media and Fakes News in the 2016 Election” noted three things:

  1. “62 percent of US adults get news on social media,”
  2. “the most popular fake news stories were more widely shared on Facebook than the most popular mainstream news stories,” and
  3. “many people who see fake news stories report that they believe them.”

In fact, the World Economic Forum in 2016 considered digital misinformation one of the biggest threats to global society. Researcher Vivian Roese furthermore points out that while traditional media has lost credibility with readers, for some reason internet sources of news have actually gained in credibility. This may do lasting damage to public trust of the news, as well as public understanding of important issues, such as when scientific or political information is being repackaged and retold by the media, especially when coupled with our collectively deteriorating ability to interpret information critically and see propaganda for what it is.

Other research has also found that most readers spend most of their reading time scanning headlines rather than reading the story, in fact, “for the modern newspaper reader, reading the headline of a news item replaces the reading of the whole story.” In today’s news ecosystem, readers can have diverging interpretations of the same story, because they may be reacting to different things entirely. Pieces that are nuanced, thoughtful, and factual can end up provoking a visceral, emotional response from different sides of a debate. The difference lies in the editorial framing of a complex story for maximum eyeballs, particularly in the sneakiest signal of all: the humble headline. This means that the headline, not the story, has become the single most important element of the news.

The headline is not merely a summary, picking out the most relevant aspect of the story, the way we tend to think of it. Headlines are also actively designed to be attention-grabbing, persuading readers to read the story. It’s astonishingly creative, a kind of succinct poetry that deftly draws on just the right amount of unspoken shared cultural knowledge between the headline writer and their readers, which is a relationship of trust. By telling its own micro story, quite apart from the news it accompanies and supports, it’s supposed to tell you just what you need to know, but it quite often tells you things you don’t. It’s a linguistic trap that we don’t often notice, that can be easily exploited, and that makes the problem of “fake news” even more dangerous than we realize.

By now, we may think we know fake headlines well enough not to fall into the trap. It’s a little quaint to think of how easily we were all once fooled into paying attention, by that one weird trick of clickbait headlines. There certainly have been attempts to meet misinformation head on, by developing new technology for humans and machines to identify fake news through surface linguistic signals, like the words in clickbait headlines or other sensationalist headline styles, as well as the content contained in the article. This work is still very crucial.

But, complacently, now that we’ve all absorbed the superficial linguistic patterns of how clickbait exploits the curiosity gap for our attention, we think nothing of seeing the playful style of clickbait language move from more questionable media sources to the mainstream media, used ironically or otherwise (such as in this recent, forward-referencing New York Times headline: “His Cat’s Death Left Him Heartbroken. So He Cloned It.”). What we think of as the “prestige” media, publishers with established reputations for careful journalism, are now often copying, intentionally or not, whatever happens to go viral on social media.

There isn’t anything particularly wrong with using the language of headlines that everyone else uses. But it is a signal that there may be something wrong with the news today, when the institution of the press is following the fashions of fake news found on social mediaand that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the quality of their journalism.

This August, the New York Times published the strangely out of step headline “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” to accompany a well-rounded, nuanced report on the aftermath of two mass shootings. The story within appropriately drew attention to Trump’s failure to take responsibility for his past embrace of racist tropes and inaction on gun control, but scores of incensed readers reputedly cancelled their subscriptions, not because the coverage was wrong, but because the headline was so egregiously bad. The headline wasn’t exactly clickbait, nor was it sensationalist. And yet, empty of context, it seemed designed to push a certain flattering, subjective narrative to get readers’ attention. It was, incredibly, literally true, yet because it didn’t accurately describe the context, wasn’t it also a kind of fake news?

In identifying misinformation, we often focus too closely on the superficial and obvious aspects of this shiny new concept of fake newsa fake clickbait headline accompanying a fake news article of actual falsehoods. But there’s a far more frightening and dangerous power that publishers and platforms of all kinds have always wieldedunwittingly or intentionally—in their reporting of the news: the truth.

