I wanted to spend a little time talking about the concept of “fake news”. This term, though not new, was made popular by Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign while he positioned himself against the mainstream media. Since then, the term has taken on a life of its own, and like the internet does with all things, it has diluted and meme’d the term out of its original meaning.
This insidious little idiom started with the phrase “alternative facts”, which was the Trump administration’s reaction to the perceived manipulation of news coverage related to the inauguration attendance. An alternative fact is a lie, plain and simple. The phrase “alternative fact” is a turd, which has been polished repeatedly by pedigreed dilettantes so that they don’t have to say “we’re lying”. The administration, and their various mouthpieces – Spicer, Conway, Huckabee-Sanders, strategically presented an alternative reality to the media’s representation to the inauguration, and because his base was already wary of opposing news coverage, they accepted immediately that there could in fact be two different versions of reality: Their own reality (the true one), and the liberal enemies’ reality.
Leading this seminal dispute against Trump’s claims was CNN, who has since become enemy #1 of Trump and his supporters for what they perceive to be an unfair portrayal of his administration. CNN quickly posted two pictures after inauguration day, the left photo a picture of Obama’s inauguration crowd, and the right photo, Trump’s. Trump claimed that his inauguration crowd was a record high for attendance, and most media outlets presented a counterfactual claim – that the crowd size was smaller than Obama’s inauguration – with pictures, videos, and short, simple sentences. Thus, with one petty spat over crowd size, Americans were cleft in two: the fake news camp, and everyone else. This dynamic set the tone for the rest of the Trump administration and its relationship with the media.
I think it’s important at this point, however, to tease apart the difference between alternative facts, fake news prior to Trump, and fake news after Trump. The U.S. has had a long history with combative, dishonest, and outright fictitious journalism. From yellow journalism in the first half of the 20th century, to the outright neglect of U.S. military activity in southeast Asia and South America. Some “news” has historically sought only to entertain, and was never meant to be taken seriously:
Now, clearly Dick Cheney is not a robot, because we all know that he’s actually a lizard person. A couple interesting items of note here: the first is that he goes to the hospital to get his circuits rewired. The last time I checked, a hospital is where humans go to get fixed, and not robots. Why wouldn’t he go to a secret CIA industrial laboratory, or better yet, have a robot repair station in his own home? Secondly, notice that it is the CIA that leaked this info. That’s right, our fearless three-letter agency which owns so much disdain from Trump – it’s easy to see why given this FAKE NEWS!
Prior to the election and “Crowdgate”, a proliferation of equally specious stories started popping up on Facebook, propagated by what we know now was an organized effort by the Russian government. Many other social media platforms were also infiltrated by Russian trolls, including Twitter and Tumblr. These posts played both sides, primarily to sow division between left -leaning and right-leaning voters:
The CIA, FBI, and NSA each independently concluded that Russia sought to influence the 2016 election in favor of Trump by using astroturfing, misleading or false stories, and troll accounts to manipulate voting metrics on sites like Reddit. The strategy that the Trump administration adopted was to conflate actual fake news with mainstream media news. These blatantly untrue stories have been around on social media for years, but it wasn’t until the 2016 election that they really rose to prominence- and this time it was political. CNN and Foxnews are known for their lean-bias, so Trump and his administration sought to use that to their advantage. Everyone became aware that fake news articles were circulating online, and so Trump ‘s followers started to associate mainstream media and their criticism with fake news.
If you’ve read 1984 none of this is new. A common tactic for authoritarian figures is to convince your base that what you’re reading and seeing isn’t true. Any criticism or negative coverage becomes washed away in the sea of fake news. The average voter doesn’t have time to fact check or follow up on the articles they’re seeing, and even if Trump’s supporters turn off Foxnews for an evening, they won’t get very far before confronting information that conflicts with the political ideology they’ve built up over the last two years.
To conclude, I want to share my own deconstruction of news outlets and their relative bias. I like to call this: Maslow’s hierarchy of bullshit. It begins at the peak of the pyramid, with news that simply records events without any narrative. From there down, each segment adds additional narrative and bias to their reporting. The relative sizes of the bases represent the viewership for each group of media. Think about the news that you consume, and how you might construct your own doody pyramid.