Educational sheet 8


Level : Intermediate

Educational goals

Objective 1: Understanding fake news

Objective 2: Understanding how to fight disinformation

Objective 3: Getting familiar with fact-checking


Definition: When people talk about ‘false information’ or ‘fake news’, they are referring to information that has been fabricated, falsified, or distorted and purposefully spread by individuals, activists, or political officials with the intent of manipulating the public and converting them to their ideas.


Spreading false information can be detrimental to a society, as when the aim is to target or accuse a minority group in order to stoke fear and incite hatred toward that group. This is also the case when false information is used to create a feeling of insecurity in pursuit of electoral ambitions; manipulating information turns out to be an extremely effective tool.


Example: There was an uptick in anti-migrant protests in the runup to the general elections in Serbia that took place on 21 June. On 2 March 2020, around 500 people had already gathered in Subotica, a city in the far north that borders Hungary, to denounce the ‘crimes’ committed by migrants within Serbia despite the fact that, according to police data, violations committed by refugees made up a mere 0.06% of registered offenses in the country.


Some news events and scandals, such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal in the United States, in which millions of users’ data were used to target them for fake news, reminds us of how manipulated information has an impact on our lives, from our daily life to presidential elections.


Example: In Bosnia and Herzegovina in March 2020, a 51-year-old woman who had just returned home from a trip to Italy tested positive for coronavirus and was harassed by social media vigilantes after erroneous information was published by a number of media outlets, which stated that she had been to a concert and taken public transport. Some Facebook comments declared that she deserved to be killed because she was infected and that she should never have returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina.


The upshot is that, by distorting, manipulating, and falsifying reality to stoke hatred and win people over with false arguments or information that does not exist, false information undermines the very notion of truth and citizenship in modern societies. Fake news tends to prey on our emotions and prejudices, often confirming our opinions, which makes it easy to spread and take hold on social media. This in turn amplifies its detrimental effects on the quality of available information.


For this reason, because information is essential to our lives and at the heart of our decision making as well as our relationships with others, it is vital that we preserve its reliability and transparency to avoid potential manipulation as much as possible. Beyond being mindful of information quality, thinking critically about the content you read or receive helps limit your risk of manipulation or external influence and form a more balanced view.




There are a number of ways to fight disinformation:


  • Better control the spread of information online by holding platforms and ‘web giants’ accountable (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.). These companies have all enacted measures along these lines by giving users the option of flagging false information and deleting accounts that spread hate speech and fake news as well as by launching and promoting prevention campaigns. For example, in January 2020, Facebook announced that it would delete and ban ‘deepfake’ videos on its platform.


It should be noted, though, that letting Big Tech regulate their platforms’ content themselves may be problematic in terms of freedom of expression and censorship since the web giants’ hegemony looms so large. For this reason, some countries have independent bodies in charge of overseeing both the activities of traditional media as well as ensuring that information is checked and users are protected on these online platforms.


  • Sensing the urgency of the matter, many countries have also acted, often taking the legislative path, to live up to their role in monitoring and ensuring the reliability of the information that flows within their borders. However, caution is required so that any measures enacted to limit disinformation and bolster methods of control do not, paradoxically, also limit the media’s and people’s freedom of expression, which would hinder the work of journalists.
  • It is also possible to prepare the public to confront the rising amount of false information, manipulated images, and increasing, rapid spread of conspiracy theories. Campaigns such as teaching critical media and information literacy seek to encourage the public to protect themselves against these manipulations by arming them with knowledge and teaching them to think critically and for themselves.
  • Finally, awareness can also be raised among traditional media. A new kind of journalistic activity has emerged recently in certain countries as well as at a more international scale to mitigate the risks of disinformation: fact checking.




Origins and definition


With the rise in false information and doctored videos and images, especially on the internet, journalistic methods of handling and verifying information have become so vital that many media outlets have recently developed specialised fact-checking websites.


This new journalistic activity originally consisted of systematically verifying politicians’ statements and elements of public debate – such as figures or legislative content. However, as fake news has increased and with it the dangers of disinformation, fact checking today has come to mean quickly ascertaining the truth in a fact, image, or rumour and, more broadly, in any type of information that circulates online.


The limits of fact checking

Although fact checking is a useful tool for verifying information, it must not become an immutable declaration of truth. Indeed, some questions cannot be resolved by simply checking facts, as is the case with issues of politics, opinion, or morality. As its name states, fact checking is about staying factual and checking specific facts.


Moreover, the methods of verifying information may sometimes be incomplete or dependent on other bodies. For example, a fact-checking website looking to determine how many people attended a demonstration would have to trust the numbers released by either the authorities or the organisers of the demonstration, which will almost certainly lead to huge disparities.


Therefore, caution and critical thinking should be encouraged here as well to determine when to trust a fact-checking website and when an issue should be examined more objectively.