Tina D Purnat

Public health

Health misinformation

Infodemic management

Digital and health policy

Health information and informatics

Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat
Tina D Purnat

Public health

Health misinformation

Infodemic management

Digital and health policy

Health information and informatics

Blog Post

Stop using the term “fake news”​ to refer to misinformation

When my colleagues and I at the WHO expanded our work on infodemic management at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we intentionally adopted the terms “misinformation” and “information disorder” as the challenges contributing to the infodemic, and struck the term “fake news” from our operating vocabulary when developing tools, policies and partnerships for infodemic management.

Here’s why.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerabilities to misinformation was a very specific discussion and research topic most prominent in the topics of environment/climate change and elections/democracy, which was studied in psychology, social and new media and several other sciences.

The importance of the information environment, its design and dynamics came to the forefront in the late 2010s in a series of events where social media manipulation and marketing had wide-ranging effects on the outcomes of several societal debates and influenced the results of several elections.

Misinformation became a topic of policy, legal and societal discussions to the point that Collins Dictionary declared “fake news” as the term of the year of 2017, when the term’s popularity increased, especially due to its use in the US presidential election.

But already at that time, there were warnings from experts working in the areas of the freedom of expression, journalism and fact-checking that the expression was being appropriated in the language by people who were propagating backlash and stigma against the media and journalists and that this was contributing to the reduction of trust in media and journalism, and promoting stigma.

This became such a challenge that the seminal report for the Council of Europe on the information disorder, coauthored by Claire Wardle, PhD and Hossein Derakhshan specifically pointed to this as well.

…. we refrain from using the term ‘fake news’, for two reasons. First, it is woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution. The term has also begun to be appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable. In this way, it’s becoming a mechanism by which the powerful can clamp down upon, restrict, undermine and circumvent the free press.

Council of Europe report: “Information disorder: Toward an interdisciplinary framework for research and policy making (2017)”

During the past 10 years, we’ve seen a steady erosion of trust and societal relationship and understanding of facts and evidence in relation to the information environment. The term “fake news” stereotypes and promotes mistrust in evidence, investigative journalism, and the media.

It’s never too late to learn how the debate about misinformation affects you personally. Join others who are advocating for freedom of expression, the human right of universal access to information, and resilience to misinformation and use terms that are more accurate and less stigmatizing.

Help promote information hygiene as we try to address the challenges the digital information environment poses for our society. The words you use matter.

PS: while the information environment has changed through technological advancement and changes in policies of the internet platforms and political/social change since 2017 and posits additional challenges, the above-mentioned report on the information disorder is worth reading here. One of the authors, Claire Wardle, wrote a poignant piece on how misinformation has been misunderstood since the publication of this report.

I wrote this LinkedIn blog in 2023, when I persistently needed to explain that the field of misinformaiton research has evolved the language describing misifnormation and has for years not used the term “fake news”. It’s stigmatizing and counterproductive, please be mindful how you refer to and conceptualize misinformation in your writing and research. Follow me on LinkedIn. if you’d like to read more of my commentaries.