Collins Dictionary named “fake news” its 2017 word of the year, an easy choice given the word’s “unprecedented usage increase” of 365 percent over the previous year. Collins defines fake news as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news.” But this dictionary definition belies the shifting usage of the word in actual contexts of situation since the 2016 election.
A recent poll by Monmouth University found that most Americans consider fake news to encompass not just “stories where the facts are wrong,” but they also apply the word “to how news outlets make editorial decisions about what they choose to report.” In other words, the “fake” part of fake news no longer simply refers to the truth or falsity of stories. The concern with objective verifiability of facts has faded away. Now, news stories are verified in terms of how well they ideologically conform to the Trumpian worldview.
This should come as no surprise given the way the word has circulated through American political discourse since Trump took office—namely, through the tweets of a president who reappropriated the term to bludgeon the free press. According to the Trump Twitter Archive, the term fake news has been tweeted 203 times from the @realdonaldtrump Twitter account between December 10, 2016 and the time of my writing. These tweets—most occurring after Trump moved into the White House—play an important role in shaping the word’s meaning in US public discourse.
Collins Dictionary’s definition of fake news has more to do with the meaning ascribed to the term during and immediately after the 2016 presidential election when concern about demonstrably false stories rose to the surface. This “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news” put Google and Facebook in the hotseat for the way their business models helped clickbait scammers and Russian trolls spread false stories, whether for profit or propaganda. Fake in these usage contexts clearly derives from a correspondence theory of truth framework where stories that do not align with objective facts can be ferreted out and labeled fake news.
Well before 2016, fake news was better known as the moniker for the genre of satirical news shows. During George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show came to be known as “the most trusted name in fake news.” Stephen Colbert’s spin-off show, The Colbert Report, took the meaning of fake news to a new level through his satirical caricature of a conservative talk show host/pundit. Both of these shows drew upon the comical precedent set by shows like Saturday Night Live with its Weekend Update, a parodic spoof on real news broadcasts. In these usage contexts, fake refers to news-like shows that are obviously and transparently fake, intended for comedic entertainment and political satire.
The term fake news has evolved into an ideological term of art used to discredit any perceived criticism of Trumpian demagoguery. When the term referred to propagandistic messages that favored Trump during the 2016 election, Trump took offense to the implication that he didn’t win the election on his own merits. So, from the first usage of fake news in his tweets, Trump effectively reappropriated the term and twisted its meaning to protect his egocentric coherence. Throughout his body of tweets, Trump has consistently applied the term in the ideological sense of characterizing any news coverage at odds with his agenda. Truth be damned.
In his tweets, fake news applies to both news coverage and media outlets. For example, on January 11, 2017, Trump tweeted in reference to reports about Russian interference in the election: “Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?” The news coverage he references also includes unfavorable polls: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.”
But most importantly, in Trumpian discourse, fake news has become a synonym for the mainstream media: “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Within the Trumpian worldview, the mainstream media consist of newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post—“The Fake News Washington Post”—television networks like ABC, CBS, and NBC, and cable news channels like CNN and MSNBC: “The ‘Fakers’ at CNN, NBC, ABC & CBS have done so much dishonest reporting that they should only be allowed to get awards for fiction!”
Notably absent, of course, is Fox News, Trump’s go-to source for his daily intelligence briefings—especially the morning Fox and Friends show with which Trump has a symbiotic relationship. They puff him up and he promotes them in return: “Was @foxandfriends just named the most influential show in news? You deserve it— three great people! The many Fake News Hate Shows should study your formula for success!”
Over the past year, fake news has entered into the intertextual web of US public discourse where its repeated usage in contexts where real news and respected media outlets are discredited—including Trump’s “Fake News Awards”—has imbued the term with new indexical associations. But at the same time, fake news continues to be used in contexts where it refers to objectively false news. So, on the one hand, fake news means what Collins Dictionary says it means: “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news.” On the other hand, fake news also means something like this: any news that contradicts Trumpian policies or affronts Trump’s ego.
These different meanings operate on completely different planes of existence. One uses empirical verifiability to measure the legitimacy of news, upholding the value of a free press in a democratic society. The other uses ideological adherence to a worldview to measure the legitimacy of news, eroding trust in a free press dedicated to holding those in power accountable. These radically different usages of fake news render the phrase utterly meaningless in today’s political debates and feed the cynicism of the Trumpian age.
Adam Hodges is a linguistic anthropologist with interests in political discourse. His books include The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality, and his articles have appeared in Discourse & Society, Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, Language & Communication, and Language in Society.
Cite as: Hodges, Adam. 2018. “How ‘Fake News’ Lost Its Meaning.” Anthropology News website, June 6, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.880