BuzzFeed media editor Craig Silverman can point to the exact date on which he believes the term “fake news,” as he had helped define it, came to mean something other than outright fabrications.
It was Jan. 11, 2017. At a news conference nine days before his inauguration, Donald Trump refused to take a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta and said, “You are fake news.”
“In that moment, fake news was conscripted to fight in the partisan wars, and was co-opted by Trump,” Silverman wrote Sunday, adding that Trump had “redefined the term to mean, effectively, news reports he didn't like.”
This wasn't the first time Trump had uttered “fake news.” But it was one of the first and, coming at Trump's only news conference between Election Day and Inauguration Day, it set the tone in a high-profile setting for his entire first year in office.
Silverman — who had tracked fake news for a couple of years before the phrase became popular — told me on Tuesday that he has a theory about what inspired Trump to commandeer “fake news.” Silverman pointed to an address Hillary Clinton delivered Dec. 8, 2016, at a retirement ceremony for Sen. Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
Here's part of what Clinton said:
Let me just mention briefly one threat in particular that should concern all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, and independents alike, especially those who serve in our Congress: the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year. It's now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences. This isn’t about politics or partisanship. Lives are at risk — lives of ordinary people just trying to go about their days, to do their jobs, contribute to their communities. It’s a danger that must be addressed and addressed quickly. . . . It's imperative that leaders in both the private sector and the public sector step up to protect our democracy and innocent lives.
When Clinton said that “fake news can have real-world consequences,” it was not explicitly clear that she was talking about her defeat one month earlier. At the time, some journalists interpreted the remark as a commentary on the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Earlier in the week, a man convinced that Clinton was linked to a child sex ring being run out of a Washington pizza restaurant had brought a rifle to the restaurant.
But Clinton's call to “protect our democracy” sure sounded like a reference to the election. “Fox & Friends” told viewers the next morning that Clinton was blaming her loss on fake news.
“With her flagging it and saying, 'This is one of the reasons I lost,' I think there were a lot of people who thought that was a real cop-out,” Silverman told me. “I saw a lot of people taking my reporting and my research and saying, 'This proves Trump won because of fake news.' That's absolutely not the case — and was never anything I wrote or intended for people to take.
“But there were a lot of folks who were so shocked by Trump's victory, including Clinton, that they grabbed onto this a little bit as one [reason] or the main reason. And I think that caused a backlash from Trump and his supporters. You know, one of the stories of the 2016 election was how effective he and his supporters were at weaponizing information and at memeing and at owning part of the conversation. And I think that happened again with fake news.”
This makes a lot of sense. Trump suspected that Clinton was trying to delegitimize his win, at least a little, so he counter punched (his term) by promoting the idea that fake news is actually something designed to hurt him, not help him.
Trump used the phrase “fake news” in a tweet for the first time on Dec. 10, 2016, two days after Clinton's address and one day after “Fox & Friends” highlighted it.
Silverman's research indicates that fake news — the made-up stuff, not the negative stuff Trump bemoans — continues to proliferate. In 2017, he tallied 167 websites that “entirely or consistently publish articles with a completely false central claim” and found that “the 50 most viral fake news stories of 2017 generated more total shares, reactions, and comments than the top 50 hoaxes of 2016.”
“We talked so much collectively about fake news in 2017, but if you actually look at the specific type of fake news that Facebook said it was going to eradicate, it's doing just as well — if not better,” Silverman said.
He said he believes Facebook's effort to combat fake news is genuine but is reserving judgment about its effectiveness.
“Facebook has said to me, basically, 'We really think that in 2018, you're not going to see this happening anymore,'" Silverman said. “Facebook really thinks that now they have a handle on it. So, we'll see, right?”