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Fake News: What is Fake News?

So... What is Fake News, Anyway? 

Did your mother call you to tell you that liberals hate science?  Did your Facebook feed pop up with an article on a new pesticide that's going to kill us all?  Did one of your friends breathlessly tell you that president Donald Trump was going to pardon mass shooter Dylann Roof?  You might have heard any or all of these stories, but there's one thread connecting all of them: they're not true.

The ability to tell accurate news from fake news is an important skill that you'll use for the rest of your life.  This LibGuide will give you valuable insight in telling fact from fiction online, plus a chance to exercise your newfound skills. 

This guide will explain the differences between "fake news," satire, bias and opinion, as well as different types of fake news. It will also give you the skills to critically examine news stories, science reporting, and various types of images. 

Fake News Isn't Really New

Although "fake news" has been getting a lot of attention recently, the problem isn't really a new one. 

© The Yellow Press by LM Glackens, Published by Keppler & Schwarzmann,  1910 - From the Library of Congress 

Yellow Journalism was the term used to refer to a newspaper that emphasized sensationalism over facts in the late 1800s. As depicted in the image above, yellow journalism focused on appeals to emotions and sensationalism. For a history of yellow journalism, visit the State Department's page.


© Image from Roads Publishing

"Tabloid journalism" is another form of fake news many of us are familiar with. Tabloid journalism refers to a sensationalistic and deliberately false reporting. For more information on tabloid journalism, see

Other Names for “fake news”

  • Propaganda
  • Yellow journalism
  • Penny Press
  • Tabloid journalism
  • Spurious news
  • False news
  • Hoax
  • Disinformation
  • Clickbait

Historical examples
of “fake news”

New York Sun’s Great Moon Hoax 
This series of stories appeared in 1835, claiming that an astronomer had found evidence of life on the moon, including unicorns and humanoid bats.

War of the Worlds Broadcast 
Orson Wells caused panic in 1938 with a broadcast of “War of the Worlds,” a radio dramatization of a Martian invasion of Earth.

AIDS Disinformation Campaign
In 1983 the Soviet Bloc spread a story that the United States’ had created the AIDS epidemic through medical experiments.

The Spanish American War
During the 1890s, Yellow Journalism sensationalized and even made up events to inflame public opinion, eventually helping push the United States into war.

Nazi Blood Libel
From the Middle Ages to Nazi Germany, various groups have used propaganda to accuse Jewish people of ritual murder. 

Types of Fake News

There are four broad categories of fake news, according to media professor Melissa Zimdars of Merrimack College.

CATEGORY 1: Fake, false, or regularly misleading websites that are shared on Facebook and social media. Some of these websites may rely on “outrage” by using distorted headlines and decontextualized or dubious information in order to generate likes, shares, and profits.

CATEGORY 2: Websites that may circulate misleading and/or potentially unreliable information

CATEGORY 3: Websites which sometimes use clickbait-y headlines and social media descriptions

CATEGORY 4: Satire/comedy sites, which can offer important critical commentary on politics and society, but have the potential to be shared as actual/literal news

No single topic falls under a single category - for example, false or misleading medical news may be entirely fabricated (Category 1), may intentionally misinterpret facts or misrepresent data (Category 2), may be accurate or partially accurate but use an alarmist title to get your attention (Category 3) or may be a critique on modern medical practice (Category 4.)  Some articles fall under more than one category.  Assessing the quality of the content is crucial to understanding whether what you are viewing is true or not.   It is up to you to do the legwork to make sure your information is good.

How Can I Be a Responsible User (and Sharer) of News? 

  •  Read the whole article, not just the headline 
  •  Check the authority of the source(s)
  •  Read multiple sources
  •  Avoid confirmation bias
  •  Follow the story as new stories are posted
  •  Think & check before you share!
  •  Above all - think critically & ask questions! 
  •  Be skeptical.
  •  Look for disclaimers, such as "for entertainment" or "satire"

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What is the Difference Between....

Fake news, bias, opinion and satire can be closely related and can coexist within the same story, but can also be different. It is important to understand and consider all four when evaluating any source of information. 

  • Fake News
    • As discussed in the section on "Types of Fake News," true fake news is false or misleading information written or shared with the intent of misleading the audience. Bias and opinion can play a role in the creation of fake news, but are also important to consider in traditional news sources as well. 
  • Bias
    • News can be biased without being fake, but you should always consider the potential bias or agenda in any source you are using, especially if it is not written by an expert. If a source is too biased, you may want to consider whether it crosses the line into "fake" news. 
    • Consider not only the bias of the source, but your own biases as well - we all have them! Do your pre-existing beliefs lead you to want to believe or disbelieve the story? If so, this is confirmation bias. Make sure you consider how your confirmation bias affects your ability to view the story objectively, and make sure you look for objective ways to verify or disprove the story. 
  • Opinion
    • Be watchful of using items that appear in the opinion section of a newspaper or magazine as fact. Opinion sections are generally separate from the news, and may range from expert opinions on a topic to lay opinions. If you are going to use an opinion, make sure you understand who wrote the opinion piece, what expertise (if any) makes their opinion worth using, and what bias or agenda they might have. 
  • Satire
    • defines satire as 1) the use of irony, sarcasm, ridicule or the link in exposing, denouncing or deriding vice, folly, etc.; 2) a literary composition, in verse or prose, in which human folly and vice are held up to scorn, derision, or ridicule; or 3) a literary genre comprising such compositions. 
    • As discussed in the section on "Types of Fake News," satire is generally not intended to be taken seriously, but can cause problems if it is inadvertently shared as real news, or a reader doesn't realize it is satire. 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Indiana University East Campus Library Fake News guide was used for some of the content in this guide.