The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan uses her latest column to call for journalists to stop using the phrase “fake news,” a term reporters and activists have used over the past few months to describe a form of politicized misinformation that had at least some impact on the 2016 presidential election. She reasons that “though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost” in the wake of a deliberate effort by conservatives to co-opt the term.
Sullivan is one of the best media critics currently working, with a keen sense of the media’s responsibility for calling out lies and a well-earned wide following. That’s what makes her missive so troubling.
If conservatives succeed in their effort to dilute the meaning of “fake news,” the result will not be the clearer discourse that Sullivan hopes to inspire. Instead, critics will lose a common term used to identify and accurately describe a real and specific problem, while conservatives will take that victory and apply the strategy behind it to other fights, making it even harder to describe the challenges in a “post-truth” news environment.
“Fake news” describes a unique phenomenon. Sullivan’s definition is “deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public.” This largely mirrors Media Matters’ own description: “information that is clearly and demonstrably fabricated and that has been packaged and distributed to appear as legitimate news.”
The term gained prominence after conservative and “alt-right” social media accounts and Russian intelligence services weaponized fake news during the 2016 presidential election, leading to an extensive discussion in the press over fake news content, its purveyors and beneficiaries, and the information ecosystem that allows it to flourish.
Some conservatives have been trying to delegitimize the term by broadening it to encompass virtually all information with which they disagree. Breitbart, the right-wing, white nationalist website run by top Trump aide Stephen Bannon, was among the first to adopt that formula; it has deployed it dozens of times since to criticize stories by a litany of legitimate news outlets like CNN and The New York Times as “fake news.”
For Sullivan, the term has been so “tainted” by these conservative efforts that it’s no longer of value. “Let’s get out the hook and pull that baby off stage. Yes: Simply stop using it,” she writes. “Instead, call a lie a lie. Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name.”
Sullivan is right that conservative efforts to redefine “fake news” in order to delegitimize the press are a real problem. But her solution is to let the conservatives win.
What would happen next? As she notes, fake news has a “real meaning” and identifies a pernicious form of discourse. No other term currently encapsulates its parameters. If we want to be able to reduce fake news’ influence, we need to be able to identify what it is and how it differs from different, better-known types of misinformation, such as lies, propaganda and conspiracy theories -- or from run-of-the-mill errors in reporting.
The term “fake news” may be “imprecise,” as Sullivan writes. But that is because it describes an immensely complex ecosystem of actors.
Moreover, Sullivan errs in assuming that taking “fake news” off the table will allow the press to operate on more favorable lexical battlefields. There is little evidence that the conservatives who deliberately distorted the meaning of “fake news” will simply move on if the term is dropped.
Why would they? As Sullivan has correctly assessed, Donald Trump’s supporters are engaged in an unprecedented effort to create a “post-truth world.” If they can blow up the term “fake news” with such ease, won’t they learn that similar efforts may be similarly rewarded? Won’t they seek to redefine the very terms Sullivan urges journalists to use instead?
For a glimpse of where conservatives could move next after spiking “fake news,” I’d recommend “10 Conspiracy Theories That Came True,” an Infowars piece co-authored by Alex Jones. Jones, a Trump ally who has said that the government perpetrated the 9/11 attacks and the tragedies at Columbine, Oklahoma City, Sandy Hook, and the Boston Marathon, has been widely and accurately derided as a conspiracy theorist.
And so in his 2014 article, he redefines “conspiracy theory” as a term “weaponized by the establishment as a perjorative (sic) slur against anyone who questions the official narrative of any government pronouncement.” He includes the U.S. role in the 1953 coup in Iran and the Gulf of Tonkin among their numbers.
It’s not only in the interest of conspiracy theorists like Jones to tarnish that phrase -- the Trump administration will also benefit from stretching the term to encompass any criticism of the incoming president.
Trump himself responded to December reports that the CIA had identified Russian intelligence efforts to bolster his campaign by terming the finding a “conspiracy theory.”
Sullivan is right that journalists need to be willing to call out lies, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories.
But “fake news” has a place on that list as well. Let’s defend it rather than folding under the first wave of conservative pressure.