Stop saying “fake news”. It’s not helping.

One bit of good news for those thoroughly freaked out by the Trump presidency: there’s anger, passion and drive on the left that’s unprecedented in recent memory. Two weekends ago, my girlfriend, a veteran of Occupy Houston, warned me that it was difficult to mobilize people in that car-centric city and thought we might find a few hundred marchers for the post-inauguration march. The crowd we joined was 22,000 strong, and as we assembled in front of Houston city hall, the chief of police told us that we were the largest protest in the city’s history. And the Houston protest was a small one compared to massive protests in Boston, New York, Seattle, Denver, Chicago, LA and DC.

This weekend featured a wave of demonstrations at airports around the US against the racist and unconstitutional Muslim ban. The ACLU, leaders in fighting the ban, raised more than $24 million over the weekend, demonstrating that activists are willing to put money where their hearts are. And an army of lawyers is occupying airport food courts, offering legal representation to anyone prevented from entering the US. The outpouring of progressive efforts has been so massive that journalists are beginning to refer to it as “the surge”.

Here’s the bad news: thus far, we’re not very good at channeling that energy. There’s so much to react to, from fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the election to concern about concrete steps Trump is taking in office that it’s hard to know what to proactively work on. And there’s a danger in reactive activism: your opponent gets to choose and frame the issues for you. For all its weaknesses, the Trump administration is masterful at framing issues to its advantage, as the left is just now beginning to understand how powerful a tool this can be.

Immediately after the US election, “fake news” emerged as a major story, a partial explanation for Trump’s surprise electoral victory. Within a week, I’d been invited to four different conferences, brainstorms or hackathons to combat fake news, done a dozen media interviews and briefed the heads of two major progressive foundations on the issue. Fake news was a problem for American democracy and progressive leaders were on it!

Unfortunately, so was the Trump administration. On January 11th, Trump offered his first press conference since the election, and refused a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, criticizing the network and declaring “You are fake news.” This week, the President expanded the fake news camp to include the nation’s “paper of record”.

Media Cloud, the tool we developed at the MIT Media Lab and Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center to track the spread of ideas in news media, shows that “fake news” was associated primarily with Facebook in the months of November and December. Coverage of fake news focused on Buzzfeed’s excellent reporting on for-profit news sites in Macedonia that created “news” out of whole cloth in hopes of attracting US right-wing eyeballs and ad dollars by designing news stories likely to be spread on Facebook. In January, the fake news narrative has shifted to CNN as a result of the President’s adoption of the term, wielded against CNN in revenge for their decision to cover (though not reproduce) the Steele dossier.

Mentions of “fake news”, November and December 2016

Mentions of “fake news”, January 2017

The President’s embrace of the term “fake news” should be reason enough for the left to stop organizing conferences and projects on the topic. It’s a vague and ambiguous term that spans everything from false balance (actual news that doesn’t deserve our attention), propaganda (weaponized speech designed to support one party over another) and disinformatzya (information designed to sow doubt and increase mistrust in institutions) – I wrote at length about the complexities of the term for Deutsche Welle last week.

But that’s not the real problem. The problem is that the very concept of fake news helps the Trump administration.

Many pundits complained that Trump campaigned without a platform, just a set of audience-tested applause lines. While that may be true, the campaign was not without a strategy. Trump and his advisors realized that the dominant political mood of the moment is one of mistrust. The primary locus of this mistrust is the government in Washington – in 1964, 77% of Americans trusted the government in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. By 2011, that number was down to 19%. But this collapse in trust affects all large, bureaucratic systems, from universities and hospitals to the military and churches. And people really mistrust media: in 1979, 51% of people trusted newspapers all or most of the time. By 2013, only 24% of people trusted newspapers, and 21% trusted television news.

It’s deeply uncomfortable when the President refers to the media, a constitutionally-protected institution critical to monitoring a representative democracy, as the “opposition party”.

But it shouldn’t be that surprising – in many ways, Trump ran against the media as much as he ran against Hillary Clinton. The chant of “CNN Sucks!” was a common feature of his rallies, one he encouraged by railing against the unfairness of the coverage he was receiving.

