Why ‘fake news’ is such a problematic term – and what we can do about it

There’s been a growing call for people to stop using the term ‘fake news’ and replace it with something more suitable. While the rationale for this makes perfect sense, in practical terms things aren’t quite so simple.

So what can we do to prevent the term itself doing as much damage as the phenomenon it refers to? And how can we effectively adapt our language to help combat the problem of propaganda and disinformation?

 

On 16 August, following an initiative by the Boston Globe, about 350 news organisations across the US published editorials pushing back against Donald Trump’s attacks on the media. These attacks have taken various forms over the last two years. Organisations have been excluded from press briefings; reminders about respecting press freedom have been cut from White House manuals; and, according to ex-FBI Director James Comey, Trump even considered jailing journalists who published leaks. But his principle avenue of attack is via the language he uses. As New York Times publisher AG Sulzberger recently wrote, Trump’s anti-press rhetoric is ‘not just divisive but increasingly dangerous’.

There are a range of inflammatory insults the president uses to attack the media. He’s branded them the ‘enemies of the people’, ‘the lowest form of humanity’, and he finds many if not most ‘disgusting and corrupt’. But his favourite rhetorical bludgeon is still ‘fake news’.

To further complicate matters, while Trump continues to use this term for his own propagandist purposes, others are still using it to talk about the actual processes of disinformation that are bedevilling society. For many, this is increasingly becoming a cause for concern. Not only has the term been tainted by Trump’s usage, but the problem it initially identified (purposefully fabricated news stories) has expanded into something far more complex. As the recent report from the UK Parliamentary Select Committee put it, ‘fake news’ is now ‘bandied around with no clear idea of what it means, or agreed definition’. As such they recommend it should be replaced with something more descriptively appropriate.

Similar calls have come from both journalists and academics. An influential report written by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan for the Shorenstein Center, for instance, purposefully avoided the term, and instead argued that we need to think ‘more critically about the language we use so we can effectively capture the complexity of the phenomenon’. The alternative they opted for was ‘information disorder’.

Yet the difficulty is that the original phrase has become such a part of the culture that attempting, from above, to shift people’s patterns of use is unlikely to have much effect. This, combined with the way that the bastardized version has become a powerful propaganda tool in its own right, means that ‘fake news’ will almost certainly continue to be used in public discourse even if a few academics, journalists and policymakers decide to adopt a different term.

So what, if anything, can be done? The options are limited. It’s extremely difficult to engineer the replacement of a word that’s already in everyday use. Take for example the campaign to stop using ‘honour killing’ – a term which, for many, includes within it a sense of moral justification for a particular type of murder. Despite well-argued attempts to avoid it, the phrase is still very much a part of everyday parlance.

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing that can be done. And an important starting point is understanding precisely what type of functions the term ‘fake news’ serves in society, and why, linguistically, it has become so popular.

One of the reasons that it’s used so extensively is because it acts as shorthand for two key ideas about modern society. The first of these (relating to fabricated news) is that modern technology is becoming more of a threat than a benefit to our lives, and that social media in particular is upending traditional notions of truth and civility. ‘Fake news’ in this scenario conjures up ideas about filter bubbles, algorithmically-facilitated social engineering, and a growing fear of the rise of artificial intelligence.

The second idea (relating to ‘fake news’ as an insult) is that the institutions we’re governed by are run by a corrupt and self-serving elite who keep the populace in a state of ignorance through their manipulation of the media. This is the foundational idea behind populist movements. A story in which the ‘real’ people are kept in a state of subservience by the devious machinations of the political classes.

Such is the status of the term today that the mere mention of it can trigger one of these two narratives depending on your general worldview. Given that there are actually two separate issues here, there are also two different ways to address them. The first is to find a term which better represents the complex of processes by which disinformation causes a threat to society. The really tricky thing here is not the coining of the term itself, but creating the circumstances for it to be adopted across the board.

Predicting which words gain popular traction in society is an uncertain science. Yet there are a few factors which are often important. Key among these is getting the term picked up by an influential person or source, whose usage then gets imitated, and then adopted by the media. For this to happen it helps if the alternative phrase is simple, catchy or vivid, so that it sticks easily in the popular imagination. ‘Information disorder’ is a good concise, descriptive phrase, but it’s far less punchy than ‘fake news’. Something like ‘tech-driven propaganda’ or ‘fact dysphoria’ might cover the relevant ground, but again whether they’d capture the popular imagination is another matter.

Even if one were to find a good rival term, this only solves half the problem. It’s equally important to uncouple the original concept from the propagandist use of the term (i.e. that regularly employed by Donald Trump). In other words, isolate and expose the propagandist use, and ensure it isn’t inadvertently legitimised by discussion of the very real issue of disinformation.

There are a number of tactics that can help achieve this. The first is to avoid quoting the phrase without at the same time qualifying its use. So when reporting on events in which the phrase is used, be sure to frame it as a motivated insult rather than simply using it as shorthand. Paraphrase is better than citation in this respect: ‘Donald Trump launches attack on rights of free press’, for example, rather than ‘Donald Trump attacks the “fake news” media’. As the linguist George Lakoff stresses, you should always avoid repeating ‘the language of the attacker because it evokes their frame and helps make their case’.

A second strategy is to nullify the narrative that the term is referencing. Trump’s attacks are premised on the idea that a corrupt elite (of which the mainstream media are a part) is working against the general good of the country, and that he’s standing up for the rights of common people. The press needs to find a way to appropriate this narrative for themselves. To promote an identity which not only refuses to fit with the story he’s telling, but creates its own positive storyline. This could, for instance, involve framing the press as a symbol of liberty and free speech, or as playing a vital role in standing up for the rights of everyday people in holding power to account.

Ultimately language is a communal resource, and both its form and meaning are shaped by the way communities use it. It’s for this reason that it’s no easy task to push back against the tide of a linguistic trend. Yet just as the news media in the US were able to mobilise 350 editorials to make a stand against vilification, so perhaps they could use a similar concerted effort to disarm the language wielded against them – and in doing so significantly alter the terms of the conversation about disinformation in society.