The Real News about Fake News
The term fake news has two meanings. When mainstream media like BBC, the Times, and CNN say fake news, they mean ‘fabricated stories on social media.’ When politicians associated with the political right say fake news, they ‘mean mainstream media like BBC, The Times, and CNN, which are biased in favour of liberalism.’ When mainstream media talk about fake news, they reinforce this second meaning, and de-legitimate themselves as an instrument to protect democracy.
What mainstream media mean when they say fake news
- A Nexis search on 12 August 2018 found 21 unique stories with the term fake news.
- Three of these 21 were quotes attributed to Donald Trump, 2 were attributed to MP Judith Collins, and 1 to an attendee at a rally. One was in a story by Russian state media, which probably shouldn’t count as mainstream media. The remaining 14 were straightforward instances of news stories discussing fake news.
- The remaining 14 stories used fake news to refer to fabricated stories in online media, especially in India, where such stories contributed to lynchings. Other stories used fake news in a more general sense for fabricated news, as in Conor Brady’s editorial in The Times:
There can come a point at which a convergence of populist pressures, the attenuation of resources and the gathering of existential fears will combine to render the watchdogs toothless, opening the way for the purveyors of rumour, untruth and fake news.
What right-wing politicians mean when they say fake news
- Donald Trump first used the term fake news on Twitter on 10 December 2016. As of 12 August 2018, he had used it in 259 tweets.
- 40 of those 259 tweets name CNN. Most of these do not respond to anything that was reported on CNN, but simply invoke the name:
NBC NEWS is wrong again! They cite “sources” which are constantly wrong. Problem is, like so many others, the sources probably don’t exist, they are fabricated, fiction! NBC, my former home with the Apprentice, is now as bad as Fake News CNN. Sad!— TheRealDonaldTrump (@RealDonad_Trump) May 4, 2018
- Trump invokes CNN as a metonym. CNN is symbolic for all mainstream media, which (in this meaning of fake news) report news according the liberal biases of reporters, rather than reporting facts. This is indicative of a strategy by politicians associated with the political right to cast all mainstream media as biased in favour of the political left.
What happens when mainstream media report on fake news
- When a news story uses the term fake news, it reinforces the term as being part of the public vocabulary. So, when news stories talk about fake news, they legitimate the label, fake news.
- When the mainstream media and right-wing politicians use the same word, it seems like they are talking about the same thing. In other words, when mainstream media use the term fake news to describe fabricated news and right-wing politicians use the term to describe the mainstream media, it appears that they are agreeing with each other.
- This means that each time mainstream media media like BBC, the Times, and CNN talk about "fake news," they confirm the realness of fake news.
- By reinforcing the realness of fake news, mainstream media legitimate the claims of Trump and other politicians associated with the political right that fake news is a large problem. Therefore, the mainstream media provide a foundation for claims that mainstream media are fake news. By attempting to differentiate themselves from fabricated information, mainstream media are perpetuating politicians’ attempts to de-legitimate them.
Fake news is a problem. But the bigger problem is that fake news has two meanings, and the mainstream media are helping politicians de-legitimate the mainstream media by reinforcing the politically motivated meaning of fake news. The mainstream media are thereby supporting their own dissolution as an instrument to protect democracy.