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Fake News and Media Literacy

Resources and strategies for becoming media literate.

Fake News is not New

When Johan Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439, he also created the means to produce fake news.  Sensational news stories eliciting emotional reactions and inflaming prejudices have been used for financial profit and political gain ever since.  In the 1890s, the term 'yellow journalism' was coined to describe the profitable production of sensational and false stories. Eventually there was a backlash against yellow journalism that led to the rise of objective journalism in the twentieth century.  More recently, objective journalism as a profitable business model has been challenged by the advent of digital news and the proliferation of fake news.   

Learn more:

Motion Masters. (2018 January 10).  Fake News Pt. 1. [Video]. Films on Demand.

What is New About Fake News

Media Economics

Since 1983, mergers among media companies have reduced their number from 50 to the five that exist today -- AT&T, Comcast, Disney, Viacom, and Fox.  These five companies control 90 percent of the media content created in the U.S. today.  With less competition among media companies, they have become more homogenous in the viewpoints they present and less concerned with serving the public interest and democracy.  While the media companies were consolidating, the internet arrived and, with it, the opportunity for anyone to create and share content and news.  The media literacy skills of news consumers have not evolved at the same pace as the challenges created by this new media landscape (American Library Association, 2020, p.16).

American Library Association. (2020, November). Media Literacy in the Library: A Guide for Library Practitioners.


Learn more about media economics:

CrashCourse. (2018, April 17). Media Ownership: Crash Course Media Literacy #8  [Video]. YouTube.


Social Media

Advances in technology and the advent of social media have also contributed to the problem of fake news by creating a digital environment in which it flourishes.  Consider the study conducted by three MIT scholars in 2018 that found that false news travels faster on Twitter than true stories "due to people retweeting inaccurate news items" (Dizikes, 2018).   


Dizikes, P. (2018, March 8). Study: on Twitter, false news travels faster than true stories. MIT News.

Vosoughi, S., Roy, D. & Aral, S. (2018). The spread of true and false news online. Science, 359(6380), 1146-1151.


Learn more:

MIT Media Lab. (2018, March 8). The Spread of Rumors Online: How Did the Research Begin?  [Video]. YouTube.


Digital news landscape of social media


There is exponentially more news available on more platforms every hour of the day since the advent of the internet.

Lack of Editing

While print news goes through an editorial process that includes fact-checking, there are no editors of the news created and shared on social media.

Distribution and Reproduction

News is easily shared and replicated by social media users.  Social media platforms use algorithms to feed users more news similar to news they've already viewed or liked.  As a result, social media users become caught in "filter bubbles" in which the news stories in their feeds confirm the bias they have shown through their initial preferences and they become increasing isolated from stories expressing viewpoints different from their own.


News stories on social media platforms may have been removed from the original context that provided meaning and showed intention.  Technology allows for the text, images, video, and audio in news stories to be altered without the readers' knowledge or detection.

Profit Motive

As businesses, social media platforms make their money through advertising revenue based on clicks.  The more clicks that news stories (true or fake) get on their platforms, the more money they make.  Social media companies have been reluctant to take responsibility for their role in the spread of fake news because of its potential impact on their financial bottom lines.


Learn More:

TED Talk About Filter Bubbles in Social Media:

TED Talk. (2011, May 2). Eli Pariser - Beware Online 'Filter Bubbles.'  [Video]. YouTube.


Social Media Companies and the Profit Motive:

Netflix. (2020). The social dilemma trailer.  [Video].  YouTube.

View the complete documentary film The Social Dilemma on Netflix.