Nine months after the U.S. presidential election brought the term “fake news” into wide use, Facebook is still in the early stages of finding ways to curb its spread. You’ll hear the company talk often these days about its efforts to combat misinformation on its platform, including a new feature that displays related articles from other publishers alongside controversial stories in your feed.
One thing you won’t hear from Facebook these days, however, is the term “fake news.” That phrase figured prominently in the company’s press releases when it first set out to tackle the problem late last year. Quietly, however, Facebook stopped using it months ago. In most instances, including its blog post announcing the latest update, it has replaced the term with “false news.”
Why the change?
If you ask Facebook, the company will tell you vaguely that it finds the phrase “false news” to be more precise. A spokesperson sent me the following statement via email:
The term ‘fake news’ has taken on a life of its own. False news communicates more clearly what we’re describing: information that is designed to be confused with legitimate news, and is intentionally false.
This comes across as a careful way of pointing out the obvious, which is that the term “fake news” is politically loaded. It appears to have entered the popular lexicon in the 1990s as a synonym for news satire, its first rise tracking that of the the Onion. Last year, however, it took on fresh meaning as scammers and pranksters began to find that they could make money by fooling Facebook users with viral fictional articles related to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
When a BuzzFeed News analysis found that the majority of fake news stories appeared to be pitched to a pro-Trump audience, the term’s days as a nonpartisan descriptor were numbered. First it became a popular liberal excuse for Trump’s win. Then Trump supporters, and eventually Trump himself, coopted it as a derogatory epithet for mainstream news sites whose political coverage they found to be flawed or biased. Calls to narrow the definition went unheeded. Ask someone what “fake news” means today, and depending on their political orientation, they may be more likely to mention CNN or the New York Times than the sort of hoax sites to which the term was previously applied.
All of which is to say that it makes sense for Facebook—and others—to cede the term to the right-wing trolls who have claimed it as their own.
As a replacement, however, “false news” leaves much to be desired. Facebook is using “false” as a synonym for “fake,” but their meanings aren’t identical. “Fake” implies an intent to deceive—to pass something off as other than it is. That’s why it seemed to make sense as a descriptor for fictional stories designed to deceive people by adopting the jargon and trappings of the professional news media.
“False” can sometimes carry that connotation, but its primary meaning is simply “untrue.” Thus, whereas “fake news” must be concocted, “false news” could describe any news that turns out to be inaccurate, intentionally or not. That renders the concept even less useful, because it could apply just as easily to factually mistaken “real news” stories as those fabricated by teens in Macedonia. If everyone were to adopt Facebook’s phrase, then, the confusion and controversy over what constitutes false news would only grow worse.
It may be that there is no perfect substitute for “fake news,” but rather a handful of already well-established terms that could be used to refer more precisely to various subgenres of the category. Fictional stories passed off as news articles can fairly be called “hoaxes,” a term that is widely understood and has a long and colorful history. Stories that have their basis in speculation rather than evidence can be called “conspiracy theories.” Blatantly partisan content can be called “propaganda,” especially when it carries a pro-government theme. Articles that contain truth yet mislead can be called just that: “misleading.” Individual falsehoods that advance a political agenda can be called “misinformation.” And so on.
It’s prudent of Facebook to ditch “fake news.” Better yet will be when it recognizes that news comes in more varieties than simply “true” and “false.”
Previously in Slate: