Fifty Shades of Fake

99% of what you read online is fake (this statement included).

Don’t be alarmed (or stop reading just yet). I don’t have any statistics to prove this number, and to the best of my knowledge, nobody can say how much online content is fake. I just made this number up. Is there a better way to start a series about different kinds of fake? 

This fake number might have tapped into a feeling you already had that fake news and false information are everywhere. You might have thought this number seemed too high and instinctively guessed a more reasonable one. The result is the same: You read this number, and it affected your mental model of the fake-online-content problem. But the truth is that while many people know fake content pollutes our online life, nobody can quantify the scale of the problem, let alone the amount of fake news you are exposed to compared to other people (which depends on where you spend your time online). Even defining what “online life” or “online content” are is far from trivial and left unaddressed by the outrageous statement I opened with. 

Of course, none of that bothers someone who wants to manipulate an audience. Inventing a number and letting our brain do the rest is the easiest thing possible. With or without malicious intention, fake content creators have the upper hand. We, as an audience, have to be proactive if we care about the quality of the data and information we consume.

Fake content is part of our lives. Maybe it has always been, but even without accurate statistics, it is safe to say that its impact in the past decade or so is more prominent than it ever was. The sheer amount of information we are exposed to and the fact that echoing and amplifying it is easier than ever turn fake content into a real problem affecting our ability to form solid opinions and make knowledgeable decisions. 

Identifying fake information is not trivial if only because fake is a spectrum and is manifested in different (I dare say creative) ways. Evaluating a single statement as true or false is hard enough. But when you realize that much of the fake content we are exposed to is created using some factual information, dealing with fake becomes even more challenging. 

A blunt lie is obviously fake. But fake can be based on 90% truth. Fake can be nuanced and subtle. It can be intentional or the result of poor research and sloppy phrasing. None of that makes fake content any less potentially harmful. It just makes it harder to identify and deal with.

In the Fifty Shades of Fake series, I decided to explore different kinds of fake content. It is impossible to think of Generative Communication without giving some thought to dealing with fake information. Our ability to refute or validate what we read is essential. It is critical when we use the information we consume to create our own content. I hope this series will help us consume content more critically and, in turn, create more reliable content, if only by being aware of the pitfalls that might cause us to create fake content even without intending to. For me, good content is trustworthy content. Knowing where we can go wrong is a pillar of effective communication.

I should say upfront: knowing how content can go astray is just the first step. Applying this knowledge to identify fake content requires time and attention. More than anything, it requires intent. Being a critical reader and a critical thinker is not just about questioning — it is about seeking answers, which requires some effort. Shallow reading (and writing) will always be easier, but with it comes the risk of falling prey to fake. 

When it comes to opinions, there is no absolute truth. Opinions are subjective by definition. Factual statements, on the other hand, can be true or false. As we will see, this axiom just complicates things because no single fact represents the complete picture. Getting a full, accurate factual picture of every subject in every domain is practically impossible. But we’d better have as solid input as reasonably possible to form knowledgeable subjective opinions.

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