Arriving as a new employee to Snopes in fall 2018, I discovered that this storied fact-checking operation, a household name in the fight against “fake news,” preferred to avoid using the term “fake news.”
“Ok ...,” I Slacked.
Nevermind the phrase raining down in conversations with friends and waterfalling over comment threads I monitor for Snopes. I wasn’t ready to argue with my new bosses. I opened my umbrella and carried on.
According to one archive, President Donald Trump has tweeted the phrase “fake news” more than 450 times as president. Often in his tweets “fake news” stands proxy as a vague noun that lets him impugn whole industries of journalists at once, including you know who:
The more I wrote around the phrase “fake news” in my work writing social media posts and other Snopes copy, the more bizarre it felt. Like we’d stripped “giant” from David’s style guide.
Speaking of Davids, founder of Snopes.com David Mikkelson pointed out to me that Snopes was using the term "fake news" long before Trump was employing it as a near-daily insult. In fact, many people were. As Merriam-Webster observed, “‘Fake news’ is a new term. That means it's only about 125 years old.”
For a while around 2013-14, Snopes and others in the fact-checking industry understood and used “fake news” narrowly, to refer specifically to (the relatively small) set of websites that intentionally pumped out fabricated stories for laughs, for lucrative clicks, or for other reasons we may never understand. Whatever the motive, the content produced by these sites was often so absurd you (almost) did not need a fact-checker to point out it was fake.
More than one recent Snopes investigation has uncovered clandestine and coordinated efforts by entities pretending to be something they are not online. And their actions appear to be politically motivated.
Meanwhile, the prevalence of “deepfake” videos is raising alarm about how even savvy users can be fooled by deceptively altered and edited content.
And of course, “fake news” is a feared threat to elections worldwide. One of the first things despots do in democratic societies, Snopes managing editor Doreen Marchionni sometimes reminds us, is to demonize journalists. Take down the journalists -- in print, in broadcast, online or on social platforms -- and so goes democracy.
In a recent interview, journalist Maria Ressa criticized social media platforms for failing to accept their responsibility in the spread of misinformation and disinformation. “They broke democracy,” she told CBS News.
Not surprisingly, as the implications of “fake news” have shifted, so too has the definition.
When “fake news” was introduced to Dictionary.com in 2017, Time magazine was already noting there was more than to the phrase than was captured in its recorded definition.
Craig Silverman, a media editor for BuzzFeed News who has been credited with helping to mainstream the phrase, wrote that he came to cringe at it:
The end of “fake news” as I knew it came on Jan. 11, 2017, when Donald Trump — master of branding — redefined the term to mean, effectively, news reports he didn’t like. The previous day CNN and BuzzFeed News had reported on the existence of the Steele dossier. [...]
Political movements around the world recognized the genius of Trump’s tactic and adopted it. Now, “fake news” is a global phrase uttered by leaders and citizens alike. It’s emblazoned on T-shirts, used in memes, abused as a hashtag. It’s never been more ubiquitous and, as a result, more confused and manipulated.
He wasn’t alone. Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan had already called for the term’s retirement altogether, arguing its meaning had been lost:
“Instead, call a lie a lie,” Sullivan advised. “Call a hoax a hoax. Call a conspiracy theory by its rightful name. After all, ‘fake news’ is an imprecise expression to begin with.”
This was also my boss’ contention with the phrase. “Information doesn't necessarily have to be fake or false to qualify as ‘fake news,’” Mikkelson explained.
One “fake news” creator in Macedonia confirmed as much to the BBC:
“That thing happened, the people were there, the place was there. So it was never fake stories” in the sense of fabricating every detail. “It was propaganda and brainwashing in the way of telling the story.”
The contradiction doesn’t seem to trip up readers. According to a 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy:
Americans themselves have not reached a clear consensus on what constitutes “fake news.” Most adults agree that false information portrayed as if it were true always (48%) or sometimes (46%) deserves the label “fake news.” Strikingly, most Americans also say that accurate stories portraying politicians in a negative light always (28%) or sometimes (51%) constitutes “fake news.”
“Fake news” evolved to signify not a measure of a claim’s veracity but, rather, its potential for challenging one’s preferred perception.
While nearly six in 10 Democrats have dropped an outlet over perceived fake news, a full 70 percent of Republicans have. A much larger portion of Republicans has also reduced their overall consumption of news. The less politically aware are also 20 percent more likely to have reduced their overall consumption of news than the more politically aware — meaning that people who were already acquiring the least information are now acquiring even less.
At Snopes we strive to contribute information to public discourse, not subtract from it. If “fake news” can no longer reliably signal whether a piece of reporting is trustworthy, and instead behaves like a rhetorical middle finger, it doesn’t have a place in our work.
So what to say instead?
AP Stylebook suggests alternatives such as “false reports,” which misses the point for our purposes. Again, information doesn’t have to be “false” to be considered “fake news” in common parlance. A “big person” does not a “giant” make.
Mikkelson favored “junk news” as a more useful label. And he pointed me to an interesting rationale explained by Centre for Internet and Society researcher Tommaso Venturini:
So, if “fake news” is not about false information, what is it about? ... spread, rather than fakeness, is the birthmark of these contents that should be called “viral news” or possibly “junk news” for, just as junk food, they are consumed because they are addictive, not because they are appreciated.
This is not to argue engaging with misinformation is not tantamount to indulging in the occasional cheeseburger. Rather, it seems logical that a media diet that favors junk would have consequences, just as a real diet that has an excess of sodium and fat. Venturini again:
‘Junk news’ is dangerous not because it is false, but because it saturates public debate, leaving little space to other discussions, reducing the richness of public debate and preventing more important stories from being heard.
In other words, the threat of junk news lies in the absence of what it’s displacing: actual information.
In a 2017 report on “Information Disorder,” researchers Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan recommended several steps for tackling the problems of all manner of misinformation. Number one on that list?
1. Definitions. Think more critically about the language we use so we can effectively capture the complexity of the phenomenon
Put another way: “Media literacy works, and it just might save humanity,” according to Columbia Journalism Review.
Back to that Pew study:
“Of the 52% of Americans who say they have shared made-up news themselves, a vast majority of them said they didn’t know it was made up when they did so.”
This highlights the challenge: We cannot fight what we cannot see. We cannot change what we cannot name.
By using the phrase “junk news,” we aim to emphasize the distinction between misinformation and content created purposely to deceive.
More precision, not less, is key if we want to understand better and be better understood.
Most useful of all, by using “junk news” we can clearly signal such content’s best possible destination: