The Term “Fake News” Has Already Lost Its Meaning

Trump's defiant use of the term is a measure of how quickly it's been co-opted and repurposed.

At his first press conference in some six months yesterday — to the extent that the amateurish spectacle that ensued could reasonably be described as a “press conference” — President-Elect Donald Trump mumbled his way through a series of responses and non-responses to questions on Russia, his wall on the Mexican border, and #pissgate.

The most notable exchange, however, came when he refused to take a question from CNN’s Senior White House Correspondent, Jim Acosta. CNN’s Elizabeth Landers related the encounter on Twitter:

There are several key takeaways here. The first, and most important, is that we have a President-Elect who is blacklisting media organizations that are critical of him. Because, let’s be honest, CNN may or may not be your cup of tea — it’s certainly not mine — but it remains a legitimate news organization, and one that has reported extensively on the possibility of Trump being potentially compromised by Russian intelligence. As a result, Trump is not only refusing to answer CNN’s questions; he’s actively trying to undermine its credibility and, ultimately, its existence. This is unbecomingly petulant for someone who will very shortly be The Leader of the Free World™, and it’s also a very, very ominous sign about what sort of freedoms the press will enjoy, or not enjoy, under his regime.

Also notable here, though, is Trump’s use of the term “fake news.” Those words’ presence in Trump’s lexicon, barely two months after he won an election that brought the whole phenomenon of fake news to the attention of the general public, is a measure of how quickly the term has been co-opted and repurposed as a tool of the establishment.

When journalists talk about “fake news,” they’re referring to stories that are based wholly or partly on reports that are simply untrue, most likely designed to advance a political agenda, and presented as fact. Such stories aren’t new, of course — there’s always been a section of the media that has either bent or broken the truth for its own ends. The reason fake news has become such a hot topic this election cycle is that its reach, and thus its importance, has been amplified markedly by something the world hasn’t seen until now: the power of Facebook’s top stories algorithm to create an echo chamber of confirmation bias, combined with that algorithm’s inability to distinguish between real reports and false ones.

The result is the crazy relative/old high school contemporary/etc that everyone has on Facebook, the one who — depending on their political leanings — is either always posting waffling reports from Natural Alternative News about how green juice can bring about world peace, or reports from Freedom Eagle Real News about how the mainstream media is covering up that Barack Obama is in fact a Muslim who wants to give all our guns to the UN and enslave us all under the New World Order.

Already, though, in the hyper-speed world of today’s media, the term has been weaponized and thrown back at those who coined it. Donald Trump — or, at least, whoever was providing him with talking points yesterday — knew exactly what he was doing when he accused CNN of being “fake news”: using his critics’ own weapons against them, and thus depriving those weapons of their efficacy.

Trump is well aware of the power of fake news — he has profited handsomely, and continues to profit, from his position as chief proponent of the birther conspiracy theory. His eventual, begrudging admission in September last year that Obama was, indeed, born in the United States was beside the point — his years of public support for the theory weren’t so much a dog whistle to the extreme right as they were a deafening klaxon call, one that was answered when racists turned out in droves to vote for him in November.

Given how well the tactic of disseminating fake news has worked for him and his supporters, he no doubt wants to head off any effort to undermine his ability to keep relying on it. Repurposing the term, then, provides a double benefit: it provides him with a way to attack the press, and it deprives the press of a way to attack him. It’s a strategy that his supporters have adopted gleefully, to the extent that, as Mic’s Tom McKay noted yesterday, the term “fake news” has become essentially meaningless: “Liberal hysteria over fake news legitimized a skepticism of valid news sources. Conservatives now shout ‘fake news!’ whenever they encounter a story they don’t like. They’ve reduced the concept to utter meaninglessness.”

Part of the reason they were able to do this, as McKay notes, is because the term “fake news” was so woolly in the first place: “The term ‘fake news’ itself is vague and pejorative. It’s been used to refer to anything from outright hoaxes and spammy clickbait sites to deliberate political disinformation campaigns. It’s also a punchy line for shooting down whatever legitimate news story happens to be inconvenient at the time. These factors made it ideal for hijacking by Republicans.” This is 100% on point, and it demonstrates the importance of choosing your words very carefully when dealing with someone like Donald Trump.

The descriptor “fake news” — in its most literal sense — could just as easily be applied to The Onion or the legion of other satirical news sites that are not as good as The Onion. It could also be applied to Clickhole, and the legion of other absurdist sites that are not as good as Clickhole. The key point, of course, about what we call fake news is that it is constructed for a political purpose. An article of this sort aims to get a reader to believe something that is not true. And more subtly, the effect of these articles is to leave the reader doubting everything: as the New York Times noted in its report on the phenomenon in early December, “Fake news, and the proliferation of raw opinion that passes for news, is creating confusion, punching holes in what is true, causing a kind of fun-house effect that leaves the reader doubting everything, including real news.”

This is exactly what Donald Trump is doing when he stands up and calls CNN fake news. He’s not only attacking CNN; he’s attacking the public’s trust in the press as a whole, and even more fundamentally, he’s attacking the entire concept of journalism. This, of course, has been a favorite tactic of autocrats throughout history. It’s also been a favorite tactic of extremely rich and privileged people who would prefer that their dealings remain shielded from the eyes of the public.

America has had its fair share of leaders who’ve had a complicated relationship with the truth, but it’s never had one as exuberantly and unashamedly mendacious as Donald Trump. Trump wants his version of reality to be accepted without question, even if that version of reality stands in direct contradiction to whatever his previous version of reality was, and he’s openly hostile to anyone who seeks to question it. He makes no pretense of acting in good faith; like the subset of his supporters who come from 4chan and the most unsavory corners of Reddit, he delights in doing the complete opposite.

There’s a passage from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew that describes exactly this sort of behavior, which only goes to show that very little ever really changes:

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side.

That could have been written about Donald Trump, or Steve Bannon, or Kellyanne Conway. The key point is this one: “It is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words.” Whenever Trump and his team claim that they never said something that they clearly did say, or claim that what they said didn’t mean what we thought it did, they’re attacking language itself — another favorite tactic of autocrats. (Their attitude to words was perfectly, if unintentionally, summed up by Conway earlier this week, when she suggested that instead of “[taking] everything at face value”, the press should “give him the benefit of the doubt on this… he’s telling you what was in his heart, you always want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than look at what’s in his heart.”)

In Trump’s world, words mean whatever you want them to mean at a given moment, and that meaning can be retroactively altered at the drop of a hat. In this respect, then, it’s extremely, extremely important for journalists to make sure they’re not aiding him in this process by using woolly terminology. Throughout the election campaign, the media was its own enemy in this respect; it refused (and continues to refuse) to call Trump’s lies “lies.” It was (and continues to be) squeamish about describing the “alt-right” as the white nationalists they are. In pursuit of the chimera of “objectivity,” it has continually failed to subject Trump to the scrutiny to which he needs to be subjected.

As far as “fake news” goes, then, let’s stop playing into Trump’s hands with the usage of a euphemistic and nebulous term. Let’s use a word that’s existed since the days when Latin was a spoken language, one that fits perfectly the dissemination of false information for political gain. Let’s call it propaganda.