Let’s talk about fake news. Are you excited? I am! (Actually I’m not. That claim was fake news.)
Long ago, in days of yore (2016), America came gradually to mainstream awareness that a shadowy sector of hucksters and frauds—possibly, according to some reports, including or in the employ of elements of the Russian government—had built an industry out of creating flamboyant, inflammatory falsehoods packaged to seem like credible news stories and pumping these into Facebook. There they had a troubling tendency to circulate like wildfire among people either A) not up to the task of judging the factual accuracy of what was presented, in its packaging, to look like credible reported news; B) conditioned by the exigencies of media, politics, and public education to find it plausible that an ideologically sympathetic outlet they’d never previously heard of could be reporting incredibly scandalous news—like for example that high-ranking members of a major-party political campaign could be running a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor—that other major outlets of less sympathetic bent and/or nefarious loyalties would entirely ignore; and/or C) ideologically/tribally disposed to believe outrageous claims about opposite-party figures they already despise.
In substance, these aren’t so different from those ludicrous conspiranoia chain emails your survivalist uncle used to forward to everybody in the family. The problem is that, thanks to the traits of Facebook—most particularly, its toxic algorithmic agnosticism about the substance and credibility of the news (or “news”) stories it promotes—they spread a lot more quickly and are granted an extra veneer of believability by their appearing right alongside actual news reporting in people’s news feeds. Thus, they dupe a hell of a lot more people than those old emails did. You can imagine why this is very bad, if you generally agree with the proposition that one of the very basic things a society needs in order to function and/or qualify as a society is a broadly agreed-upon set of facts about what’s going on in the world, even if it may host a wide variety of ideas about what those facts mean or what should be done about them.
So. Let’s get to the next part. The next part concerns the term “fake news.” This is a different issue from the above issue, even though the term “fake news” was invented to describe that above issue. It’s a different issue because, in a nutshell, liberals are stupid.
Here is what I mean. You could call these viral Facebook falsehoods hoaxes, and probably should, because that’s what they are; they share their lineage with the Cardiff giant and the alien autopsy and “Hack Heaven” and the moon landing (just kidding!). Unfortunately, in the rush to create a name for a trend, both the mainstream media and liberals—do your qualming about that use of the word “and” down below in the comments—horrified by the role these monstrosities played in the rise of Donald Trump, lit upon the term “fake news” to describe them. And thereby played themselves.
The problem, here, is that the cynical conservative playbook for the past 35 years or more has been to label the media, broadly, as a biased institution that knowingly prints slanted news for the purpose of advancing a left-wing agenda for the United States. In effect, the right wing has been calling virtually every published news story whose revelations it found inconvenient fake news for whole actual decades. This is no small part of the reason why these viral Facebook hoaxes propagate so smoothly among right-wingers in the first place! For as long as I have been alive, America’s right wing has been telling itself that any news story based on a set of facts they do not like—like, oh just to grab a random example, that they spent the 2016 election season duping each other on Facebook en masse with a set of insane lies ginned up by pimply gamer dipshits in Odessa or wherever—or seeming to support a conclusion they find distasteful is self-evidently false and biased. At this point it is an actual tenet of American conservatism: This news story is not compatible with my beliefs, therefore it is biased, therefore it is not credible.
And so, as soon as the frantic liberal handwringing over the spooky “fake news” scourge—a category label seeming to indicate something new and different from outright hoaxes, and purportedly engineered to land Donald Trump in the White House—began, what entirely predictable and inevitable thing did Trump and his legions of gibbering online masturbators do? They co-opted the term! Of fucking course they did.
Here, here’s Trump himself, in his first press conference as the president-elect, shutting down pushy, adversarial questioning from a CNN reporter by calling his organization “fake news”:
Of fucking course.
Because here is the thing. You can brush off an adversarial reporter in a press conference by calling CNN a “hoax,” if you want, but it doesn’t make any sense, and anyway it has no rhetorical value. CNN may be many things—clumsy, cringing, craven, clueless, willing to issue calls to media solidarity for its own benefit while also throwing less putatively respectable media organizations right the fuck under the bus, frequently embarrassing—but it manifestly is not a “hoax,” and nobody is all that worried about “hoaxes” at the moment. But calling the organization “fake news”—hard on the heels of all this pearl-clutching over this dangerous new “fake news” thing—covers multiple bases at once.
For one thing, less importantly, this panders to Trump’s base, who elected Trump in no small part because he does not even have to hold his nose while saying out loud the very dumb false shit they believe. But much more importantly, it effectively erases all distinctions between a real and dangerous threat to the public—the wild, heretofore unchecked proliferation and credulous adoption on the world’s most powerful social media network of outright bullshit masquerading as reported news—and something quite different—critical and accurate media coverage of the incoming administration—that is of tremendous actual value to the public. CNN’s reporter doing (a maybe somewhat grandstand-y but nonetheless entirely responsible rendition of) his job at a press conference—attempting to ask a question, on camera and live to millions of viewers, which Trump could answer exactly as truthfully as he saw fit—is, in the explicit formulation of the incoming president of the United States, engaged in the same behavior as the guy who wrote “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge Of Allegiance In Schools Nationwide.”
Maybe even more importantly, this use turns the term itself—“fake news”—into a politicized rhetorical tool, a hieroglyph signaling wised-up skepticism about the dang mainstream media, rendering the phrase, if not the entire institution of the press, functionally useless.
Okay. So. Now we’re caught up to, uh, yesterday. Yesterday, the New York Times published a story titled “‘Learning Curve’ As Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood.” The story’s key claim is that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, initially did not know what the Department of Energy is or what its secretary does, believing the job to be, as the Times had it, “a global ambassador for the American oil and gas industry that he had long championed in his home state,” when actually the job’s primary concerns are the development and security of America’s nuclear arsenal.