Two months ago, almost no one was talking about fake news. A Google Trends search for the term shows that it barely registered before October. Now you can hardly turn on the real news without hearing it.
Fake news is a real, specific problem. But in all the furor around who’s making it, who’s sharing it, its impact, and how to stop it, it’s easy to lose sight of something more fundamental: what it is. The broader the definition, the less useful the concept becomes—and it’s already verging on counterproductive.
In recent weeks, the term fake news has been applied by various media sources to everything from Breitbart News to Donald Trump’s tweets to the media commentary of CNN’s Brian Stelter. Among the challenges the media faces today, combatting fake news should rank as a relatively straightforward one compared with thornier issues such as bias, sensationalism, and the problem of objectivity. But lumping these together under the banner of fake news makes them all harder to solve. The way to combat actual fakery in journalism is to keep the definition narrow enough that reasonable people across the political spectrum can agree on what does and does not meet the criteria.
It helps to remember that the term fake news gained currency in recent months due to a specific and readily identifiable phenomenon. During the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, online entrepreneurs and pranksters found that they could reach huge audiences via social media by fabricating sensational stories that played to readers’ partisan biases. These stories imitated the style and appearance of real news articles, and they were published on sites designed to look like established newspaper websites or political blogs. (Some pulled this off better than others.) The key facts were made up by the authors, but the successful ones sounded just plausible enough to pass the smell test of a significant subset of readers who were already primed to believe outlandish things about a given candidate.
The most popular of these fake stories and sites have by now become well-known. There was the one about the pope endorsing Donald Trump; the one about Hillary Clinton selling weapons to ISIS; the one about an FBI agent found dead after being suspected of leaking Clinton’s emails.
Again, these stories were not simple acts of bad journalism. They were either largely or wholly fictitious, and intentionally so. And for the most part, they were published on obscure, anonymously owned sites that appear to have been created relatively recently for the purpose of publishing fake news, plagiarized or hastily aggregated news, conspiracy theories, propaganda, or a mix of all four. Recent reporting by BuzzFeed, the Washington Post, NPR, and others has exposed the creators of several of the more prominent fake news sites, who have readily admitted that their work was made-up. A surprising number of them originated in Macedonia, where churning out deceptive news stories to a largely pro-Trump audience via Facebook has reportedly become a lucrative cottage industry.
Fake news is the proper term for this sort of content. The word fake means not genuine—a forgery or a counterfeit. It implies an intent to deceive. This phenomenon deserves attention, because the top fake news stories are often shared even more widely than the actual news.
Already, Facebook, Google, and third parties across the web are building tools to combat fake news. Some draw on manually compiled lists of disreputable sites. Others rely on user feedback to flag false or misleading stories. The best will probably combine both approaches, along with more subtle signals, like the patterns by which these stories disseminate.
But these efforts are already running into controversy at the most fundamental level: disputes over what counts as fake news. That’s partly because, as the term has entered the national discourse, it has turned out to be a handy cudgel for people who want to criticize the media for a wide range of failings.
First, some in the liberal and mainstream media began to carelessly blur the lines between fabricated news, conspiracy theories, and right-wing opinion by lumping them all under the fake news banner. When Trump tweeted that he had prevented a Ford plant from moving to Mexico, critics were quick to label it “fake news.” As it turned out, the tweet was misleading, but it was based in reality. Even if it were fabricated, a false claim by a politician isn’t “fake news.” It’s just a false claim—or a lie, if the falsehood was intentional. A subsequent tweet by Trump, based on an unsubstantiated report from the conspiracy site Infowars, prompted Quartz to call him “editor-in-chief of the fake news movement.” Fact-check: He isn’t.
Meanwhile, an academic’s list of “false, misleading, clickbait-y, and/or satirical ‘news’ sources” went viral, and many in the media framed it as an authoritative list of “fake news sites.” The list, compiled by Merrimack College communication professor Melissa Zimdars, presented actual fake news sites such as Abc.com.co alongside openly satirical sites such as the Onion and, most damagingly, conservative blogs such as Breitbart and even Red State, an influential source of political commentary. Zimdars herself readily acknowledged that the list was not limited to fake news. Still, conservatives were understandably inflamed by some mainstream outlets’ embrace of the list, which seemed to raise the specter of crucial distribution platforms like Facebook and Google suppressing conservative opinion as part of their crackdown on fake news.
To be clear, there is no evidence that Facebook and Google used Zimdars’ list in any way, and both appear to be taking care not to flag legitimate sites as fake just because they’re controversial. But New York magazine used the list as the basis for a “handy browser extension” designed to “flag fake news sites” with an automatic pop-up warning. New York added a note clarifying that not all of the sites on the list were fake, and it said its tool had been edited to remove sites that had been unfairly flagged, but that nuance went overlooked amid the outrage. Zimdars has since taken the list down in response to a backlash that included not just legitimate criticism but nasty threats and abuse.
Spying an opportunity, right-wingers stopped ignoring the fake news discussion and began to co-opt the phrase as a synonym for liberal bias. A Twitter search for the term “fake news” on Tuesday suggested that it has by now crossed over from a liberal rallying cry to a conservative one. Here are three of the most popular tweets that included the phrase:
To state what should be obvious, these are not stories fabricated by hoaxsters or Macedonian teenagers looking to make a buck. They are opinions and analyses with which the tweeters happen to strongly disagree. But throwing the term fake news back at the mainstream media allows the right-wing fringe not only to insult their specific targets, such as CNN, but to devalue the term itself and along with it the idea that there is any clear distinction between truth and fiction. It’s no surprise that those on the right who have embraced the meme most enthusiastically include conspiracy-mongers such as Infowars, which built its reputation by suggesting that the U.S. government helped orchestrate the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11 attacks. We’re now faced with a grim irony in which mainstream news outlets reporting on “Pizzagate” as a fake news story are themselves being labeled fake news outlets by the conspiracy theorists that propagated it.
This is not to say that the truth is always simple or that mainstream news outlets are infallible. Lazy journalism is an epidemic in the social media age, and to some degree or another, it probably always has been. Even the most respected outlets, like the New York Times, get things wrong. And there is a wide spectrum of scrupulousness among online media outlets, which helps to muddy the boundaries between mainstream and fringe outlets, news and opinion, speculation and conspiracy theory. There are plenty of sites that till the borderlands between propaganda and outright falsehood, complicating the task of differentiating fake news from real. It does not help that we have elected a president who not only lies—that’s hardly novel for a politician—but feels comfortable doing so even when the lie is so readily refuted that anyone with a computer can debunk it in moments.
In such an environment, fake news in the strictly defined sense is a relatively minor problem compared with the broader crisis of media credibility. Still, it’s a real one, and one that ought to be relatively easy to combat. Instead, even the question of what constitutes fake news has begun to devolve into a matter of partisan opinion.
At this point, no one can stop right-wing nuts from attaching fake news as an epithet to every CNN report that bothers them. But there may still be time for the reality-based community to find enough common ground to tackle the original problem. If we can’t collectively find a way to counter misinformation so egregious that even its authors admit it’s a hoax, the outlook for the media—and the truth—in the Trump era is bleak indeed.