On average, millennials in the Harvard poll estimated that 48.5 percent of the news they see in their Facebook feeds is fake. Republicans said most of the news on Facebook is fake, and even Democrats put the number at 41.9 percent.
Facebook does have a fake-news problem. But 48.5 percent?
For perspective, The Washington Post's Intersect blog in the summer conducted a three-week study of the news stories from various media outlets that Facebook puts in the “trending topics” box on users' homepages. The Intersect logged trending stories every hour on the hour during the workday and checked their legitimacy. And because different users see different stories, based on their interests and social circles, the Intersect studied four Facebook accounts simultaneously.
In total, the Intersect identified five fake stories and three others it described as “profoundly inaccurate.” That's too many, but it is nowhere near half of the news content on Facebook.
The disconnect between the actual scale of the problem and millennials' perceptions of the problem is likely attributable to conflicting definitions of fake news — and no one has worked harder to stretch the term's meaning than Trump and his allies.
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
For the record, Merriam-Webster defines “fake” as “counterfeit,” meaning “made in imitation of something else with intent to deceive.” When Trump's detractors suggested that his election victory was aided by the proliferation of Internet hoaxes and fabrications, he quickly commandeered the term “fake news.” The Post's media columnist, Margaret Sullivan, explained the situation perfectly in a January column:
Fake news has a real meaning — deliberately constructed lies, in the form of news articles, meant to mislead the public. For example: The one falsely claiming that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump, or the one alleging without basis that Hillary Clinton would be indicted just before the election.But though the term hasn’t been around long, its meaning already is lost. Faster than you could say “Pizzagate,” the label has been co-opted to mean any number of completely different things: Liberal claptrap. Or opinion from left-of-center. Or simply anything in the realm of news that the observer doesn’t like to hear.
Trump's effort to redefine “fake news” was on full display Monday at Georgetown University, where one of his advisers, Sebastian Gorka, employed an overly broad definition while speaking at a conference attended by millennials.
“There is absolutely no question at all that fake news affects substantially the discussion of political issues,” Gorka said. “Let's go back to the administration: The idea that a president whose daughter converts to Judaism, a president whose [grand]children are orthodox Jews can be accused 14 weeks into this administration of being anti-Semitic just tells you how powerful the fake news is.” (h/t to Georgetown student Aislinn McNiece for sharing a recording of the event.)
Suggestions that Trump is anti-Semitic do not qualify as fake news, by the term's proper definition. What we're really talking about here are opposing conclusions based on accurate media coverage of real events.
In January, the White House failed to mention Jews, specifically, in a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Trump suggested without evidence in February that bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish gravesites might be false flags.
During the campaign, Trump failed in a memorable CNN interview to reject the support of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, a notorious anti-Semite. Trump disavowed Duke soon after and claimed he could not hear the interviewer's questions clearly because of a malfunctioning earpiece.
Later in the campaign, Trump retweeted an image that depicted Hillary Clinton next to a red Star of David shape, with $100 bills in the background. The image originated on a Twitter account that regularly posted racist messages, though Trump's team said it was unaware of the origin and thought the star resembled a sheriff's badge.
“We welcome the hidden hand exposing itself,” Duke tweeted at the time.
With such episodes in mind, journalists, such as the New Republic's Juliet Kleber, are free to write that “Trump entertains a degree of anti-Semitism unparalleled in recent American administrations.” And Gorka is free to argue that such an accusation is unfair because Trump has Jewish family members. “Unfair” and “fake” are not synonyms, however.
Gorka used the words interchangeably at Georgetown, in move that was consistent with what Team Trump has been doing since Election Day. By the president's standard, “fake” means nothing and everything, all at the same time.
Now millennials think they see fake news everywhere.