What is fake news, what are the worst examples and why does it matter?

Social media networks have been told to crack down on fake news, with a new report from MPs calling it a “malicious and relentless” threat to democracy.

As a phrase, fake news has spread around the world, even reaching the upper echelons of US leadership as President Trump repeatedly uses it to hit out at his harshest critics.

Faked stories are often shared thousands of times on social media. Sometimes they have honest intent, others set out with the intention of influencing the outcome of major elections.

Where did fake news start?

It has been claimed that the phenomena of online fake news first started to spread in 2016 from a town in North Macedonia. A series of fake stories were picked up by Buzzfeed after being shared thousands of times on Facebook.

Eventually, others around the world caught on to the power of sharing faked content online, just in time for the 2016 US presidential elections. During the campaigns a series of articles shared online tried to debase candidates, to varying degrees of success.

British authorities now want to clamp down on the trend, laying the responsibility on the social media networks that the material is often shared on.

What kind of fake news stories have been widely shared?

  • Claim: Dialing 55 during an emergency call will get the police to come to your location

A post claimed dialing 55 in an emergency call would get police to come to your location. Credit: PA

A graphic posted on Facebook in early January was shared more than 6,000 times after it claimed "new technology" allows police to track the location of a caller who dials 55 during an emergency call - even if the caller isn't able to speak.

But the facts in the story aren't what they appear.

When 999 is dialed, the operator will attempt to establish what has happened by asking questions. The call handler will listen for “suspicious noises or a disturbance”. If they can hear something of interest then the call will be forwarded on to police. But not all silent calls are followed up by authorities.

In the case that the operator cannot hear anything on the call, it will be diverted to an automated service which asks the caller to dial 55 if they need assistance. The call will then be forwarded to the relevant police force, if necessary.

The National Police Chief's Council told fact-checking website Full Fact that although it is possible to trace landlines to a specific location, police "can’t get exact locations from mobile phone calls because of things like tower blocks or densely populated areas".

The council also said officers aren't always sent to silent calls and authorities will use information, such as previous calls, to determine whether an emergency response is needed.

  • Claim: Pope endorses Trump as presidential candidate

Reports said the Pope had endorsed the presidential candidate, he hadn't. Credit: AP

Around the world, millions turn to the Pope for guidance in their daily lives.

So when an article stating the religious leader had endorsed Donald Trump as president, it was shared more than 960,000 times, analysis from Buzzfeed shows.

But the article, published by the now-defunct WTOE5 News, was fake.

In reality, the Pope rarely speaks on politics. Following the story, the Catholic leader told reporters: "I never say a word about electoral campaigns", adding that voters should "study the proposals well, pray and choose in conscience."

A week later, during an interview with Belgian media, the Pope said fake news is a "sickness".

  • Claim: You're exempt from council tax if you claim your home is a place of worship

A post claimed that homes used for religious purposes are exempt from Council Tax. Credit: PA

An image shared on Facebook purports that places of worship are exempt from Council Tax - but only if the worshippers are Muslim.

The post claims followers of Islam who use their living areas as a place to pray do not need to pay Council Tax. It also states these rules don't relate to other religions.

The image attached to the post shows a petition, first raised in 2013, based on the false facts.

Whilst certain buildings are exempt from Council Tax, claiming your home is a place of worship doesn't automatically make it exempt.

A 2018 briefing from the House of Commons said: "It is not possible for owners of domestic property to avoid council tax by claiming that their property, or part of it, is used for religious purposes."

  • Claim: Six points if you're caught speeding on the M1 or M25

A post warned drivers about a new camera threat. Credit: PA

Full Fact says it recently debunked a post shared on Facebook which claimed drivers would automatically be issued with a fine and six points on their licence if they were caught driving faster than 72mph on two major British motorways.

The post, uploaded in early January, stated the new cameras will be turned on "tonight".

But Highways England, who maintain major roads in England, said it was not aware of any changes to infrastructure and that the rules remained the same.

The post said anyone caught travelling over 90mph will face an "automatic ban". Again, this is not true.

Whilst driving at higher speeds does mean that cases can be referred to a judge, it is not an automatic process.

Why does all this matter?

Fake news can have damaging implications on society and MPs are concerned about it.

In recent months, Whatsapp has been forced to make changes to its platform to show that messages have been forwarded from another user.

The changes come in response to a series of videos shared that caused people to attack others.

The Indian government is now looking at measures to tackle fake news - including making it possible to trace the origins of messages shared on end-to-end encrypted messaging apps like Whatsapp.

Widespread concern has been shared about the role fake news played in the outcome of the US elections.

A smear campaign against Hilary Clinton saw her accused of playing a role in an alleged paedophile ring operating out of a Philadelphia pizza restaurant.

Speculation quickly turned into "Pizzagate", leading to media around the world taking an interest in the fake story.

The story was later debunked by US media, but that did not slow the flow of tweets about the alleged scandal that never was.