‘Fake news’: A guide to Trump’s favourite phrase – and the dangers it obscures

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Donald Trump has called journalists and news outlets “fake news” nearly 2,000 times since the beginning of his presidency, averaging more than one daily broadside against the press over the last four years.

Moments after The New York Times issued the first of its reports chronicling the president’s tax filings, revealing that he paid a mere $750 in federal income taxes the year he ran for president, and again during his first year in office, he immediately dismissed them as “made up.”

“It’s fake news,” he told reporters at the White House on Sunday. “It’s totally fake news. Made up. Fake. We went through the same stories. You could have asked me the same questions four years ago. I had to litigate this and talk about it. Totally fake news. No.”

Then, he deflected blame, attempting to cast doubts about the legitimacy of the report with his own false claim.

“Actually, I paid tax, but – and you’ll see that as soon as my tax returns – it’s under audit,” he said. “They’ve been under audit for a long time.”

But his own Internal Revenue Service has clarified that the president does not have to wait for the results of his audit before he releases his tax returns.

His rebuttal follows a familiar pattern to undermine press reports by denying them, deflecting blame and using the same allegations against his perceived enemies.

Since the phrase first appeared on his Twitter feed in December 2016 through the first week of presidential debates, the president has said “fake news” 1,906 times, according to transcripts and social media posts collected by Factba.se, as well as searches reviewed by The Independent.

A search for the term “fake” yielded more than 2,500 results, from falsely pushing a conspiracy that former president Barack Obama produced a fraudulent birth certificate to frequently painting his opponents as “fakes” and “phonies” while embroiled in his own allegations of fraud spanning decades.

For every attempt to undermine reporting as “fake news,” the president has created nearly 10 times as many false claims.

By July, the president made 20,055 false or misleading claims since taking office, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s Database, which collected an average of 23 lies or misleading statements a day within the last year, amounting to a “tsunami of untruths” that has overwhelmed political discourse.

On 2 October 2019, the president took credit for creating the term.

“I call the fake news now corrupt news because fake news isn't tough enough,” he said during an appearance at the Oval Office. “And I’m the one that came up with the term. I’m very proud of it, but I think I’m gonna switch it to corrupt news.”

Buzzfeed media editor Craig Silverman began using the term in 2014 as part of his research project at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

During a speech on 8 December 2016, then-recently defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton condemned "the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year."

Her post-election remarks – amid a “pizzagate” conspiracy now engulfed by the massive and influential QAnon delusion – warned lawmakers that baseless conspiracies spreading online posed a threat to democracy and peoples’ lives.

"It's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences," she said. "This isn't about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk… lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities."

Two days later, the president would use the phrase for the first time.

In a post on Twitter, he said that “reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!”

It was Sean Spicer and Mike Pence from the president’s administration who first invoked the phrase in front of the press.

Days before the president’s inauguration in 2017, then-press secretary Spicer lashed out at Buzzfeed News for publishing an unverified dossier, some of which has been corroborated, prepared by a former British intelligence operative alleging ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

“For all the talk lately about fake news, this political witch hunt by some in the media is based on some of the most flimsy reporting and is frankly shameful and disgraceful,” he said.

Moments later, Mike Pence condemned the “irresponsible decision of a few news organizations to run with a false and unsubstantiated report, when most news organizations resisted the temptation to propagate this fake news.”

Mr Trump repeated the phrase several more times throughout the press conference, adding that BuzzFeed is a “failing pile of garbage” and attacking CNN for doing “out of their way to build it up.” CNN published a verified report revealing that a synopsis of the memos had been included in materials president to the president-elect and then-president Barack Obama.

CNN’s Jim Acosta repeatedly asked the president-elect to answer any questions about it before Trump fired back at him: “You’re fake news.”

“You know, I've been hearing more and more about a thing called fake news and they're talking about people that go and say all sorts of things,” then-president-elect Trump said. “But I will tell you, some of the media outlets that I deal with are fake news more so than anybody. I could name them, but I won't bother, but you have a few sitting right in front of us. They're very, very dishonest people, but I think it's just something we're going to have to live with.”

That day, Facebook users interacted with stories with the term “fake news” nearly 3.5 million times.

