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The headlines were alarming. On Tuesday, a clutch of big news outlets trumpeted a new survey that seemed to have uncovered a dangerous gullibility across the globe. Out of more than 25,000 people in 25 countries, 86 per cent admitted to occasionally falling for fake news. In Canada, the figure was even higher: 90 per cent.

But, as media-literacy experts like to point out, if a story seems too good – or too bad, or shocking, or headline-grabbing – to be true, it probably isn’t. So, why did media jump on this one?

Drilling down into Tuesday’s report, conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the Waterloo-based Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), offered a little bit of relief from the startling headline numbers: It turns out that the 90 per cent figure for Canadians included only 5 per cent who said they “frequently” believe the fake news they encounter, 33 per cent who admitted they “sometimes” believe it; and 52 per cent who said they “rarely” believe it.

But even those figures may have been – if you’ll excuse the expression – fake.

Here’s what is verifiably true: Fake news is a scourge. It has fueled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, sparked a lynch mob in Mexico, given false hope to migrants travelling through Europe, and is believed to have affected (if not tipped) the 2016 U.S. election. In Canada, a recent false story claimed that Prime Minister Trudeau asked Nigeria to send one million people here for a new employment program.

No wonder governments are scrambling to confront the problem. But surveys such as the one issued this week may make it worse.

Here’s why. When Ipsos conducted the survey last winter (between Dec. 21, 2018, and Feb. 10, 2019), it prefaced its questions on fake news with a definition of the term that was so insufficient as to be almost useless: “Fake news depicts information that is wholly or in part false.”

Er, no. It doesn’t.

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That would include simple inadvertent factual errors of the sort that creep into legitimate news outlets every day. Those errors are why The Globe and Mail, and other newspapers, have a regular slot for corrections.

And yet that’s the definition Michel Boyer read to viewers on CTV News Channel in his report on the survey, and it’s the definition CBC News Network displayed on the screen and in the studio as host Natasha Fatah quizzed reporter Meghan Roberts.

Fake news, as studied by academics and reporters (including the tireless Craig Silverman, BuzzFeed’s media editor) is characterized as such by the fact that the creator of the content either knows or has reason to know the information is false. Its creation is not inadvertent, even if its distribution (by Facebook users and others) sometimes is.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, Donald Trump has worked feverishly to render the term “fake news” meaningless. That helps him blunt critical coverage of his actions and negate attacks on the actual fake news stories that seem likely to play a part in his 2020 re-election bid. Others are aping his tactics. Like Trump, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte dismisses critical stories as fake news, while truly fake stories – such as one reporting that Pope Francis called Duterte “a blessing” – help his political fortunes.

Broadening the definition of fake news, as Ipsos did (with an assist from CTV and CBC) seems likely to help leach the term of its power. Worse, it will cause further confusion among news consumers at a crucial time.

With an election on the horizon, and the Canadian government making noises about fining social media companies that refuse to remove fake news, a useful definition of the term is essential.

Some of the survey’s results seemed to have confounded even those who designed it. Most of the reporting about the survey focused on the growing skepticism toward social media, but there is also disenchantment with mainstream outlets. During a conference call on Wednesday, I spoke with Sean Simpson of Ipsos Canada, and asked him about the finding that 45 per cent of Canadians said they’d seen fake news on television. “They might ... be thinking about a report on television about fake news,” he replied. As we were talking by phone, I assume he couldn’t see my eyes bug out.

On the same call, I asked Fen Hampson, the director of CIGI’s Global Security and Politics program, who helped design the survey, why they used such a broad definition of fake news. He insisted people would know what the term meant. And besides, he said, “When you’re doing polling – and particularly when you’re doing polling across 25 different jurisdictions, the question is also being translated, you’ve got to keep it simple.” Then he added: “This is the first time we [asked the question]. If we go forward, we would try to refine it.”

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