Fake News, Donald Trump’s Relationship With It and Its Chilling Effects Explained

Donald Trump’s first press conference after a mixed midterms was unsurprisingly barbed and irritable, featuring a sharp exchange with CNN’s White House Correspondent Jim Acosta. It was, by this description, incredibly similar to his first as President-elect back in January 2017.

On both occasions the President was often hostile to the press audience, while accusing CNN of being ‘fake news’ and making derogatory remarks about both Acosta and his employer. Only on the second time, Trump set a new precedent – he called Jim Acosta an ‘enemy of the people’ and had his White House press access revoked.

These two press conferences are important markers in the Trump Presidency. In the first, Trump essentially opened his attack on the established media by accusing them of ‘fake news’. The second illustrates the White House’s propensity to act on it, after nearly two years of ingraining it into the media lexicon. It has chilling effects for press freedom, and not just in the US.

A very Trump-ian trend

Donald Trump has a paradoxical yet fascinating relationship with the term ‘fake news’, beyond the barrage of accusatory tweets have almost become normalised. The recent trend history of the term illustrates its remarkable rise into common usage, which is seldom explained in any detail. But that rise is almost completely wedded to Donald Trump.

The graph above shows global Google searches for ‘fake news’. These clearly rose after Trump’s election victory, and have remained at a higher average level, including several peaks, since.

It is almost as if one could not exist without the other. If Donald Trump was not in office, then the phrase would not have become so commonly used; he regularly tweets about it to tens of millions of people. Meanwhile, it is often argued that Trump would not have won the 2016 presidential election without it. But how has this phrase evolved in recent years?

Fake news and the 2016 Presidential election

The background to the growth lie in the growth of a ‘fake news environment’ before the 2016 Presidential election. The detailed causes of this, and the motivations of actors within it, could easily fill a book. But for brevity, there were two main actors:

Rogue entrepreneurs – these worked out how to profit from viral traffic. They had a free publishing system in WordPress, a low cost distribution point with Facebook and poorly regulated access to display advertising (largely via Google) so they could profit.

State sponsored actors – it is proven that the Russian ‘Internet Research Agency’ did act favourably towards the Trump campaign (given he was far more sympathetic to Russia than Clinton) through misinformation and Facebook advertising. Some 126 million Americans may have been exposed to it.

Both types of actor capitalised on the extreme polarisation of the campaign; the candidates were almost Ying and Yang opposites, while Trump played a populist card and was a master of gaining attention. He was also prepared to side with conspiracy theories.

The Trump Clinton Presidential race was the most polarised in recent history. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

A formula for the fake news environment before 2016 might be:

Increasingly polarized politics + untruthful candidate + low public trust x low cost website + low cost distribution + inability to regulate = advertising revenue and/or political gain.

There was fake news being spread which favoured both Republican and Democrat sides, but its overall tone, volume and how much it was seen overwhelmingly favoured Trump. These headlines illustrate the point:

But while fake news was seen as a menace, the media weren’t yet taking it very seriously. BuzzFeed was alone in the lengths it went to report its pervasive spread.

On 3 November 2016, it published an investigation exposing a network of over 100 pro-Trump news sites in the small Macedonian town of Veles, run mostly by teenagers who were making large sums of money through Google Adsense

In the week’s before the election, and having been repulsed by Trump’s campaign, the American media came out in such force for Hillary Clinton that Trump was the least endorsed candidate in campaign history. Clinton gained 242 endorsements, and Trump just 20. But these seemed to count for little as he swept to the American Presidency by 304 electoral college votes to 227.

The media reaction

Trump’s shock victory left editors scratching their heads. Realising their endorsements had counted for so little, they began to point the finger squarely at Facebook and the fake news on the newsfeeds within.

Max Read flatly declared in New York Magazine: ‘Donald Trump won because of Facebook.’

In the week after Trump’s 2016 victory, Google searches for the term ‘fake news’ shot up five times compared to the last week of October, and more than three times above the week of the election. It was driven by a sudden press interest in the role of fake news being a factor in Trump’s victory.

Dan Snow meets Calder Walton for a martini and an overview of Russia's history of interference in foreign elections.Listen Now

Donald Trump’s inversion

Trump showed little public interest in the immediate trend after the election, and he only tweeted about ‘fake news’ once in 2016. However, his first press conference as President elect on 11 January 2017 was a watershed.

In the days before that press conference, CNN reported that ‘Intel chiefs presented Trump with claims of Russian efforts to compromise him,’ but they stopped short of publishing the 35 page compilation of the memos.

BuzzFeed then decided to publish the entire dossier, “so that Americans can make up their own minds about allegations about the president-elect that have circulated at the highest levels of the US government.” This action, which was heavily criticised by the other news outlets, sent Twitter into the howls of a comedy meltdown, but it had an adverse effect.

It allowed the Trump administration to invert the term ‘fake news’ away from genuinely fake stories that seemed to support him, and back towards the established media. In the ensuing press conference, Donald Trump refused to take a question from CNN’s Jim Acosta, growling, “Your organisation is terrible… you are fake news.”

Donald Trump’s first press conference as President-elect covered in a report by ABC News. His attack on Jim Acosta is at 3 minutes 33 seconds.

Towards peak ‘fake news’

Searches for ‘fake news’ in the week 8 – 14 January 2017 reached double the previous monthly average. From then on, Trump essentially used the term to call out news organisations that were criticising his policies or attempting to investigate some of the more unsavoury elements in his ascent to the Presidency.

In July 2017, several CNN journalists resigned over a story into Russian collusion that was published, but didn’t meet editorial guidelines. Trump was quick to react on Twitter, calling out CNN and retweeting a CNN logo that replaced the C with an F, thus becoming Fake News Network:

The original thread is on Twitter.

Clearly, this was another opportunity for Trump to go on the offensive, and the attention around the resignations was so great, that the number of Google searches for ‘fake news’ notably jumped.

He tweeted about the American media being ‘fake news’ a hundred times in 2017, and he claimed he ‘came up’ with the term in October. It was used so regularly that the Collins Dictionary named it their ‘Word of the Year‘, stating its usage had risen 365% since 2016.

Key points in the search trend for ‘fake news’. There was clearly little interest until Trump was elected President.

In January 2018, Trump even announced “The Fake News Awards, those going to the most corrupt & biased of the Mainstream Media”. After the ‘awards’ were published on the Republican website blog (which actually went offline on that evening), searches for ‘fake news’ reached their peak.

All the while, more evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was coming to light, alongside data mishandling and misinformation scandals that led to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg having to appear before US Congress. The real fake news was being deflected.

The trouble with fake news and its effects

The recent history (etymology) of the phrase ‘fake news’ is really one of inversion and deflection, through which its meaning has become warped.

It was used as a moniker to group misinformation that apparently caused Trump’s 2016 election victory. Then, because some outlets went too far in their attempts to undermine the new President, the term was inverted by him to attack them.

His Presidency has seen major news outlets denied entry to White House Press briefings, and he has called for network news licenses to be “challenged and, if appropriate, revoked” because they have become “so partisan, distorted and fake.” Jim Acosta’s White House ban is, unfortunately, one of a growing list of press attacks and obstructions.

While this has the effect of further muddying the divides between fact and fiction for the American public, it has further and perhaps more chilling consequences.

In December 2017, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, Record number of journalists behind bars as Turkey, China, Egypt pay scant price for repression, laying some of the blame with President Trump, stating that his:

“insistence on labelling critical media “fake news” serves to reinforce the framework of accusations and legal charges that allow such leaders to preside over the jailing of journalists.”

No matter of people’s opinions of the ‘mainstream media’, the throttling of a free press leads us into a warped version of reality. As the new slogan of The Washington Post says, ‘Democracy dies in darkness.’

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was also the longest serving Labour Prime Minister, spoke to Dan about the nature of political power.Watch Now

The mess of information

The term ‘fake news’ is really a name for the giant mess of information in the age of social media.

Everywhere, there is a waning of trust in authority and what people hold to be true. The press blames social networks and fake news websites for duping the public, the public may share the content of fake news websites, but also blame the media for breaking their trust, while the man in the most world’s highest office uses social media to berate the established media for being fake.

Donald Trump might well have existed without fake news, but its current imprint on the public’s consciousness couldn’t have happened without him.