When Donald Trump berated CNN’s Jim Acosta during Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, it proved to be a bellwether for the way he would wield language against his media critics. As a candidate, Trump’s political speech was cynical, reckless, and frequently peppered with falsehoods, but nine days before his inauguration, there remained a chance Trump would turn, as he once promised, “so presidential you won’t believe it.” But Trump refused to let Acosta talk. “Not you,” he scolded, as Acosta shouted a question. “You are fake news.”
Ever since, conservatives have hurled the term “fake news” around with relish, typically aiming it at news they consider biased, but also at stories that make mistakes or that simply don’t support their viewpoint. Trump has led the way. Last week he tweeted that a New York Times story was “major FAKE NEWS” because it didn’t mention a phone call he’d had with China’s Xi Jinping (the call had only been made public late the night before). Trump also attacked CNN’s interview with Sen. Richard Blumenthal as “FAKE NEWS!” because Trump thought Chris Cuomo didn’t ask Blumenthal about his non-existent Vietnam service (it was the first question). And at his combative press conference on Thursday, Trump repeatedly fired off the term, directing it again at CNN, but also at any reporting on his Russia ties, which he described as “all fake news.”
Far-right media were among the first to weaponize the term, and Trump may have adopted it from them. In December, after the U.S. intelligence community agreed that Russia attempted to hack our election, Breitbart News labeled the charge “left-wing fake news.” Around the same time, Rush Limbaugh said “fake news is the everyday news.” But it wasn’t until Trump’s hammering of Acosta that the term became a conservative talking point. It’s been used widely on social media ever since, and by an increasing number of Republican pols. When hearings were set to debate Trump’s travel ban, Sen. Thom Tillis posted on Facebook: “Dispense with the fake news. Listen live to oral arguments…” Rep. Mo Brooks last week dismissed a Washington Post article about his voter fraud claims as “a fake news hit piece.”
But none of this is actually fake news, of course. Fake news, you might remember from the campaign, is news in which the thrust of the story is intentionally and completely false, written by unknown people for a faux-newspaper site in order to garner page views. It was so ubiquitous before the election that Facebook has since cracked down on it. An analysis of these stories showed that while they were aimed at both right and left, twice as many were designed for a conservative audience. Charlie Sykes, the conservative radio host, has blamed Republicans’ embrace of fake news for polluting the discourse on his show (he eventually quit) as his listeners began assigning greater credibility to unsourced conspiracy theories than to New York Times articles. Sykes said his listeners accused him of being a sellout for not “repeating these stories I know not to be true.”
This is the big irony in the right’s efforts to co-opt the term. Real fake news, if you’ll pardon the oxymoron, has been far more rampant on the right than the left. The most famous fake news story is “PizzaGate,” which claimed Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of a D.C. pizzeria. The story caused a man to travel hundreds of miles to “self investigate” and then fire his assault rifle into the kitchen.
In November, NPR tracked down a fake news creator named Jestin Coler, a Democrat, who said he was stunned by how easily conservatives believed the fabrications. He tried to write fake news for liberals, he said, but “it never takes off.” Sykes, in a recent Times op-ed, discussed the right’s hijacking of the term. “Mr. Trump and his allies in the right media” have exploited our “post-factual political culture” to turn the term against its critics “essentially draining it of any meaning.” “Now,” he added, “any news deemed to be biased, annoying or negative, can be labeled ‘fake news.’”
As Sykes has also noted, however, the mainstream media has done its share to erode its own credibility. When Trump deems unfavorable polls to be fake ones, he can point to all the pre-election polls that predicted his loss (though they got the popular vote correct, something Trump never acknowledges). A Time reporter mistakenly wrote that Trump removed an MLK bust from the Oval Office, allowing Trump to cite it as more evidence of the “dishonest” media. And when all else fails, there is always WMD to prove the MSM is fallible.
But while some skepticism is healthy, rejection of the MSM is not. But rejection is sure what Trump is hoping for. In creating an equivalency between fake news and critical news, the president is attempting to further delegitimize the press and create a climate where objective facts don’t exist, just opinions. In such a climate, it becomes his word versus everyone else’s, and thus easier to propagate outlandish claims—like crime is at its highest rate in 47 years (not even close), the media is ignoring terrorist attacks (ridiculous), or that three million illegal immigrants voted in the election (no evidence of this). In making these assertions, Trump is using the oldest trick in the demagogue’s playbook: attempting to scare people into handing him more power.
In Mark Thompson’s recent book, Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics?, Thompson offers a rationale for why conservatives may be more susceptible to conspiracy theories. Increasingly, our two parties are drawn to different styles of political speech: Liberals lean toward what he calls “rationalists,” and conservatives toward “authenticists.” The split hasn’t always been by party, but Trump’s perceived authenticity was his biggest selling point. “Authenticists prize simplicity of language,” Thompson writes, “because they associate simple expression with honesty of emotion.” Where rationalists venerate facts, almost to a fault, “authenticists often find them suspect,” denigrating them in order to “distinguish them from the bigger ‘truths’ they prefer to promote.”
Coler, the fake news creator, bolstered this point when discussing one of his biggest “successes”: his phony story about the mysterious murder-suicide of an FBI agent suspected of leaking Clinton’s emails. Nothing about the story was true, yet it garnered 1.6 million views because it matched the right’s narrative that Hillary Clinton was evil—“Killery” to many on the right. “The people wanted to hear this,” Coler told NPR, and after he posted the piece to several pro-Trump Facebook groups, “it spread like wildfire.”
To authenticists, Thompson declares: “What matters most is not argument but story… The facticity of a given claim matters less than its fit with the narrative. If something feels true, then in some sense it must be true.”