Exeter, Devon UK • Jul 18, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home FeaturesColumnists Rhetoric: Fake News

Rhetoric: Fake News

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“The media is really, the word, one of the greatest of all [the] terms I’ve come up with, is ‘fake’ … I guess other people have used it perhaps over the years, but I’ve never noticed it.” This garbled syntax may be familiar to you by now. It belongs to the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. Luckily, this is one of the most intelligible off-prompter phrases he has articulated; only minimal decoding is needed to tell he is claiming to have coined the term “fake news”, the most overused expression of the past couple of years.

As usual, reputable sources contest Trump’s conceited assertions; the Collins dictionary, who awarded “fake news” the title of word of the year, dates the expression all the way back to the 1990’s when it meant “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting”. Although Trump didn’t concoct it, he certainly contributed to its present popularity (as well as loss of meaning) by using it regularly. The term’s use has more than tripled since 2016, inspiring collective sighs and eye-rolls. However, a dismissive attitude may further contribute to its current poisoning of public political and journalistic communication.

the Collins dictionary, who awarded “fake news” the title of word of the year, dates the expression all the way back to the 1990’s

Donald Trump uses “fake news” the way a child in a comic book might try to convince his teacher that his dog did indeed eat his homework. He has refused to answer legitimate questions by telling reporters “you are fake news”. During the administration’s abysmal relief response in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, many either died or were left without necessities such as food, water, and electricity. Donald Trump deflected blame by saying the media simply doesn’t cover his successes. Similarly, throughout the ongoing Muller investigation into Trump’s collusion with Russia, the President has tweeted many times saying that all revelations were fake news. Trump has gone as far as to tell military leaders that ‘terror attacks’ happen so often in Europe that most of them don’t even get reported (presumably being covered up by the press and authorities). Such vague, unsubstantiated claims appeal to people whose prejudices are already ingrained and who filter information based on confirmation biases. This creates further ethnic, cultural, and political tensions that may soon reach breaking point.

This creates further ethnic, cultural, and political tensions that may soon reach breaking point

The habit is especially worrying since it has rubbed off on other politicians and public figures. Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to the President, supported Trump’s Muslim travel ban in 2017 by completely inventing the Bowling Green massacre, supposedly coordinated and carried out by Iraqis; no such incident has occurred. Her disregard for reality was evident when she defended the President’s exaggeration of his inaugural crowd size by saying he had presented people with “alternative facts”. Such an oxymoron is dangerous, especially in an atmosphere where all standards for what is true are being torn down, allowing people to operate under the assumption that anything could be as true as anything else.

From WIkipedia

The trend presents a real threat to an already weakened journalistic community. With the popularity of the Internet and the downsizing of print and investigative journalism teams, standards at all news outlets have been steadily dropping. The current US administration’s assault on ‘mainstream’ news sources like CNN, or the New York Times, is further eroding trust in the press. A free press, with high investigative and reporting standards, is indispensable in creating an informed public expected to vote in democratic elections.

The trend presents a real threat to an already weakened journalistic community

Not surprisingly, Trump isn’t a champion of constitutional amendments establishing freedoms of speech and press, associating himself instead with leaders who have made their regimes especially inhospitable to journalists. Trump tweeted his intention to “fight fake news” with Polish President Andrzej Duda, who values “media order” and has drawn criticism from the EU over his treatment of the press. Likewise, Trump recently laughed during a press conference with Rodrigo Duterte, when the President of the Philippines addressed the press present saying “you are the spies”. Trump’s apparent amusement at the remark takes an especially dark turn when considering that Duterte supported the assassination of two journalists, calling the two deceased individual “son[s] of a bitch” and saying that “freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong”. The US President’s tolerance, and at times glorification, of such violent anti-press rhetoric sets a dangerous precedent.


Not to mention that the news outlets Trump watches religiously and exempts from his category of fake news sources, are some of the worst offenders of false reporting. Let us take Fox News as an example; a network with 78% percent of the statements analysed by Politifact being some degree of lie. They are the source of incorrect allegations such as the existence of “no-go zones” in Europe where non-Muslims are not allowed, the claim that climate scientists fabricated their data on climate change research, or that countries with stricter gun laws have more gun violence. Despite such blatant lies worthy of being discredited in the field of journalism, the network has been consistently favourable, if not fawning, in its coverage of Donald Trump; this is presumably the president’s sole criteria for what constitutes fake vs. non-fake news.

Another factor contributing to fake news is unregulated social media. On social networks, the content of the piece isn’t of as much relevance as the number of ‘engagements’ the post receives, be it likes, shares, etc. The more engagements the more posts spread like wildfire, allowing exaggerated clickbait to thrive. Although Facebook claims it isn’t a media organisation, a Pew Research study shows that 44% of Americans get all their news from Facebook; this is alarming considering the controversies Facebook has undergone regarding what drifts to their suggested news stories list. Also, a Buzzfeed analysis found that 38% of posts on major rightwing political pages, and 19% from major leftwing ones contained false information.

Another factor contributing to fake news is unregulated social media.

If people are not reaching outside of social media for news this risks creating echo chambers of misinformation. It often doesn’t even matter if the false claim has been debunked because in the time between its posting and its debunking it has been viewed by millions who won’t bother to check back in with the story. By this time, the US President will probably have re tweeted the content or brought it up in press conferences; he has done so with the ‘controversy’ around Obama’s heritage, claiming climate change is a Chinese hoax, and recently re tweeting right-wing anti-Muslim propaganda videos.

44% of Americans get all their news from Facebook

The final layer of the “fake news” chaos involves recent Russian meddling in American and European politics. The EU has recently added 1 million euros in funds for its anti-propaganda unit to counter disinformation coming out of Russia. Theresa May has accused Russia of meddling in elections, hacking the Bundestag, using social media to spread fake stories and “sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”. Russian sources have been found spreading anti-Muslim propaganda regarding the Westminster attacks. They are even thought to have influenced the Brexit campaign, playing on existing fears and prejudices. Russian state news coverage is also utilizing the Catalan referendum to undermine the idea of democracy by showing how it is allegedly failing in Europe.

From Wikimedia Commons

It is evident that ‘fake news’ isn’t something to be ignored, but perhaps we should distance ourselves from Trump’s attempts at discrediting any press not made up entirely of yes-men. This would help us focus on serious instances of false reporting or claims that are designed to manipulate public opinion in order to achieve a political or ideological goal. A report published by the Council of Europe suggests switching to more precise language, such as ‘dis-information’. Social media outlets could be held to some reasonable standard of accuracy in their content, These are certainly steps in the right direction, but a more important one is instilling respect for truth through education, as research shows that the more educated an individual is, the less susceptible they are to information warfare.

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