Fake News: An Ethical Explainer


The term fake news originated in mid-west America throughout the 1890s but has recently received an infamous revival during the 2016 US Presidential Election. The contemporary use of fake news can be defined as a range of “disinformation and misinformation circulating online and in the media.” Prior to the internet, the distribution of information was expensive and building a platform of trust took years, but social media has removed these boundaries, allowing anyone to be able to create and disseminate fake news.

Fake news can be grouped into four broad categories including:

1. Clickbait.

2. Parody/Satire.

3. Bias News.

4. Propaganda.


While confirmation bias could explain the public belief of fake news, this fails to explore how this deception and fakery influences nonpartisan issues. A better explanation could be the relative inattention to a sources credibility and the manipulation of facts for fake news stories. Its recent influence is undeniable, with Oxford and Macquarie Dictionary naming fake news the term of 2016, followed by Collins Dictionary in 2017, who stated that the usage of the term in one year had increased by 365%.

The 2016 US Presidential Election is one of the most notorious examples of contemporary fake news. President Donald Trump discredited numerous media outlets, such as CNN and The New York Times, by labelling them as fake news. Additionally, it is argued that fake news played a large role in the election, with the most popular Facebook fake news stories recorded to have been more than widely shared than the most popular mainstream news stories. The Buzzfeed News database shares that 115 pro-Trump fake stories were shared on Facebook over 30 million times, compared to the 41 pro-Clinton fake stories that were shared 7.6 million times. This suggests Trump was heavily favoured and indicates the contribution that fake news made to the election.

Communications lecturer James Meese, from the University of Technology Sydney, believed that on a geopolitical standpoint, the risk of influence is arguably lower in Australia. Compulsory voting may factor into this, as it provides less motivation to distribute fake news in influencing public opinion on politics. However, Australian politics have recently been impacted by fake news ahead of the 2019 Federal Election. A media release from impersonators of the left-aligned research firm Essential Media claimed that the Labor Party would introduce a 40% death tax. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten denied this, referring to these claims as “low-rent, American-style fake news which is actually a lie.” Despite this, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson made a video to further spread this fakery.



Code of ethics refers to a set of principles designed to ensure professionals conduct their work with honestly and integrity. Breaking code of ethics can result in termination from the organisation however it is up to them to enforce this. While the US Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) codes differ slightly to the Australian Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalist Code of Ethics, they both disapprove of fake news.

Their first code of ethics details to “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work” and “report and interpret honestly”. The use of fake news in modern media opposes this and inherently infringes upon other code of ethics. In the SPJ Code of Ethics, fake news can violate codes such as “take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify a story” and “never deliberately distort facts.”

The MEAA Code of Ethics better highlights the importance of honest journalism, with codes such as “do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy”, and “do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.”

While code of ethics have provided guidelines that journalists are expected to follow, governments have now started to enforce laws to prevent the spread of fake news. Singapore, like Russia and Vietnam, have passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill that seeks to eliminate the online spread of fake news. However, this has been criticised to be reminiscent of Orwellian governmental features such as the ‘ministry of truth’. The legality of fake news is an evolving international issue that highlights the ethical importance of the role of journalists and news consumers.


In 2017, Channel 4 News conducted their own survey that revealed only 4% of participants could identify all the true and fake stories that were shown to them. Out of all participants, 49% said they were worried about fake news with 57% of these answers coming from people under the age of 25. However, a Generation X participant answered no, stating “people have a duty to research their own information.”

While this is true, it does not mean that people will research their own information. In the digital age, media consumption is quicker and easier than ever before and consumers have become less likely to sift through information to accurately determine what is fact, and what is fake. Everybody is prone to fake news and even though certain types can target generational cohorts, anyone can be influenced by it. A 2018 Stanford study supports this, as it discovered that students struggled to distinguish what types of online material were paid, fake or legitimate.

It is important for news consumers to be aware of how to spot fake news. Facebook, who have been criticised to be a platform for spreading such content, have released Tips to Spot False News. To summarise, Facebook suggests that readers should pay close attention to news stories and be able to differentiate what is satire, what is true and what is intentionally false. It is our ethical responsibility to actively consume news from a range of sources to make our own educated conclusion.


Fake news has eroded journalism’s credibility and integrity. In a recent Twitter poll, 67% of participants responded that fake news has negatively influenced their perception of journalism and contributed to the distrust between media and the public. In a 2006 study, it highlighted that local journalists are often the only journalists that most people will meet and therefore play a significant role in how the wider profession is perceived.

Digital age journalism is often light on context and heavy on speculation which starkly contrasts the traditional values of measured, verifiable and objective reporting. In the context of today’s media, it is a journalists ethical duty to pay closer attention to the news they gather and disseminate, and to report in the public interest instead of information which may interest some of public.

Frank Tremain.