By: Ridgeway Woulfe
“You’re fake news” the president-elect stated, pointing a finger at the journalist probing him in August 2017. The statement appeared improvised, and President Trump has since claimed he invented the term. Immediately, much of society saw the Idiocracy-level absurdity in the statement, yielding a tidal wave of sarcastic usages of the same two words to deny the truth in something. Many have used it as their way to sardonically #resist, believing that pointing out the absurdity would undermine his intentions. They were wrong. To the contrary, doing so only serves as a catalyst to Trump’s dual intentions.
Donald Trump spoke a falsehood in his claim of inventing fake news. When he said it during that press conference, “fake news” was already a trending topic of concern. Commentators, anchors, and scholars were using the term to refer to the growing pattern of patently false reporting that was accepted as truth, whether in the form of social media, click-bait, or a byproduct of 24/7 news and online reporting. Fake news was used to notify the public it had been entirely too trusting of unsubstantiated claims. Before a FBI director was fired for investigating Russia’s use of fake news to influence the elections (or for incompetence, depending on who you believe), and before a special investigator was hired to investigate Trump’s involvement in creating fake news, the term was ordinarily used to question the legitimacy of the soon-to-be president. One of the reporters, unaware of being a part of a zeitgeist-altering moment, responded “haven’t you spread a lot of fake news yourself, sir” as the president left the room.
And this brings us to the first of President Trump’s goals in making the proclamation – defending his own conduct by destroying the weight of the phrase. What had been a paranoia-inspiring buzzword became something to laugh about. Instead of associating the phrase with its literal and colloquial meaning, we associate it with a laugh about the president’s proclivity to overreact when pressed, à la “you’re the puppet.” In fact, he deflated the meaning to the point that a person could no longer use “fake news” with its own meaning. He redefined it to mean news a person disagrees with, which is a phrase that ought to be oxymoronic, but reigns as the prevailing meaning
Written in 1949, 4 years after the initial wave of Nazis lost World War II, George Orwell’s1984 coined and explored the term “doublespeak,” meaning saying one thing and meaning another. The dystopic government in the novel intentionally forced doublespeak upon its people by inventing a new language, substituting new definitions for existing words, steering thought in pro-government manner. Donald Trump has repeatedly employed this tactic, mirroring its use in Putin’s Russia. “Fake news” halted, and continues to stall, any discussion of fake news’s role in election-meddling.
Secondarily, Trump’s use of “fake news” provided extremists of the left and right freedom to discredit any news source which contradicts one’s own world view. While bias and misreporting does occur, they are worlds apart from fake news. Even so, the popularized term has not only blurred the lines, but unequivocally equated them. Some do so in a genuine way, parroting and even surpassing the President in pointing the finger at ‘fake news CNN.’ They have been successful enough using this term to muddy the previously clear understanding of reputable sources, to the point I doubted citing to the World’s News Leader in fears of this post being considered irreputable. For others, they use the term to point out biased journalism, mockingly using the term to avoid needing to debate against what they consider “obviously wrong.” This joke relies on the same meaning to be applied to fake news, and continues in his ultimate goal of making factual statements be considered false as long as you disagree with the sentiment behind them.
Within his book, Orwell stated “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,” using doublespeak to describe doublespeak. The destruction of words can only yield horrifying results, removing one’s ability to operate rationally, leaving society with only its animalistic and tribalistic impulses to perceive the world. If society is left to only perceive the world through fear and emotions, inciting fear gives one the power the change reality, as “[r]eality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else.” Where this power is unbridled, every one of the president’s actions can yield positive results without any negative consequence, much as was the result in 1984. Any critic can be dismissed as sloppy or goofy or crooked or low energy or…, as long as it feels right. No amount of factual evidence to the contrary, or opposing viewpoints, will be able to overwhelm a brazen declaration of “fake news.”
As an increasing number of politicians use “fake news” to obfuscate the truth about their actions, the impeachment of Donald Trump will not end the attack on truth. He is only a turning point making disregard for facts an acceptable practice, to the point people are spending dozens of dollars on glass orbs filled with potentially poisonous water (marketed as “raw water”). When there is no truth, anything is possible. That is the goal for any budding tyranny. Somehow, however, a tyrannical government is not the worst that can come of this. For even if the globe can put the snake back in the can politically, the remnants of mistrust of facts will take generations of concentrated effort to have a chance of restoring the truth.