Two years later, the president would claim that he came up with the phrase, but by then its definition had been rendered useless and its use meaningless, as his attacks had transformed “fake news” from a catch-all phrase to define a growing, dangerous problem on social media to a weaponised term to undermine the same organisations trying to combat it.

Within his first few years in office, public perception among Republicans towards news outlets dropped by 16 percentage points, according to an April poll from Morning Consult, which found that 40 per cent of Republicans don’t find most visible news outlets credible.

In 2016, that figure among Republicans was at 56 per cent.

A 2020 Gallup-Knight survey from November 2019 through February 2020 found that one in five Americans who identify as “very conservative” and one in 10 Republicans believe the media is “trying to ruin the country.”

Almost three-fourths of Republicans (71 per cent) have a “very” or “somewhat” unfavorable opinion of the news media, compared to 22 per cent of Democrats and 52 per cent of independents.

But roughly 80 per cent of respondents believe news is “critical” or “very important” to democracy.

While the president has used the phrase to undermine reporters holding him and power to account, actual fake news has proliferated.

Social media platforms have struggled to combat partisan hoaxes, as well as the rise of conspiracy theories and health disinformation during the coronavirus pandemic, from fraudulent websites to outright dismissals from administration officials, including the president himself.

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker’s database found that the president contributed nearly 1,000 Covid-19-released false claims to the storm of misinformation.

Within the last year, health misinformation spanning at least five countries generated an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook, peaking in April 2020, the deadliest month in the US during the Covid-19 crisis, during which websites that spread misinformation saw roughly 460 million views on Facebook alone, according to data collected by global activism nonprofit organisation Avaaz.

The top 10 websites spreading health misinformation had nearly four times as many views as health content from health officials, including the World Health Organisation and the Centres and Prevention, Avaaz found.

The speed and volume of the news and the spread of misinformation online has risen to an overwhelming concern for nearly three-quarters of Americans, who want stronger protections against false information or hateful expression online, according to the Gallup-Knight survey.

Media analysts are bracing for a deluge of misleading information in the weeks leading up to 2020 election, and social media platforms are under pressure to scrub election-related misinformation, fearing a scenario in which the president prematurely declares victory, among others.

“There are going to be so many confusing, competing ideas, and on top of that, there will be people intentionally spreading lies,” Kristy Roschke, a journalism professor at Arizona State University and managing director of News/Co Lab, which specialises in media literacy.

“If you’re not telling me, ‘This is the last day to vote, this is where you can do it, this is how you can do it,’ and who said that, then I’m still as confused as I was before,” she said.

Mr Silverman’s 2015 study (“Lies, Damn Lies and Viral Content”) determined that “news websites dedicate far more time and resources to propagating questionable and often false claims than they do working to verify and/or debunk viral content and online rumors.”

His study, authored before the Trump presidency, established a set of best practices after determining that journalists and media organisations inadvertently promoted misinformation by attempting to chase it – which, in the months that followed, would dominate daily news cycles.

“The result is a situation where lies spread much farther than the truth, and news organizations play a powerful role in making this happen,” he said.

At his first debate against Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on 29 September, the president quickly launched into familiar false claims and repeat lies, from allegations of widespread election fraud to the state of the economy.

“It’s exhausting,” Ms Roschke said of the attempts to collect the president’s remarks. “The fact checks fail at that point because the outlandish assertions are just everywhere. … Emphasising the lie makes people remember the lie.”

Fact-checking organisations, like the International Fact-Checking Network at Poynter Institute, have tirelessly worked to collect and debunk misinformation and distribute facts, including through a database linking stories from more than 70 countries in 40 languages.

News Co/Lab has launched a free media literacy course to help people navigate digital news, part of Facebook’s $2 million investment in similar projects ahead of Election Day, to arm readers with their own abilities to dispel the “fake news” on their feeds.

“We have to remember that the engines that make social media work are the same engines that make traditional media work,” Ms Roschke said. “These outrage memes and things that go viral – those tap into this human element we have. Recognizing that is very important. That’s not going to make you overcome your own confirmation bias. But anytime you can take a slower approach to reacting to something – if you see or hear something that makes you mad, that makes you feel scared, usually it’s those negative emotions that cause more action – stop for a second and ask, ‘Why am I so mad right now? Why does this scare me so much?’”

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