Elected as a revolutionary, Trump is governing as an insurrectionist, moving to sideline or disable much of the federal government. For those of us uncertain as to whether Trump was a conventional Republican with inflammatory rhetoric or a genuine rebel, his cabinet choices made things very clear. The nominees he has proposed are a wrecking crew, in many cases explicitly dedicated to the destruction of the agencies they oversee. This is strategy, specifically Steve Bannon’s strategy. As Ronald Radosh reported last summer, Bannon identifies as a Leninist, dedicated to the destruction of establishment institutions through Tea Party populism.

Some of the mainstream Republicans who supported Trump because it was a way to defeat Clinton are feeling very uncomfortable about how the President is governing. But many in Trump’s base are pleased to see that he genuinely wants to overturn and abolish institutions they feel have not served them well. (Uncomfortably, they have a point. Rising inequality means that the economic recovery under Obama hasn’t reached many households. Not that voting in a plutocracy is an especially good way to combat this.)

The best way to defeat insurrectionism is with strong institutions. We’ve got to celebrate the ones that are working well and reform the ones that are broken. We may even need to tear some down and replace them with something better. And we have to humanize all of them, identifying and celebrating the people who are working hard to make these institutions function, and to fix them when they decay. It’s easy to hate an institution – it’s harder to hate the people within it. That’s the power of Twitter accounts like @RogueNASA and @AltUSNatParkService. They remind us that real people work within government institutions, that they’re proud of what they do, and that we need to get beyond our understandable mistrust of agencies, bureaucracies and hierarchies, and celebrate the things they do well.

That’s the problem with a focus on fake news. By adopting the frame, we remind people of the difficulty of reporting in a digital age, the real problems of verifying information and the times our journalistic institutions have failed. We should fix our failures, we should get better at stopping misinformation before it starts to spread, but we can’t do this in a way that supports a Trump attack on the very notion of independent media institutions.

There’s another thing, too. Fake news is not the problem. My colleagues at Harvard are releasing a study of news during the 2016 election next month. They looked at how influential thousands of different news outlets had been during the cycle. They found dozens of news outlets that have been flagged by academics as purveyors of fake news, publishers that create stories from whole cloth for profit. While those sites exist, they were not very influential in the 2016 election – the most influential don’t even rank in the top 100 sites in the analysis. Far more people have been influenced by talk about fake news than by fake news itself.

Why? Because progressives love the idea of fake news. Most progressives – myself included – find it hard to understand how fellow Americans can view the world so differently. By blaming the results of the election on fake news, we have an easy explanation for an incomprehensible situation. If we could just eliminate misinformation, everyone would agree with us!

As Michael Schudson points out in his brilliant The Good Citizen, central to the progressive movement was the idea of the informed citizen. Crusading newspapers reported on malfeasance, and citizens were expected to spend hours informing themselves on candidates and propositions. The net result? The voting rate dropped by 50%. Unfortunately, political decisions are seldom rational, fact-based ones as much as we’d like them to be.

The uncomfortable truth is that support for Trump’s insurrectionist agenda is real, and that there’s a ferocious appetite for news that confirms our existing biases – on both sides of the aisle. Yes, we should find a way to battle deceptive misinformation. But we need to work harder on building media that pushes us to see different perspectives and helps us understand the complex political reality we live in. The answer is not to fight fake news – it’s to build wide news, media that helps us understand people we disagree with and people we seldom hear from.


Also published on Medium.

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7 Responses to Stop saying “fake news”. It’s not helping.

  1. Thank you for this post. I agree 100 percent. I’m a scholar of journalism and mass communication myself (research interests: science communication, social studies of science), and I identify as a left-leaning progressive (I would be a registered democratic socialist if we had a viable party…). Two of my top three favorite organizations (that is, ones I give money to) are Free Press and Mother Jones. Thank goodness somebody’s still doing investigative journalism. Please keep doing what you’re doing!

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  7. Actually I was hoping that I could see other people’s comments… Oh wait, you wrote about the trolls in “Rewire” and why the public comments are so unlikely to be helpful. My underlying interest was that I wanted to offer a few suggestions about improving public discourse in response to that book, but so far the main thing I’ve discovered is this not-very-active blog with this old-but-related piece on fake news.

    If I do figure out a way to contact you, then my primary topics are aggregation and display of earned public reputation (where one application is to help render trolls less visible), charity share brokerages (to fund solution projects, software development, and journalism), celebrity email (so people like you can address the imbalance of time), and ekronomics itself (a time-centric perspective of economics). Mostly I’m looking for leads to related research and books. Your own book seems most relevant to the first of those topics…

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