Since the election of Donald Trump people from across the political spectrum have been scrambling to explain how Trump’s message was spread and why it was so potent. As a result there has been a lot of talk about ‘fake news’ and how it is a scourge that needs to be eradicated. However I believe that ‘fake news’ is a loaded term invented by centrist liberals to easily whitewash dissenting opinions and redefine existing concepts. In short, we shouldn’t use the term ‘fake news’.
We need to unpack this concept in order to fully understand why I have such a low opinion of this phrase. The first angle is that this concept tacitly creates two categories of news: real and fake. One source is legitimate, and one in not. This seems like a relatively straightforward idea but it obscures what people want in a news source. A ‘real news’ source could be described as having investigative journalists, fact-checkers, and journalistic integrity. This is relatively uncontroversial, but what some in the mainstream press have started to do is lazily apply this label to news outlets that they disagree with ideologically.
This is dangerous because this automatically demonises anyone who disagrees with the mainstream press as somehow perverting the national discourse. However this is a false idea because no news source is epistemologically capable of being completely objective as discourse is all around us and impacts how we think and why we think that. The New York Times is outwardly a liberal capitalist-supporting organisation, and Fox News is an outwardly a conservative one. However these are not seen as fake news even though they both often perpetuate untruths and influence the way millions of people think. The people involved don’t necessarily know that they are doing it. For instance, Fox News didn’t know Saddam Hussein didn’t have WMDs when it was banging the drums of war, but they still influenced people to support Bush and Cheney.
My point here is about intent. Was the New York Times ‘fake news’ in the run up to the Iraq War? The answer is ambiguous because they weren’t actively trying to mislead people, but they, along with other liberal news outlets, legitimised supporting the war among Democrats by perpetuating information that later turned out to be untrue. If the answer is yes, then any news source that ever made a mistake must be declared ‘fake news’, and given that these organisations are run by human beings, which are not perfect, it logically follows that all news is ‘fake news’.
On the other hand, if the answer is no, we now know that what defines ‘fake news’ is a deliberate attempt to lie to people. But we must also consider what it means to ‘lie’. Politicians often speak in half-truths or casually omit information in order to support their case. If I say some information and leave some other facts out, am are creating ‘fake news’? I’m not saying that this obfuscation and sophistry is morally conscionable, but my point is that we already have terms for people who do this. They are lying or their are manipulating people. There’s no need to come up with an alternative term for when someone is lying just because it’s done on an industrial scale. The other aspect of lying is when organisations publish information in full knowledge of its inaccuracy, and this leads onto my next point.
Labeling something ‘fake news’ has become a way of repackaging criminal actions. If you say something is ‘fake news’, you are in effect saying that the organisation/person in question is deliberately spreading information that is false. This is no longer in the realm of freedom of speech. In December there was a shooting at a pizza restaurant in Washington DC, which was motivated by the internet conspiracy known as ‘Pizzagate’. People decried the role of ‘fake news’ as the shooter was convinced that the outlet was a front for a Hillary Clinton-backed child sex trafficking ring. We don’t need a new term to characterise these statements. If somebody writes an article saying that Hillary Clinton supports child sex trafficking, this is a claim unsupported by evidence and expressly designed to impune Clinton’s character. In other words, it’s libel.
I’m a passionate defender of free speech but it is not acceptable to defame people. You don’t need new authoritarian measures from the government deciding which news source is ‘real’ or not. All you need to do is prosecute people who defame others without evidence. This isn’t a linguistic Wild West where anything goes, people can and should be brought up on charges for remorselessly impuning someone’s character. But in essence this is because of a failure to teach people about civil liberties. If children are taught in school what civil liberties are and what are their limits, people who can be convinced that Hillary Clinton supports child sex trafficking wouldn’t exist.
Defenders of the concept of ‘fake news’ may point to statistics. ‘Real news’ uses accurate statistics and ‘fake news’ often doesn’t, or will be an article of pure conjecture dressed up as news. As anyone vaguely familiar with politicians will tell you, statistics can be used to mislead just as much as language, and so this cannot be used to justify broad label like ‘fake news’. At the risk of repeating myself, making up statistics to justify one’s argument need not be called ‘fake news’, rather ‘lying’.
The final aspect of this I want to bring up is how such a phrase can be used to control the media narrative. The political scientist Steven Lukes spoke about this in relation to what he called the ‘three faces of power’. The first two faces are fairly obvious: decision-making power and non-decision-making power. The third, however, is an ideological power to set the political agenda. By labeling a news source as ‘fake news’ the conclusions reached by the individual/organisation in question can be dismissed without analysis, and this should be avoided.
There are many cases in which people with radically different views on the world can come to the same conclusion by different means. If something can be written off as ‘fake’ because it comes from an ideologically unfamiliar place, those doing the labeling are expressing their power to manipulate discourse. This is not the same as questioning the validity of sources or the accuracy of a story, as the press should question the assertions of other outlets, but I do not believe that the term ‘fake news’ adds anything to a conversation about journalistic integrity.
To conclude, ‘fake news’ doesn’t mean anything because it is in the eye of the beholder. We already have terms to describe inaccurate reporting and defamatory actions, and as such we shouldn’t invent new concepts. Further, the concept of ‘fake news’ legitimises the terrible journalism of mainstream news publications. When ‘fake news’ is talked about, it is always referring to online sources. As such, the perception is created that if something has existed for a number of years, or is in physical print, this source must be ‘real’.
If an organisation prints lies about people in full knowledge that it is untrue, it’s not ‘engaging in fake news’, it’s committing libel. The most vocal opponents of ‘fake news’ in recent weeks have been centrists, particularly in America, angered by Trump’s victory. I am not happy that Trump is now the President of the US either, but I don’t invent new terms and write off those who disagree with me. There are reliable news sources and unreliable ones, and people should be skeptical of everything they read. This new idea is a rebranding of existing concepts that combines libel, disagreement, and journalistic malpractice, and this simplification shouldn’t be normalised.