Donald Trump has a tendency to label everything he does not like as “fake news”. This allows him to avoid responding to the actual issues and demonize mainstream media.
In a recent tweet where he hints that he wants to remove press credentials from journalists and networks that criticize him, Trump admits that when he uses the term “fake news” about the media, he really means negative press coverage.
What is fake news?
Fake news is a broad category. It consists of news that are made up entirely, real news that are substantially skewed or misrepresented or imposter content where the author pretends that the article was written by someone else.
Many factors have come together to produce the current misinformation wars: the background level of pseudoscience and quackery in the media, the click economy of social media, the asymmetry of bullshit, the decline in revenue of traditional media, polarizing elections, filter bubbles, the production of fake material as a job to name a few.
How and why Trump abuses “fake news” label
Throughout the years since the escalation of the misinformation wars, Trump has used the term “fake news” repeatedly for media coverage and information that portray him, his campaign or administration in a negative light. This is a smart trick for several reason.
First, he parasitizes on the fight against misinformation by using a term that should be applied to content that is misleading or false, but instead attaches it to inconvenient press coverage.
Second, he contributes to the demonization of mainstream media and polarizes the conflicts between it and different kinds of “alternative” media content providers that his voter base frequently reads. The unstated conclusion is that these “alternative” news sources must be valid since mainstream media is supposedly “fake news” and somehow systematically unreliable.
Third, “fake news” is a convenient accusation against mainstream media because he does not need to actually engage with the breaking news and media investigations. He can ignore the specific point at issue entirely and attack the source of the news. This is known as the genetic fallacy. The fallacy occurs when something is dismissed merely because of the source of the statements instead of the structure or content of the argument itself.
Trump admits “fake news” means negative press coverage
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?
12:38 PM – 9 May 2018
In other words, Trump probably saw something on Fox News about how most press coverage of him is negative. This led him to tweet that the media is corrupt and treating him unfairly. He also floats the idea press credentials should be revoked. This sends the signal that Trump may consider restricting the freedom of the press unless they report on him favorably. This is a threat to Constitutional freedoms and a threat to democracy as a whole.
Yet there was something else in the tweet in question that was eye-opening. After making the claim that 91% of Network News about Trump is negative, he adds “Fake” as a clarifying term.
Wait a minute! Did Trump just admit that, when he uses the term “fake”, he really means negative press coverage?
This is fascinating. Trump must think that only positive press coverage is real, whereas negative press coverage is fake. This highlights the fact that Trump has a very narcissistic view of himself. But does negative press coverage really mean that it is fake? Is all negative press coverage of Trump “fake”? Is all positive media coverage of Trump accurate?
If we are to believe Trump himself, negative press coverage cannot be true. In reality, both negative and positive press coverage can be true. It really depends on the specific facts of the matter, not whether the press coverage paints someone in a positive or negative light.
This is also a pedagogic example of confirmation bias. Press coverage that confirms beliefs held by Trump about his own person, performance or the world are emphasized, whereas press coverage that contradict those same beliefs are downplayed or ignored. Or, in this case, maliciously labelled as “fake news”.
It is good that Trump has exposed himself. For many people, the fact that Trump uses “fake news” as a misleading label for negative press coverage is painfully obvious. For others, this may not be the case. Those people are stuck in filter bubbles that cater to Trump supporters. The fact that Trump himself has directly admitted this will make it easier for Trump supporters to accept this reality.
Perhaps there will still be some who will attempt to creatively reinterpret it and insist that Trump really meant something else entirely. Those kinds of true believers need not be the focus when it comes to persuading people that Trump abuses the fake news label. Instead, the focus could be put on those who are on the fence or those Trump supporters who are more moderate.