Today, the term “fake news” is firmly entrenched in our lexicon. It seems everyone from Trumpite retirees to neo-political millennials freely toss around the phrase. The term was even recognized as “The Word of the Year” by U.K.-based Collins Dictionary.
Candidate Donald Trump didn’t actually invent the term. He copied it from political satirists who were using the term a decade prior to his run for the White House.
“The Most Trusted Name in Fake News” was a sort of on-air tagline used by “The Daily Show.” Jon Stewart and company would mock some of the unbelievable news stories of the day with their comical brand of “fake news.”
And this kind of political satire isn’t limited to just Comedy Central. It has even crept into the fringes of network news with the likes of Dennis Miller appearing on Fox News and Mo Rocca on CBS and MSNBC. It was all intended as a joke — a means to elicit a laugh via a political prism.
But the many Trump mentions of the phrase employ an entirely different tactic. Any article or report that casts him in an unfavorable light he slams as fake news. The motive here is, with a simple dismissive utterance, to cast doubt onto the facts behind a story and quickly move the focus elsewhere.
But, there’s more to it. There is a deeper, more malicious intent at work here, where the hope is to discredit the reporter, the organization he or she works for and even the entire news industry.
During the 2016 campaign, NBC’s Katy Tur was a major recipient of Trump’s fake news vitriol. Because of her unyielding, factually correct reporting, she was called “disgraceful” and “third rate.” He then took aim at her employer, tweeting, “With all of the Fake News coming out of NBC and the Networks, at what point is it appropriate to challenge their License? Bad for country!”
This use of fake news is a far cry from political satire. There is nothing funny about shutting down a long-respected and vital institution like NBC News.
A more accurate description of fake news refers to the ongoing and sinister efforts of foreign governments, namely Russia, that plant completely fictitious stories online in an attempt to generate a viral feeding frenzy of those stories. These are truly artificial news reports devoid of any journalistic research or genuine reporting. They are logarithmically constructed by foreign trolls with the sole intent of creating distraction and disruption within our political election process.
It’s estimated that such posts were viewed by 126 million Americans on Facebook during the 2016 election. It is impossible to determine whether any voters were swayed as a result of these Russian internet trolls. But, it is an absolute certainty, verified by the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that this was the work of outside agents wishing to sabotage democracy by means of very real fake news postings (or opinions viewed as news).
Some in Congress have called it an act of war. And, with the recent Cambridge Analytica discoveries, it is becoming clearer that the very real online fake news is omnipresent and not going away.
It is more than just a mistake to call the accurate reporting of legitimate new outlets fake. There has always been and will always be unfavorable reporting about the president — all presidents. The truth sometimes hurts. The misapplication of the term “fake news” is an egregious error on the part of a temperamental president and his ardent followers because doing so conceals the real danger. Cloaked in fake (internet) news, our Russian enemy is pouring through our porous cybergates. If enemy planes invaded our airspace or submarines patrolled our coasts, there would most certainly be a different bipartisan reaction.
When special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities “accused of violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes,” some chose to look the other way. The alleged main instigator, Yevgeny Prigozhin, denied the charges, saying: “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see.” Of course he did. What else was he going to say? “Yes, I made millions as Putin’s caterer, but my real endeavor was to run the Internet Research Agency, through which I disrupt American democracy by undermining their political process.” That might make Putin upset.
It seems some of us red-blooded Americans sometimes fail to remember that Russia is a failed super power whose system of government collapsed in shambles. Russia is our sworn enemy and will do anything to regain its lost prominence on the world’s stage, especially if it comes at our expense.
And yet, our president refuses to identify Russia as an enemy. He’s called our own news media the enemy of the American people. It is perplexing, even disturbing, that he is so reticent to identify Russia, with all of its very real cyberthreats, as the real enemy of our way of life.
Tim Ortman is the author of “Newsreal: A View Through the Lens When …” and an Emmy award-winning cameraman and producer whose assignments have taken him to five continents, covering everything from war, revolution, terrorist attacks and famine to Cold War summits, the fall of communism, presidential elections and the occasional press conference.
Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Updated submission guidelines can be found here.