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Fake news is not a new term. In the 20th Century, its popularity in the printed media rose from the end of the First World War to a peak in 1940—coinciding with the onset of the Second World War. Academic Kalev Leetaru, writing in Forbes magazine, suggested that this reflected “the rise of propaganda research and the impact that false information could have on societies” at that time. The current resurgence of the term began soon after the US presidential election on 8 November 2016, when speculation began that false news stories concerning the two main candidates could have had an impact on the outcome of the election.

The stories in question included—among many others—claims that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for the presidency, that Hillary Clinton’s campaign team were involved in a satanic cult, and, just after the election, that Trump supporters were engaging in racist chants at an election victory party. An analysis by Buzzfeed has claimed that, “in the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more [reader] engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News and others”.

Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow, researchers at Stanford University in California, have defined fake news as “news articles that are intentionally and verifiably false”—particularly with political implications, and especially those that gain “enormous traction” in the popular imagination. It is related, though not identical, to the concept of “post-truth”, which, as Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016, has been defined as a situation where “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

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