Given President Trump's role in popularizing it, the phrase "fake news" is largely deployed in political contexts. But the problem it describes transcends politics and must be fought on a bipartisan or apolitical basis, as developments in the immediate aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting show.
Many partisans on the Left and the Right believe their political opponents recklessly disseminate and accept fake news, so the term is often used to undercut the credibility of stories that do not contain factual inaccuracies but are seen as biased by detractors.
There are biased news stories, stories that may contain falsehoods (or assertions that are at least arguable), and then there are news stories published by hoaxers who purposefully disseminate outright fabrications. Going forward, it's probably helpful for us to use separate terms for both cases.
The sad reality is that there are Internet actors who knowingly publish lies, with no basis in truth, with the sole intent to dupe the public. This was evident after the horrific shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night, when some used social media to post false information packaged persuasively as real information, adding confusion to a serious story and exploiting tragedy to serve their own sick purposes.
By Monday morning, Buzzfeed had a good roundup of hoaxes spread on social media in the shooting's immediate aftermath, most of which were clearly deliberate efforts to misinform people. Some accounts, for instance, achieved viral reach by posting pictures of people not connected to the shooting that identified them as missing concertgoers or even as the suspect.
This is an unfortunate reminder that "fake news" is a scourge much bigger than misleading CNN articles about the president or a segment on a conservative talk radio show that omits important facts. As is the case after all mass shootings, confusion after the tragedy in Las Vegas lead to the circulation of misinformation even by legitimate media actors. But there is a difference between getting the facts wrong, which is bad, and making up facts altogether, which is worse.
Both must be addressed, but we must not let the fight over "fake news" devolve into a partisan squabble over biased news (that is sometimes fake), which distracts us from addressing the intentional dissemination of falsehoods. Whether they're about celebrities or medical treatments or mass shootings, the Internet makes it easy for people to package those falsehoods as legitimate information.
That is not to say hoaxes are spread only by users without political motivations. But hoaxers target both the Left and the Right, and more importantly, often go far beyond politics to spread bad information on a wide variety of topics.
Acknowledging the distinctions between these two different categories of "fake news," thereby disentangling the more apolitical problem of hoaxers from the problem of bias, will help us better address the former.
Emily Jashinsky is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.