“I heard Ronaldo might move on from Real Madrid,” I hear someone say.

“Nah, that’s just fake news,” someone else jokes.

I’ve heard many people make this type of joke over the past year or so. In reference to any number of things, from sports to tests, the term “fake news” is now used to jokingly say “that’s not true.” Unfortunately, using the word in this context has the unintended effect of perpetuating a falsehood and giving legitimacy to a lie started by President Donald Trump.

In a press conference in January after his election victory, a CNN reporter attempted to ask then President-elect Trump a question. Trump refused to answer and proceeded to battle with the reporter in his attempt to move on to another question. After telling the reporter “your organization’s terrible,” Trump went further and claimed, “You are fake news.” So why should an off-the-cuff, four-word sentence raise concern?

First, his attack on CNN mischaracterizes fake news. Fake news isn’t news you don’t like. Unfortunately, Fox News and right-wing organizations seized on this definition, and numerous pundits used the term “fake news” in reference to news they disliked, or that covered their preferred candidates unfavorably. Sean Hannity released a three-minute long video called “How to combat fake news” where he played clips of Kellyanne Conway, Sebastian Gorka, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, all denouncing the “mainstream media” as perpetrators of “fake news.” Hannity continues by encouraging his viewers to write letters and tweets to “Fake News CNN” or “NBC Fake News.” Apparently, according to many Fox pundits and the president, the only viable news source with quality information is Fox News, with everything else considered false.

This behavior ignores the origin of fake news. Fake news is defined as the intentional spreading of falsehoods so as to damage the character of an individual, group, organization, or other entity—or for political, personal, or financial profit. A well-known example is the Russian-bought stories used to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. New details emerged as recently as this week showing Russian-linked Facebook pages such as “Being Patriotic” intended to stoke racial divisions in the United States by posting headlines arguing that Black Lives Matter activists against the American flag should be shot. “Being Patriotic” earned 200,000 followers before Facebook shut it down. Facebook estimates around 29 million Americans saw these posts directly. While it’s likely that a percentage was not of voting age, lies circulating the internet endanger the legitimacy of online news sources, making it harder to distinguish between truth and fiction.

One issue on which many Republicans and Democrats can find middle ground is the invasive, meddling tactics of Vladimir Putin. Senator John McCain, a former Obama adversary and longtime Republican force, urged support for a bipartisan committee into the extent of Russian intervention. Senator Lindsey Graham, another high-profile Republican, joined the group of lawmakers condemning Russia’s attack on the presidential election, as well as the Trump Administration’s lackluster response to it. And as Graham put it, “They have a blind spot on Russia I still can’t figure out.” However, Republicans did not go so far as to accuse Trump of holding back on the investigation because he had personally and politically benefited from the Russian interference.

Not convinced? The Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Security Agency, and the Officer of the Director of National Intelligence concluded with “high confidence” that Russia interfered in the election. And Trump’s response? An evasive answer claiming the data was not as unanimous as popularly believed. As the evidence showing the impact Russia had in influencing the election mounts, Trump avoids allegations by causing confusion.

While using the term “fake news” in a joking context may seem harmless, the phrase validates the joking manner Trump has when discussing an attack on U.S. sovereignty. Using the term casually helps normalize it when Americans should be focused on the recent developments in the Russian investigation. Actual fake news involves clickbait articles designed to make the source creator money. Some examples include Pizzagate, an online story claiming Democrats ran a child sex ring out of a pizza shop, a false story that received hundreds of thousands of online hits. Another example is Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt’s “endorsements” of Donald Trump. Both of these claims received “false” ratings from Snopes, but not before receiving widespread internet circulation. The Washington-Pitt story earned more than 22,000 shares on Facebook. While these margins may seem insignificant, in a race decided by close margins, even the slightest shift in opinion had drastic implications. So the next time Tucker Carlson roasts the latest paid Obama speech, or Tomi Lahren rages on about paid protestors, refrain from calling their talks “fake news;” it may not have the effect you think it does. 


Jake Leger is a member of the class of 2021. Jack can be reached at jleger@wesleyan.edu. 

  • Man with Axe

    You are right that fake news is not “news I don’t like.” But there is plenty of news that is not true coming from media on both sides of the political spectrum as well as from the Trump administration and the DNC.

    Here is just one recent example. It was reported in at least two reputable progressive sources, in their rush to find fault with Trump, that he had called for the death penalty for Saipov (the New York City terrorist) but not for the Las Vegas shooter. More sensible people had to point out on Twitter that the Las Vegas shooter is already dead.

    Here is another example: Trump may be guilty of sexual assault. He has been accused by some women, but not charged or convicted. But many in the media have reported that his “pussy grabbing” comment is a confession of sexual assault. However, what he actually said was, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” In other words, women consent to being touched in that way. Consent means no assault.