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How the war against fake news backfired

Comet Ping Pong is set to reopen after a North Carolina man discharged an assault-style rifle at the Chevy Chase neighborhood restaurant claiming he was there to investigate a fake news story on the Internet about a child sex ring, police say. (Photo by Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Fake news has become a problem that the media and the tech industries are urgently searching for ways to solve. But in the post-election push to fix the problem, those who most want to find the solution have managed to lose control over what, exactly, the definition of “fake news” is.

Fake news can refer to deliberately fabricated stories, often with the purpose of making money for the creators. (Think of those Macedonian teenagers looking to strike it rich on the gullibility of American audiences reading about politics.) It can also refer to comedy or satirical news, faked for the purposes of entertainment. Both of these types of stories are often shared across social media — and are taken as true by some readers. (The problem of what responsibility platforms such as Facebook have in creating algorithms that promote phony stories predates this election-induced panic, but it is central to the current discussion.)

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Fake news can now also refer to the phenomenon of a news source publishing something that is inaccurate but is still believed and shared by readers. This includes sites such as Gateway Pundit, which, in the weeks before the election, regularly published outright false stories that became talking points on the conservative Internet. And as the boundaries between “fake” and “unreliable” have become more permeable, conservatives have begun saying that the mainstream outlets they already don’t trust should be called “fake,” too.

The idea that the mainstream media is to blame for fake news stories gets a lot of promotion in the Donald Trump-supporting Internet. As concerns escalated among the mainstream media and Silicon Valley about the impact of fabricated stories on the election results, some Trump supporters saw the coming crackdown as a gambit to silence conservative voices. So, they borrowed from the old rubber-and-glue children’s rhyme and started relabeling the mainstream media as the real “fake news.”

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Andrew Torba, the founder of a new social network called Gab, has posted about turning down interview requests from phony news outlets — by which he means CNN and other mainstream news sources. Gab, which was founded as a “free speech” social network, is popular with conservatives and white nationalists who deeply distrust platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and much of the mainstream media. (Pizzagate, the outlandish conspiracy theory about child trafficking in a D.C. pizza restaurant, is a regular trending topic among Gab’s users.)

Infowars’ Alex Jones, a notorious conspiracy theorist who has questioned whether the December 2012 massacre of children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School really happened, now says that the entire worry about “fake news” is really just a strategy to force Americans to accept only the “establishment’s” viewpoint.

Now the urgent campaign to stop the spread of fake news and the response to it have almost rendered the term itself meaningless. For certain conservatives, “fake news” now means “liberal bias,” even as the other side uses it to describe an exaggerated or completely untrue statement from the president-elect.

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This should not be as surprising as it is to those who are just now seeing the term “fake news” applied to themselves. The New York Times’s John Herrman warned us about this a couple of weeks ago. What he describes below has, more or less, now happened.

“Fake news” as shorthand will almost surely be returned upon the media tenfold. The fake news narrative, as widely understood and deployed, has already begun to encompass not just falsified, fabricated stories, but a wider swath of traditional media on Facebook and elsewhere. Fox News? Fake news. Mr. Trump’s misleading claims about Ford keeping jobs in America? Fake news. The entirety of hyperpartisan Facebook? Fake news. This wide formulation of “fake news” will be applied back to the traditional news media, which does not yet understand how threatened its ability is to declare things true, even when they are.

That mistrust of the mainstream media’s veracity extends beyond the Trump-supporting Internet. It’s rooted in suspicions of liberal bias in the media. If you don’t trust the media to tell the truth about the world as you see it, why would you trust it to determine what we call “fake” and what we call “real” news?

Pizzagate: From rumor, to hashtag, to gunfire in D.C.

Dustin Siggins, a conservative journalist who has written about his skepticism on the current panic about fake news, told me that for many conservatives, “the mainstream press has lost credibility even when it deserves it.” One reason for that, he said, is that conservatives believe “the mainstream and liberal press goes after us in ways that we find unfair and disingenuous.” The sudden concern about “fake news” in the days after a divisive election in which the successful candidate made an art out of mocking and attacking the mainstream press reads as suspect from this perspective.

Fake news is a real issue, but its turn in the spotlight comes just as the institutions that might be in a position to do something about it are vulnerable. The ability of the mainstream media to stop misinformation is limited by how little many trust it. Pizzagate has been the most extreme example so far of what happens when news can mean anything you want it to.

A man showed up at a Washington pizza place on Sunday with an assault-style rifle and fired shots. A suspect, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch of North Carolina, was arrested. Police said Welch told them that he went to the Comet Ping Pong restaurant to “self-investigate” the absurd Pizzagate conspiracy that he read about on the Internet. Pizzagaters claim that Comet Ping Pong is the headquarters of a secret pedophilia ring involving Democrats, specifically the Hillary Clinton campaign.

For many, the gunfire was a cautionary tale of the real-life consequences when fake news is distributed and believed. The Pizzagaters would probably agree that this incident shows the danger of “fake news.” But by “fake news” they mean The Washington Post and similar mainstream outlets, which they believe should be condemned for not covering this conspiracy theory as if it were true.

Fake news has, in a period of weeks, gone from a concern about how we share news online today to a meme — one that allows nearly any source of information to be “fake.” It seems inevitable that the Internet will continue to twist the term “fake news” into new definitions. As those meanings multiply, the usefulness of trying to solve the real problem of deliberately fabricated misinformation online — in other words, actual “fake news” — becomes much harder.