The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s official: ‘Fake news’ means nothing

President Trump in Manchester, N.H., on March 19. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Trump has used “fake news” in at least 140 tweets over the past year, according to the Trump Twitter Archive. To judge from his invocation of the term, he hasn’t given much thought to its definition. For instance:

In that outburst, Trump appears to be suggesting that “fake news” could be dishonest news, corrupt news or just plain distorted news.

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Turns out that the American public shares the president’s uncertainty. A Monmouth University poll asked respondents: “When you use the term fake news, does it only apply to stories where the facts are wrong or does it also apply to how news outlets make editorial decisions about what they choose to report?” Twenty-five percent responded that it applies only to stories where the facts are wrong, and 65 percent said it also applies to editorial decision-making.

“Fake news,” in other words, is becoming a basket appellation to describe unpleasant news. This particular finding from Monmouth doesn’t come out of the blue mist, either. A Gallup-Knight Foundation survey earlier this year found that 42 percent of Republicans believed that accurate-but-negative stories properly qualified as “fake news.” (The corresponding figure for Democrats was 17 percent.) Such interpretation marked a dramatic drift from its meaning as of a couple of years ago, when it was used to describe bogus stories concocted to move Web traffic and damage political reputations.

Then came Trump and his opportunistic use of “fake news” — a term that’s been reduced to putty form for political expediency. Any inconvenient news break these days — so long as it casts the current administration in unflattering light — can be dismissed as another “fake news” story. And as the president espies more and more such “fake news,” so, apparently, does the U.S. public. According to the Monmouth poll, respondents see an upward tick in such stories: Whereas 36 percent of respondents in March 2017 said that “traditional major news sources like TV and newspapers” occasionally propagate fake news stories, that number crept up to 46 percent in March 2018.

In April 2017, a Washington Post-ABC News poll probed public trust of news organizations as well as an administration headed by the most mendacious politician in memory:

The Trump legacy, in other words.