The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump falsely claims (again) that he coined the term ‘fake news’

President Trump approached reporters to answer questions at the White House on Wednesday, before boarding Marine One. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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President Trump was certainly right when he told Fox Business host Lou Dobbs on Wednesday that he has “come up with some pretty good names for people” — if “good” means politically effective. “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin' Ted,” “Liddle Marco” and “Low-energy Jeb” all caught on during the 2016 campaign, and all were Trump originals.

But Trump rewrote history when he added this claim, in his conversation with Dobbs: “I think one of the best names is — you know, I've really started this whole 'fake news' thing. Now they've turned it around and then, now, they're calling, you know, stories put out by different — by Facebook 'fake.'”

This is the opposite of what happened in real life on planet Earth.

Trump posted his first-ever tweet containing the phrase “fake news” on Dec. 10, 2016, more than a month after Election Day.

By then, the press had reported extensively on the way social media platforms such as Facebook facilitated the spread of fake news articles. For example, I wrote this on the day before Election Day: “Fake news reports have been a problem throughout the presidential campaign. We’re not talking about reports that are merely flawed or thinly sourced; we’re talking about stuff that is completely made up.”

I went on to identify seven fabricated reports that had flourished online in the final weeks of the campaign — bogus claims about an impending indictment of Hillary Clinton, a postal worker destroying absentee ballots cast for Trump and President Barack Obama's plan to flee the country if Trump wins, to name a few.

Two days after the election, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg publicly rejected the premise that fake news circulated on his social network could have influenced the outcome. After another two days, however, Zuckerberg acknowledged that “a very small amount” of Facebook content “is fake news and hoaxes.”

“We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here,” Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “We have made progress, and we will continue to work on this to improve further.”

Twitter, Google, Facebook are changing their policies to prevent bullying and improve accuracy. (Video: Reuters)

All of this unfolded before Trump began using the term “fake news.” Only later did he warp the meaning, bending “fake news” into a catchall pejorative for information he finds unfavorable.

“Any negative polls are fake news,” he tweeted in February.

Trump has taken credit for coining “fake news” before.

“The media is really, the word — one of the greatest of all terms I've come up with, is 'fake,'" he told Mike Huckabee in an interview on the Trinity Broadcasting Network earlier this month. “I guess other people have used it, perhaps, over the years but I've never noticed it.”

Trump's false claim is not so much an attempt to establish his inventiveness as it is an effort to cement his own definition of “fake news” as the real definition. As Congress prepares to question Facebook, Twitter and Google representatives next week about online propaganda — with particular interest in the role of Russia — the president is trying to create the impression that such inquiries are part of what he calls a “witch hunt” aimed at discrediting his victory.

Trump wants voters to believe he came up with “fake news” so they also will believe any other use of the term is just politics and not reflective of a genuine problem.