Recently, the Chinese government caused a stir when it dismissed multiple reports that it had tortured activists in prison as “FAKE NEWS.” Several outlets were quick to note this choice of words echoed the use of the term “fake news” to dismiss any unflattering media coverage—regardless of truth—by President Donald Trump:
- “Trump Effect Watch: Chinese State Media Decries ‘Fake News’” (Slate, 3/3/17)
- “China’s Response to Reports of Torture: ‘Fake News’” (New York Times, 3/3/17)
- “Trump’s Attacks on the Media Are a Gift to Tyrants Everywhere” (Washington Post, 3/8/17)
The general thesis of these pieces is that by taking the otherwise useful term “fake news” and haphazardly ascribing it to any media he didn’t like, Trump had opened the floodgates for “authoritarian governments” to do just that, thus watering down the “fake news” label and providing cover to oppressive regimes worldwide to do the same.
“When President Trump called the US news media ‘the enemy of the American People’ and brandished the moniker ‘fake news’ at reports he didn’t like,” the Post insisted, “tyrants everywhere perked up.”
“Experts said on Friday that Mr. Trump’s continuing attacks on the news media would help lend credibility to Chinese efforts to undermine Western ideals and foreign journalists,” the Times added.
This is true as far as it goes; Trump’s attacks are cynical and self-interested—as are, apparently, the Chinese government’s. But missing from these assessments is one key fact: It was US corporate media, in their post-election rush to smear leftists and libertarian sites as Kremlin stooges, that first stripped the term “fake news” of any objective taxonomical value.
The most prominent such blacklist, by a dodgy and anonymous group called “PropOrNot,” was first breathlessly reported on by the Washington Post (11/24/16) and later written up in AP (11/25/16), USA Today (11/25/16), PBS (11/25/16), NPR (11/25/16), Daily Beast (11/25/16), Slate (11/25/16), Gizmodo (11/25/16) and The Verge (11/25/16).
It quickly became clear the PropOrNot blacklist, which included entirely-within-the-mainstream leftist and libertarian publications like Naked Capitalism, Truthdig, TruthOut and Consortium News, had been compiled by unreliable ideologues. That list was quickly discredited, with the Washington Post walking back their tacit endorsement in an editor’s note roughly a week later.
PropOrNot’s net was cast so wide by that even Drudge Report , a 21-year-old site with 130 million monthly visits, was lumped in with Kremlin “fake news” solely because the list’s (again, anonymous) author deemed them Russian “useful idiots.” Drudge’s massive traffic was lumped into a still-unproven claim of 213 million views for “fake news” that was repeated by scores of high-status pundits, including New York Times deputy Washington editor Jonathan Weisman.
All three publications now lamenting over Trump and other world leaders’ use of “fake news” to disparage media on purely ideological grounds—the Post, Times and Slate—helped do just that months prior by legitimizing PropOrNot and other “fake news” blacklists.
The vagueness of the term was apparent from the beginning, with politicians from across the spectrum, including Democrats, routinely conflating “fake news” (i.e., media reports that are consciously untrue) with vague notions of “propaganda” (a far more nebulous distinction), typically including the Russian government–funded English-language network RT. Indeed, this was the framing used by Hillary Clinton in her first post-election speech when she praised Congress for creating what would become the Global Engagement Center to combat an “epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media.”
But which was the problem, fake news or “propaganda”? Or was it both?
Other media casually switched between “fake news” and “propaganda” with little regard for what, exactly, they were contesting. CNN (12/2/16), in its rundown of the “Russian fake news” menace, lumped “fake news” and run-of-the-mill propaganda, even relying on the already-discredited PropOrNot group to do so:
The 2016 presidential race was rife with disinformation, none more blatant than fake news—hoaxes, half-truths, outright lies—that flashed through the internet at warp speed.
But “fake news” was originally supposed to just be the “hoaxes” and “outright lies”—not “half-truths,” which gets us into much more murky waters. The rest of the piece went on to conflate disparate concepts even more aggressively:
Watts says that, during the election campaign, three main groups traded in fake news: passionate Trump supporters; people out to make money by driving followers to their websites with “click bait” stories; and the Russian propaganda apparatus.
Obviously, false stories made up to drive traffic, news produced by over-enthusiastic partisans and information created by foreign psyops experts are not the same thing, and putting the same label on each of them seems dubiously helpful. (Note that “Watts” here is Clint Watts of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who—as CNN failed to inform us—formerly ran West Point’s Countering Terrorism Center, so we’re getting an unlabeled government propaganda expert’s take on foreign propaganda.)
But the standard of denouncing any information with a spin you disagree with had been set. Trump would first use the term to disparage CNN about a week later, on December 10. Everything, in a matter of weeks, had become “fake news.”
At no point was anyone compelled to define or limit the scope of the phenomenon; from the beginning, one could add something to the category simply by calling it so. That demagogues like Trump, and foreign governments looking to stifle dissent, would use this already malleable and abused term to serve their own ends was completely predictable. (After all, governments around the world took the word “terrorism” and ran with it in much the same way.)
Obviously, there is a notable power asymmetry between the Washington Post and other US news outlets, on the one hand, and the president of the United States; but noting who loosened the ideological pickle jar is an important piece of context as large corporations and governments are now deploying the term to justify regulation of content. Perhaps if major news outlets had bothered to define—and use—the term “fake news” in a semi-coherent fashion, it could have made its exploitation by reactionary forces that much less likely.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.