The Cynical Gambit to Make ‘Fake News’ Meaningless

As journalists push back against hoaxes and conspiracies, media skeptics are using charges of “fake news” against professionals.

Television satellite trucks line an Oregon roadway near the scene of a mall shooting in 2012.
Television satellite trucks line an Oregon roadway near the scene of a mall shooting in 2012. (Steve Dipaola / Reuters)

For a term that is suddenly everywhere, “fake news” is fairly slippery.

Is “fake news” a reference to government propaganda designed to look like independent journalism? Or is it any old made-up bullshit that people share as real on the internet? Is “fake news” the appropriate label for a hoax meant to make a larger point? Does a falsehood only become “fake news” when it shows up on a platform like Facebook as legitimate news? What about conspiracy theorists who genuinely believe the outrageous lies they’re sharing? Or satire intended to entertain? And is it still “fake news” if we’re talking about a real news organization that unintentionally gets it wrong? (Also, what constitutes a real news organization anymore?)

Finally, do any of these distinctions matter if the end result—widespread confusion and disagreement over what’s real and true—is the same? The problem, as many see it, is that the ubiquity of “fake news”—misinformation shared widely on Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, and elsewhere—is creating a culture of deception and deepening the country’s partisan divide.

But if the proliferation of bad information online is indeed the dangerous driving force of a post-fact society—a society in which made-up stories inspire real incidents like the gunfire at a pizzeria in Washington over the weekend, or the woman charged with making death threats against the parent of a child murdered in the Newtown massacre because she thought the attack was a hoax—people ought to know what “fake news” actually means.

We’ve reached a point where fake news and real news are becoming harder to parse—not just because it’s easy for anyone to broadcast fabrications to mass audiences online, but because legitimate journalistic attempts to understand the fake-news phenomenon are often absent of much-needed nuance (and, in some maddeningly illustrative cases, turn out to be inaccurate themselves). All this is happening against a backdrop of what’s perceived by journalists as growing animosity toward the press, antagonism that’s reinforced by some of the most powerful members of society—like the billionaire Peter Thiel, who successfully destroyed Gawker and said he’d do it again, and the president-elect, who called reporters “the lowest form of life” and “the enemies.”

To begin to unpack any of this, let’s start by looking at what the “fake news” brouhaha is, at its core, about: The growing distrust of media institutions.

It’s no coincidence that the public’s faith in the media is abysmal at a moment when the institutions that were once our primary informational gatekeepers are no longer the only ones distributing the news. The fact that news outlets have simultaneously lost cultural power and the public’s trust represent both a cause and an effect of the fake-news problem: The idea that media can’t be trusted is bolstered by the ubiquity of alternative information sources, many of which aren’t credible themselves, which further diminishes trust of news sources overall.

What we’re witnessing, then, is not just a breakdown of institutional trust but a cultural (and economic) reconfiguring of media institutions themselves.

The distrust is so deep, the ideological lines so stark, that even reporting about fake news as a problem is being called into question by many of those who distrust the traditional media institutions reporting about it. This pushback from media skeptics aims to delegitimize traditional outlets as being “fake” themselves. For example, Andrew Torba, the CEO of Gab—a social network with a reputation as being the place for right-wingers banned by Twitter—called The New York Times a “fake news publication” in a recent Medium post. (Torba also says he “completely” challenges the premise that Gab leans right.)  A Twitter account that promotes Gab as an alternative platform tweeted what appeared to be a draft of an email to a reporter at CNN with the message that, “We aren't doing interviews with fake news outlets at this time.”

For journalists, especially, “fake news” may seem like useful shorthand to describe something inaccurate.

But more nuance and precision is needed to adequately characterize the scope of the problem, to acknowledge the complexity of the informational environment and the extent to which professional journalists are complicit, and—most of all—to begin to find a solution.