The stubborn persistence of ‘fake news’, or Why we’re stuck with the term for the time being

One of the notable recommendations from parliament’s investigation into ‘fake news’ was that the term itself should be retired. ‘“Fake news” is bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition’, they write, and so is no longer fit for purpose. Of course, it’s not the only word currently dominating political discourse that lacks a clear meaning or agreed definition. But whereas ‘Brexit’ has a reasonable excuse for eluding easy definition – it’s only existed for six years, after all, so presumably needs some bedding down – ‘fake news’, on the surface of it at least, is an entirely straight-forward descriptive term. It’s news which is fabricated, fraudulent, of spurious credentials. That doesn’t adhere to basic notions of truthfulness. That sort of thing.

The problem, however, is that the term has now taken on such a variety of different meanings, many of them antagonistically opposed to each other, that it muddies the waters of discussion rather than acting as a useful analytical category. Because of this, the report says, the government should start using the words ‘misinformation’ and ‘disinformation’ instead – and should provide agreed-upon definitions for them which can act as the basis for any proposed regulation.

This seems like an eminently sensible proposition, and already there have been some in the media lending their support to the idea. Claire Wardle, director of the First Draft News Research project, for example, has called for the use of an alternative; while James Ball, author of a book on Post-Truth, writes that putting the term ‘fake news’ out to pasture is something that ‘We should do everything in our power to make… a reality’.

There’s a slight hitch to this proposal, however. The trouble is, this isn’t quite how language works. Language planning – that is, deliberately attempting to influence the way people use certain terms – only works under a specific set of conditions, many of which can be very difficult to predict. Even if the government manages to train itself to stick to ‘misinformation/disinformation’, and certain journalists follow suit, this doesn’t mean the rest of us will.

The idea has in fact been tried before, but without great success. Facebook now purposefully refers to misinformation as ‘false’ rather than ‘fake’ news, and recently started using the phrase ‘data misuse’ in some of its advertising. In academic circles terms such as information disorder have been proposed as an alternative. Yet still ‘fake news’ persists.

There are good reasons why the term is no longer fit for purpose, and why use of an alternative would be preferable. For a start, the issue of completely fabricated stories (i.e. those which began the ‘fake news’ frenzy) is only a very small element of the convulsions affecting modern media. Misleading stories are also commonplace in mainstream newspapers after all, as well as on hyper-partisan blogs and far-right (and occasionally far-left) websites. Add to this the prevalence of memes with false information, the mainstreaming of conspiracy-theory shows, and the sinister union of data misuse and propaganda, and you can see how, as James Ball says, actual fake news was only ever the tip of the iceberg.

Then of course there’s the way the meaning of the phrase has been stretched and twisted. A very brief timeline of ‘fake news’ shows how quickly its sense transformed. Data on Google Trends shows that prior to November 2016 there was very little real interest in the term. BuzzFeed’s News Media Editor, Craig Silverman, was one of the first to use it to refer to obviously false stories masquerading as news, and he recalls seeing an upswing in these from back in late 2014. But it wasn’t until early November 2016 that it broke into the mainstream.

In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory, reports began appearing in the papers about fabricated stories, often created in order to generate advertising revenue, which may have helped skew the election result. By the end of November this was building into a bona fide moral panic, with a string of political commentators and public figures blaming the phenomenon for ‘poisoning civil discourse’ and corrupting democracy.

It was barely a month after this, though, that the other use of the term made its debut. On 10 December, Donald Trump tweeted that media reports that he’d still maintain a financial interest in The Apprentice while president ‘are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!’. A month later, on 11 January 2017, in his first press conference as president-elect, he referred to a CNN reporter with a contemptuous ‘You are fake news’.

That same month the Department of Culture, Media and Sport set up its inquiry into ways of combatting what it described as ‘the growing phenomenon of widespread dissemination… and acceptance as fact of stories of uncertain provenance or accuracy’. But already by this time the alternative use of the term – as a means of pushing back against unfavourable press reports – was rapidly spreading. In mid-February, for instance Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn used it to dismiss claims that he was thinking of quitting; while the very next day Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad was citing it as a way of refuting Amnesty International evidence of torture and executions in his military prisons.

It was Donald Trump though who pioneered its use as a catchphrase, using it on Twitter over 140 times in the twelve months leading up to April 2018. It was also Trump who transformed it into a rhetorical cudgel with which to brutalise the legitimacy of the press. In early 2018 he even launched the Fake News Awards: ‘a contest as to which of the Networks… is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me)’. And the relentlessness with which he has pursued this strategy clearly works. A recent poll from CBS News suggested that over 90% of those who strongly back Trump trust him to give them accurate information, while barely 10% trust the mainstream media.

As Craig Silverman says, the term ‘fake news’ is thus both ubiquitous and horribly muddled. Wiping it from the word-stock and starting afresh would make for a far healthier public conversation about politics, truth and the media. But unfortunately, this isn’t going to happen.

The reason the term is here to stay is because it has come to reference two narratives which structure much of modern politics. The first of these concerns the way that campaigns of misinformation are facilitated by online technologies. This is partly an unintended – although not unpredictable – by-product of the huge role that social media now plays in our lives. For this narrative, ‘fake news’ is metonymic for a host of different factors, most of them centring around our relationship with technology. This is the story of democracy under threat from rampantly-advancing technologies, and ultimately of humankind inadvertently surrendering its freedom to the machines (albeit, for the moment, machines exploited by ruthless political operatives and foreign powers).

The other narrative, which is equally, if not more, powerful is that of the ordinary citizen being kept in their place by a corrupt and self-serving elite. This is the story that Donald Trump has used to great effect both in his campaigning and his presidency, where he’s cast himself as a straight-talking outsider who has taken the fight directly to the political establishment – and to their corrupt allies, the press. This narrative was already well-established before the phrase ‘fake news’ began trending, thus it was a simple step to appropriate it as part of this story.

The problem, then, is that even if the British government, Facebook and media outlets all decide to drop the term in place of something a little more descriptively appropriate, this doesn’t mean it will fade away. These two stories underpin a great deal of the concerns in current politics, and the term ‘fake news’ has become shorthand for evoking both of them. If politics were merely about identifying complications in social infrastructure and concocting policies to tackle them, then yes, a more measured term would be better. But it’s also about persuasion and power struggles. It’s about rhetoric, public opinion and propaganda. And in this respect, the term ‘fake news’ is proving as powerful a tool as all the many other strategies of misinformation and disinformation.