During a recent press conference in the UK, Donald Trump shut down a reporter from the news network he loves to hate. “CNN is fake news – I don’t take questions from CNN,” he said, moving swiftly on to a reporter from Fox News.
It’s easy to think that everyone knows what “fake news” means – it was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017, after all. But to think it stops there is mistaken – and politically dangerous. Not only do different people have opposing views about the meaning of “fake news”, in practice the term undermines the intellectual values of democracy – and there is a real possibility that it means nothing. We would be better off if we stopped using it.
We can start to see the problems with “fake news” by seeing how much people disagree about its meaning. Some use it as a catch-all term for problematic or doubtful information, an important example being the untrue story that surfaced on social media during the 2016 US election campaign that Hillary Clinton was involved with a child sex ring run out of a Washington pizza house.
Some people use “fake news” exclusively to talk about false stories. For example, Facebook seems to think that “fake news” just means news that is false, which is why they prefer to talk about “false news”. But many journalists use “fake news” to mean something close to “lie”, meaning it involves an intention to deceive.
Buzzfeed editor, Craig Silverman – who is credited with helping to popularise the phrase – has investigated Macedonian clickbait farms, which make up stories to attract profitable clicks. On his definition, as well as intending to deceive people, there is a profit motive involved. This definition fits well with clickbait farms but less well with politically motivated speech.
But “fake news” doesn’t only refer to false stories or lies. American philosopher Michael Lynch has identified what he calls the “internet shell game” – the deliberate spreading of a mixture of true and false stories to confuse the public. In this way, some true information is discredited with the false stories they sit alongside. We might think in this kind of case the whole mass of stories — both true and false — counts as “fake news”. This brings the idea of “fake news” closer to Princeton professor Harry Frankfurt’s notion of bullshit than lying. A liar says what he or she believes to be false, whereas the bullshitter says whatever is in their interest, irrespective of its truth.