Why Fake News is Fake

Donald Trump was quick to deploy a familiar Fake News soundbite on his trip to the UK this week. When questioned in a press conference about the crowds in London who were protesting against his visit, his response was that he hadn’t seen the protests, and “a lot of it is fake news”.

It is increasingly obvious what Donald Trump means by the term Fake News – it means news that he disagrees with. There are countless examples of there being a documented fact on the one side and a condemnation of said fact as Fake News on the other, but there was something about the brazen dismissal of the protests, while the sound of them was audible during the press conference, which put the issue into technicolour. Dismissing something as false where there is immediate evidence that is is happening at the same time provokes the wider question of what the term actually means.

So Donald Trump says Fake News when what he means is news that opposes his world view, provided by the ‘Corrupt Media’, which is another one of his favourite Twitter go-to phrases. But it’s clever because for much of his base, I suspect this nuance is lost. When he says something is Fake, they take that on face value, and his world view is reinforced. It explains why he has a particular zeal when condemning something which is genuinely incorrect, as this can reinforce his wider usage. That probably explains this week’s overdone attack on Bette Midler as a “Washed up psycho” after she admitted tweeting out a Trump quote which wasn’t true. Seizing on instances of genuine Fake News allows the myth to be perpetuated that the instances of fakery are as widespread as the President would have us believe, and will add further belief to those who are prepared to take all of his utterances at face value.

And whatever daftness the President may spew out on Twitter, he will be well aware of how weaponising the term Fake News has allowed him to dismiss any or all attacks on him. He showed this week that he understands the value of words all too well. Speaking to Piers Morgan about climate change, he said: “I believe there’s a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don’t forget, it used to be called global warming, that wasn’t working, then it was called climate change. Now it’s actually called extreme weather, because with extreme weather you can’t miss.” What he is doing here is attacking the notion of climate change by suggesting that people keep on changing how they refer to it so that they can get the message across, therefore suggesting that it isn’t actually real because scientists keep having to sell it with a different word. He dismisses the science of climate change by focusing the conversation on the presentation of it, rather than the facts behind it. It is a very clever demonstration of how to use language to make your point, and affirms to me that he knows exactly what he is doing with the term Fake News.

Away from Mr Trump, it is also interesting that this week has seen two independent stories about dictionaries being asked to change definitions because of racial sensitivities, further demonstrating the impact that single words can have on the political and social spectrum. It is to dictionary-makers’ credit that changes are being made.

Dictionary.com is going to change the way it defines the word Black in response to the My Black is Beautiful campaign and the #redefineblack hashtag. The campaign has pointed out how some of the negative definitions of the word black can seem to co-exist with definitions of skin colour, leading to pejorative associations. Dictionary.com has now responded by saying it will swap the order of its definitions around, so that the definition which refers to people will now be above and not below the definition which reads “soiled or stained with dirt.” It said “While there are no semantic links between these two senses, their proximity on the page can be harmful. It can lead to unconscious associations between this word of identity and a negative term.” It’s a subtle change, but a subtle change which can make a more than subtle difference.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Macquarie Dictionary has changed the meaning of the word Monolid, previously defined as ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, perceived by some in Asia to give an appearance of lethargy or laziness’. Following a complaint from a woman in Melbourne, Macquarie has updated the definition to ‘an upper eyelid without a fold, a characteristic of the eyes of many people of East Asian ethnicity’.

What does all this tell us? That the minutiae of word meanings matter, and that people are sensitive to them. And therefore, the games which people in power play with language have the power to cause genuine harm.

Advertisements