A new guide that aims to enrich public debate around fake news and misinformation was launched at the International Journalism Festival in Italy yesterday (7 April).

A Field Guide to Fake News is a project from Public Data Lab developed with support from First Draft. Public Data Lab is an interdisciplinary network including researchers, journalists, designers, and civil society groups in different countries. It aims to create new research and formats for the creation and use of public data.

The first three chapters of the guide are now available online for free, with the full guide expected to be available in early May.

The project explores digital procedures and approaches that can be used to "map and respond to fake news beyond identifying these claims", said Jonathan Gray, fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at University of Bath and one of the researchers who compiled the guide.

It is designed as a collection of recipes that can be used as a starting point to experiment with different methods.

The document offers four propositions about fake news, illustrated with examples, data and research.

The first one is that there are "different shades of fakeness". In the context of Russian information campaigning online, for example, the guide's contributors identified three types of content: fake news, conspiracy and disinformation.

The second focuses on how fake news circulates online and the different publics and platforms involved in its dissemination, starting from the premise that false knowledge claims are not born fake news. "To become that, these items need to mobilise people and generate a lot of engagement," explained Liliana Bounegru, data journalism advisor for the European Journalism Centre and researcher, who also worked on the guide.

The research team analysed how fake news circulates on Facebook, primarily on public pages and groups, as well as how these stories spread on Google, looking at the type of people who were "energised" by misinformation in each of the two instances.

Screenshot from A Field Guide to Fake News

The third proposition was that "successful fabrications" are not limited to the format of news stories – they also include memes and other types of visual and written content.

The guide explains how different meme pages have different editorial styles. Some use more text and often focus on news events, while others are more "visually complex or in the style of comics or animations", Bounegru added.

"Memes participate in propagandistic efforts but it's not a top down propaganda, it's more a grassroots type of agenda setting or what we called 'do it yourself' propaganda."

Finally, the research shows how the difference between real and fake news is not always about the claims the stories make, but also about how these articles were produced.

The authors looked at the web trackers used by problematic websites to monitor engagement.

While some of these trackers such as Google Adsense and Google Analytics are also used by mainstream media sites, misinformation platforms are "less sophisticated when it comes to the number and diversity of the trackers they use", the researchers wrote.

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