Or rather, a kind of tangential truth, which, used irresponsibly or thoughtlessly, might end up doing more harm than a lie, because it can always be truthfully denied that it’s false. In other words, the actual news doesn’t have to be fake, just the headlines. More and more, we see a dysfunctional disconnect between soberly written stories and breezy, social-media-friendly headlines that seem to have gone rogue. Yet point to where the lie is, and many may be hard pressed to see it, because, often, these headlines are literally true.

The public’s attention, after all, is a delicate beast, easily distracted. Rather than newsworthiness being decided by a media gatekeeper, users actively have become their own gatekeepers, deciding whether content is “shareworthy” instead. Readers are “in it for the LOLs, the awe factor, the weird-but-true and freaky curiosities of life.” Stories go viral because of this “shareability” factor, but there may be no rhyme or reason as to why. Roese notes how one of the earlier instances of social media hype in Germany was the ‘Blumenkübel-Hype’ memeall about a flower bucket that had fallen over outside a retirement home, which was neither newsworthy, in the public interest, nor provocative of any outrage. Yet it was widely shared.

News publications might kill to have such viral reader engagement. The traditional news can no longer just passively rely on their reputations to get their stories read. To survive, media publications have had to adapt their way of telling stories to social media standards, beating them for the scoop, in a competitive struggle for limited reader attention. In doing so, they partially give up their role as gatekeeper to what is newsworthy, and the relationship of trust between the publication and the reader can start to erode, especially if expectations are not met. This doesn’t mean a change in the accuracy or neutrality of their core coverage. But it results in a blithely provocative framing for their headlines, tenuously true, that can leave a disastrously false impression.

There are many examples where literally true headlines are creating very false impressions, such as “How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong” in the New York Times. And who can forget the massive outcry and vitriol over Jonathan Franzen’s doom-laden op-ed “What If We Stopped Pretending the Climate Apocalypse Can Be Stopped?” Admittedly, one of internet’s favorite hobbies is to ridicule Jonathan Franzen wherever possible, but as a cultural comment, his essay was really not that bad. Apart from some minor errors, it fell in line with what a lot of his detractors largely believe themselves. It was the New Yorker‘s framing choice of sensationalized, apocalyptic language that had an outsized effect on how readers ended up engaging with it, even if they agreed with the content.

Take another recent example from the Atlantic. The original headline “The Arrogance of the Anthropocene” accurately described an interesting, well-researched essay on geological time and humanity’s role in it, while the more provocative, social media-friendly follow-up headline, “The Anthropocene Is a Joke,” framed it in the worst possible way. It’s not hard to see how subjective and dismissive the informal language of this headline is, but since “anthropocene” is also widely used by scientists  as a linguistic shorthand to describe the human-focused crisis we find ourselves in, this was also a fairly irresponsible way to frame what was otherwise a decent story. Unsurprisingly, on social media, it was also shared by climate denialists as support for their beliefs. When readers tend to read and interpret the news from only the headlines, the news can be effectively used by any side of a debate.

In one study on subtly misleading headlines, researchers found that headlines can affect how readers remember information and make inferences about the news. These types of headlines have a remarkable influence on readers’ memories, even if readers end up reading the article, where some of the misinformation might be corrected. But reading the article isn’t going to help fix anything if readers aren’t aware, from the subtle misinformation in the headline, that their impressions need to be corrected at allor if, say, the coverage is a developing story. So, at the outset, a headline, and how it’s framed, can do a lot of damage to how readers receive information and how they interpret that information. The researchers conclude that “news consumers must be (made) aware that editors can strategically use headlines to effectively sway public opinion and influence individuals’ behavior.”

We should all be aware of how often this rollercoaster ride of the news cycle seems to be happening and why it might be happeningthe misreading of a story, the hyped spread of misinformation, the outraged online reaction, and sometimes, an apology.

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The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Spring 2017), pp. 211-235
American Economic Association
From Media Hype to Twitter Storm, pp. 313-332 (2018)
Amsterdam University Press
From Media Hype to Twitter Storm, pp. 115-130 (2018)
Amsterdam University Press
Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Vol. 13, No. 3 (2012), pp. 106-131
Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Association for Psychological Science