Conservative media and President Donald Trump have repeatedly misappropriated the term “fake news” to attack journalists and news organizations that publish stories Trump views to be unfavorable to him and his administration. Despite the accusations leveled against these news outlets, they are not putting out “fake news,” which involves an intent to deceive for political or profit-driven purposes.
Last month, CNN reported that Trump and his staff were briefed on a dossier that alleged Russia had “compromising personal and financial information” that could be used to blackmail him and his confidants. In response, Trump declared the report to be “fake news.” Later that week at a press conference, Trump attacked CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta when he tried to ask a question. Trump told Acosta that he would not take his question because his “organization is terrible” and because he was “fake news.”
In another instance from early February, after public opinion polls found that a majority of Americans opposed the Trump administration’s travel ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, Trump tweeted that “any negative polls are fake news.”
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
Most recently, Trump shared a link to an article by right-wing website The Federalist that listed “16 Fake News Stories Reporters Have Run Since Trump Won,” which falsely equated reporting errors and misinformation with fake news.
Trump’s use of the phrase “fake news” to criticize journalists and outlets builds upon conservative media attempts to delegitimize the term and use it to attack credible news outlets. And that has the effect of downplaying the unique threat that fake news actually poses to the public information ecosystem. By repurposing fake news in his own terms and claiming that reporting from The New York Times and CNN, for example, constitutes fake news, Trump continues conservatives’ efforts to delegitimize responsible news sources and their reporting, opening a space for disinformation and propaganda to thrive.
Media Matters has defined “fake news” as involving a specific phenomenon in which fabricated information is packaged as news items and distributed among the public with intent to deceive its audience -- often for political or monetary gain. None of the examples Trump labeled “fake news” adhere to this practical definition.
In a telling exchange reported by CNN’s KFile, Trump deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka told conservative radio host Michael Medved that the Trump administration will continue to use the term “fake news” regarding critical news outlets “until the media understands how wrong that attitude" of attacking the president "is, and how it hurts their credibility.”
As Gorka confirmed, Trump's use of the term “fake news” to delegitimize and attack outlets he disagrees with is the newest weapon in his concerted effort to attack and shame any news outlet that criticizes him or his administration.