In 2017, fake news was everywhere.
It was behind Macedonian teens buying BMWs and at Russian troll farms, as well as in viral memes and on Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. It was named word of the year by Collins Dictionary and was added to Dictionary.com.
It’s a term that has been constantly redefined and repurposed; what used to specifically refer to deliberately misleading information built to draw large social media audiences to ad-laden websites is now frequently co-opted as a quick slight against legitimate news organizations with perceived bias.
But in addition to its use as a pithy punchline for anti-media trolls, fake news has been weaponized by politicians over the past year to discredit media reports that they dislike. Trump recently used the phrase to attack the mainstream media after a handful of high-profile mistakes. Politico reported that leaders or state media in at least 15 countries use Trump’s favorite insult to limit free speech. Earlier this month, a Burmese politician said, “There is no such thing as Rohingya. It is fake news,” in order to delegitimize the Muslim minority group.
It’s clear that the catch-all phrase for spreading intentionally false or misleading information for financial gain — which was deftly repurposed by White House adviser Kellyanne Conway last December — has had consequences only a few predicted (h/t to John Herrman at The New York Times, who wrote about this in November last year). And there is a growing group of media experts who say journalists should stop using “fake news” — that the phrase has been too weaponized to be useful.
Leading the pack is Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft News, a project of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. She’s been particularly vocal about the importance of abandoning the term, writing in an October Council of Europe report that it’s “woefully inadequate to describe the complexities of information disorder.” She even refrains from using it in conversation.
“Now that we understand the complexity of this ecosystem, it’s just not a helpful term because we’re not having useful conversations,” she said. “By using it, do we mean a sponsored ad from Russia? Do we mean visuals? Do we mean when someone uses a CNN logo inappropriately?”
Beyond its definitional ambiguity, there’s the fact that fake news has been become a popular mechanism by which politicians discredit the media. Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist at The Washington Post, was among the first press critics to come out against the term, writing in a January column that the president repeatedly labeling media “fake news” undermines its legitimacy.
She told Poynter that it’s only gotten worse since 2016.
“Even before the inauguration, we could see that the incoming president’s use of the term ‘fake news’ was turning into a weapon,” she said. “And that has only grown over the course of the year, so that people are using it to describe any kind of legitimate news that they disagree with or they don’t like the implications of.”
But those opinions aren’t a consensus. Aaron Sharockman, executive director of PolitiFact (a project of the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times) doesn’t think using the term “fake news” is a big deal or that it’s completely useless. He told Poynter it’s still an effective way to boil down a complex problem for readers.
“I would completely agree that the term ‘fake news’ has lost credible meaning because of the way that people have used it … However, I think it accurately describes a movement and a category of misinformation today that captures the public’s attention,” he said. “My goal here as a fact-checker here is to focus on helping people determine what’s right or wrong. I’m not going to spend time losing sleep about people misusing the term ‘fake news.’”
Sharockman likened the current exasperation over fake news to the rebranding of the Affordable Care Act. While Republicans started using “Obamacare” a decade ago in an attempt to delegitimize the law, Obama himself later embraced the pejorative nickname in order to change its meaning.
In much the same way, instead of stoking hysteria and trying to distance themselves from “fake news,” journalists should recognize that terms change over time and invest more time in their work, Sharockman said.
That’s directly at odds with how Wardle and Sullivan conceptualize fake news. Both say people should stop using the term altogether in order to prevent its further distortion, and that journalists have an obligation to use words that are more specific to the problem at hand, such as misinformation, disinformation and propaganda.
But Sullivan said she also recognizes that simply not saying “fake news” isn’t enough to prevent its further bastardization.
“I don’t think it will solve the problem, but I don’t think we should make the problem worse,” she said. “I’ve found that it’s not that hard to discontinue using it — you just have to be more specific.”
So what can journalists do to combat the weaponization of “fake news” besides simply not using the phrase? Nikki Usher has some ideas.
An associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, Usher said the debate over fake news presents a unique opportunity for journalists to double down on their values and spread awareness among news consumers. In essence, it’s good for marketing campaigns.
“The New York Times now has this button they’re handing out at events called their truth button, which is related to that ad they took out. CNN has that ad with the apple and banana,” she said. “Mobilizing in opposition to the term is an interesting branding opportunity to possibly restore trust in journalism.”
But Sharockman rebuffed at the idea of journalists fighting to reclaim the phrase “fake news.”
“These are not the fights that are worth having because 1.) We can’t win them and 2.) They’re not all that important,” he said. “This isn’t even really our responsibility or goal. We’re not in the business of fighting back.”
As Washington Post Editor Marty Baron says of journalism in the Trump era, “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work.” Still, there’s clearly some work to be done, and for Wardle and Usher, that comes in the form of higher-level thinking from news outlets.
“We need to have a larger conversation — as academics, as scholars, as practitioners, as journalists — about best practices when it comes to communicating around misinformation,” Usher said.
“I just don’t think we’ve been good enough by defining the terms,” Wardle added. “I hope that would change in 2018 when we go into the midterms.”
Whether or not that will happen in the new year remains to be seen. Wardle said there are real challenges; journalists have come to rely on the phrase “fake news” to drive traffic to certain kinds of stories, and new research shows that readers increasingly believe that the mainstream media fabricate news.
But to Sharockman, one thing is relatively certain.
“Any crusade to eliminate a word from the lexicon is in many ways a lost cause,” he said. “The reality is it’s in the AP Stylebook. I think it’s here to stay.”