The term “fake news” has been thrown around often within the last several years. While the concept is not new itself, the phrase was popularized by Donald Trump during his 2016 bid for president. Since the election, the term has continued to build traction in the sphere of politics and beyond.
But what exactly is “fake news”? While not yet added to their dictionary, Merriam Webster’s article on the development of fake news refers to it as “a political story which is seen as damaging to an agency, entity, or person.” Though, it is noted by Merriam Webster that fake news does not necessarily have to refer to politics.
While looking at examples of its uses, the term would seem to have many differing definitions based on the context it’s used in. The simplest explanation, as stated above, is a falsified news story that claims misinformation. However, “fake news” has been used time and time again by individuals and groups against news outlets with views differing from their own. Even stories simply deemed as unimportant or uninteresting can be given the “fake news” brand.
This is, of course, nothing new in journalism. Sensationalism, lies, and breaches of ethical code have always been in some areas of the industry. The only difference is that these instances were once called called “yellow journalism” and “tabloid reporting.”
Yellow journalism has a much more solid definition: stories that use fantastical headlines and lies to garner an audience. The term arose in the late 1880s when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst’s rival newspapers went head to head in New Yor. In order to sell more than their competitor, both papers would run increasingly ridiculous stories. The term “yellow journalism” actually came from this rivalry; Hearst had hired Richard Outcault, a cartoonist that drew the comic “The Yellow Kid,” for Pulitzer’s paper. This “theft” of Pulitzer’s staff further ignited the competition and distain between the two papers.
Getting back to the 2016 election, the modern day version of the “yellow journalism” phenomenon spawned with a much less clever name. Much like Pulitzer and Hearst’s battle over readers, countless news sites battle for traffic on the Internet every day. The difference between these similar situations is the sheer scope of their platforms. While Pulitzer and Hearst fought over New York City, major news organizations of today have to fight for entire countries, or even international audiences. The ad revenue from these websites can also be staggering.
The 2016 election, with its publicity and very splitting views, was a prime target for “click-bait” websites that ran articles with intriguing titles that often left readers curious about the content. While these types of websites can seem somewhat gimmicky, most are harmless in their stories. But as the election continued onward, more websites began popping up with stories that were presented as true from seemingly reputable sources. They were dramatic enough to drawn in attention but seemed real enough to be believable; especially to those who wanted affirmation in their dislike for particular candidates.
While Donald Trump has mentioned fake news many times in the past, he was far from the first politician to do so. In fact his opponent, Hilary Clinton, made a speech in late 2016 on “fake news and propaganda” that had been spreading. This speech denounced this trend; unsurprising as she’d recently been subject to a particularly malicious and absurd falsified story. Rumors spread that a pizza restaurant in Wisconsin was secretly a cover for a child sex trafficking ring, set up by big-name democrats; in particular, the Clintons. This led to an armed believer in the conspiracy to “investigate” the situation himself, which resulted in him opening fire in the restaurant. No one was killed in the attack, but it could have easily ended in tragedy. While this is an extreme example of the ramifications of fake news, it does show that there can be dire consequences for these types of stories.
While Hilary Clinton was decrying fake news, however, her opponent was talking about it in a much more negative light. Donald Trump also criticized fake news, but through mocking it. The Republican National Committee, backed by Trump, announced the “Fake News Awards.” These were designed to point out and criticize news organization that made factual errors in their reporting. Rather than only go after websites that profited off of lying and those who cared more for money than the truth, these “awards” attacked reporters that admitted to mistakes in their reporting. Some of the recipients of these awards were columnists, also known as opinion writers. Although this is fairly common knowledge, it should be stated that opinions are inherently neither true nor false. There were other “award winners” who did engage in actual investigative reporting that had some sort of factual error, but in these instances the error was addressed and fixed. In some cases, the journalist who made the mistake was punished for such an oversight. With this information on hand, it is clear that these “awards” were not meant to bring to light a fear-mongering propaganda machine in the mainstream media, but rather shame publications and their employees for honest mistakes.
This was not the only instance of Trump using this term for malicious purposes. In January 2017, during a press conference, Trump was asked by a journalist for the Cable News Network (CNN) a question. Trump replied that the reporter was “fake news” and refused to answer any further questions from him. The president-elect would later take to Twitter and repeat the phrase over several tweets, claiming there was a “political witch hunt” being perpetrated by these “fake news” websites.
As the term “fake news” gained popularity, its original meaning began fade. Fake news now is synonymous with anything a person does not personally agree with or like. It has become an unthinking joke that mocks the president, politics, and news sources due to the absurdity of its pervious genuine, and often shallow, uses.
Cartoon by L.M. Glackens mocking Hearst for his "yellow journalism."
Press conference in which Trump calls a reporter "fake news".