Trump's 'fake news awards' make it even harder to address misinformation

Donald Trump’s favorite catch phrase is planned to take center stage today, when the president hosts the “Most Dishonest and Corrupt Media Awards of the Year.”

The event, which two White House correspondents told Poynter is not even guaranteed to take place and the White House said Tuesday is only “potential,” is perhaps the most tangible representation of Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the media by calling them “fake news.” According to a Jan. 2 announcement on Twitter, the awards will cover “dishonesty and bad reporting” — which has led to a cascade of quippy, self-indulgent takes on what the president will actually do, as well as relentless jokes from satirical news shows.

Whether or not the event will take place, as well as how the mainstream media choose to cover the potential ethics violation, remains to be seen. What’s clear is that it’s yet another attempt to co-opt the definition of “fake news.”

According to a Google Trends and Twitter analysis, Trump’s use of “fake news” on Twitter since summer 2016 has resulted in corresponding spikes in searches for the term in the United States — with the top related query being “trump fake news” as of publication.

Last year, search interest in “fake news” peaked between Jan. 8 and 14, when the president tweeted the term seven times to attack organizations such as CNN and delegitimize reporting on Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Prior spikes in Google results occurred in the weeks after Trump’s win — before he started weaponizing the term — when top related queries like “washington post fake news” “paul horner fake news” referred to reporting on election-related misinformation.

Since then, searches for the term have continued to spike as Trump tweets “fake news.” Between Feb. 12 and 18, search interest started to plateau after the president listed several publishers as enemies of the American people. That tweet amassed more than 150,000 likes and tens of thousands of retweets and replies as of publication.

The next significant spike in searches came between June 25 and July 1, when Trump seized on a major retraction from CNN, which resulted in three journalists leaving the outlet, to further attack the media. He tweeted fake news allegations six more times that week, including additional attacks on The Washington Post, NBC, CBS, ABC and "Morning Joe," specifically.

This week, Factcheck.org published an article debunking a number of Trump’s fake news allegations from last year. PolitiFact and The Washington Post Fact Checker have published similar stories.

It’s easy to say that, given Trump’s more than 46 million Twitter followers and the barrage of news coverage about his tweets, it’s only natural for Google searches to spike accordingly. But recent reporting and past surveys suggest there’s more than just curiosity in play.

On Tuesday, the AP published a story on how Americans are increasingly uncertain which sources they can trust for information about the government. Based on interviews with Americans across the country, as well as polling during Trump’s first year, the article found that the president’s attacks on the press contribute at least in part to that trend.

Those observations lend credence to and build upon a December 2016 survey from Pew that found about two-thirds of Americans think fake news stories cause confusion about basic facts — a sentiment that is shared widely across demographics. A more recent survey from Gallup found that 42 percent of Republicans think that negative, albeit accurate, stories about specific politicians or groups are always “fake news,” while 17 percent of Democrats think similarly.

Screenshot from the report

That’s partially why media and misinformation experts have even advocated for journalists to stop using the term altogether in order to prevent its further weaponization and improve clarity in our reporting. Trump’s awards are newsworthy for their attack on the press, but cast further doubt on our collective capacity to discuss solutions to a specific form of misinformation, while further exacerbating the climate of confusion and distrust in journalism.

And if today’s fake news awards go ahead as planned, that’ll only get worse.

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