This week, the “fake news” wars reached a new peak.
President Trump upbraided reporters during a press conference on Wednesday, calling CNN’s Jim Acosta “a rude, terrible person.” When Acosta refused to put down a microphone at the president’s demand, a White House aide tried to take it away. Acosta made contact with the aide, prompting the White House to suspend his access to the White House grounds. But while the White House continued its war on the so-called Fake News Media, press secretary Sarah Sanders was spreading actual fake news: a doctored video of the Acosta incident that exaggerated the reporter’s contact with the aide. When pressed about the fake video, Sanders was unrepentant.
The catchphrase “fake news” has become inextricably linked with Trump, who tweets it every chance he gets. As a result, many have forgotten that the term originated with journalists who were describing a specific phenomenon — the very thing being pushed by Sanders. In the weeks following the 2016 election, a variety of news outlets published stories about the spread of fabricated anti-Clinton information online. Analysts hypothesized that these “fake news” stories — from Bill’s rape of a 13-year-old to Hillary’s murder of an FBI agent — cost Clinton the election.
But within weeks the narrative had changed. Trump coopted the term and aimed it not at the sites and social media accounts circulating bogus stories but at actual news outlets critical of his administration.
While the president continues to accuse journalists and his opponents of spreading “fake news,” evidence mounts of extensive right-wing disinformation efforts, many aimed at boosting Trump and sowing discord among his opponents. In a recent blog post, Facebook announced the removal of 559 pages and 251 accounts guilty of “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” including two conservative accounts with millions of followers, Right Wing News and The Anti Media. Fox News and InfoWars are also notorious for spreading misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories. And so too is the president. Last month, he set a new record for dishonesty with 170 false claims.
The result: Those who cry “fake news” the loudest remain the ones most responsible for circulating it.
Trump and his supporters have dominated the conversation on “fake news” by repackaging a political tactic as old as American democracy itself. But in addition to hurling charges of a misleading press, the right is also generating actual fake news, forcing the left to fight an unprecedented two-pronged war against disinformation.
Since the invention of the American political party system, partisans have traded accusations of misinformation and deception. During the election of 1800, the first truly partisan contest, Federalist supporters of incumbent John Adams leveled such charges against the Democratic-Republican campaign in support of Thomas Jefferson. Federalists maintained that Democratic-Republican printers “influenced and misled by false information” those in support of Jefferson. Likewise, the Republicans asserted that their opponents employed “evil machinations and villainous intrigues” to rally support. Even Jefferson himself privately lamented the “dupery” practiced by his adversaries.
In the hotly contested 1828 election, supporters of Andrew Jackson accused John Quincy Adams’s followers of “feeding their constituents with false views, and delusive statements, — views and statements which they know to be false.” The Adams men, for their part, charged the Jacksonians with spreading “unjust insinuations and false statements,” especially regarding federal spending. In 1860, Democrats accused Republican editors of printing “gross and improbable” falsehoods and “libelous personal attacks,” while Republicans countered with accusations that the Democrats were “sailing under a false flag” and that all “their professions [are] lies.”
During the 20th century, politicians took special aim at the press. Theodore Roosevelt complained of “muckrackers” who produced exaggerated pieces about economic and social injustice. Harry Truman, ever the source of colorful turns of phrase, called opposition reporters “prostitutes of the mind” and claimed they wrote articles “worded as to mislead people.”
By mid-century, an overtly partisan press had given way to journalistic norms of objectivity and fact-based reporting. Newspapers strove to market themselves as balanced and trustworthy. This didn’t stop accusations that partisan rivals were violating these norms and deceiving the public, though. The standard of objectivity gave politicians the ammunition to denounce their critics’ alleged dishonesty as both political manipulation and journalistic malpractice.
Accusations of misinformation are an American political tradition. As a result, partisans have created a deeply polarized political system that implicitly denies the validity and appeal of opposing views.
While Trump may spew “fake news” claims with a unique frequency and intensity (he did, after all, create the “Fake News Awards”), the strategy behind his words remains familiar: neutralize criticism, sow distrust of political opponents and position himself as the final arbiter of fact and fiction. With a historically unpopular leader, the Republicans have much to gain from an approach designed to increase polarization and solidify party loyalty.
But while the right comfortably executes a time-tested strategy, the left faces a fresh set of challenges. In addition to fending off accusations of “fake news,” it has to counter something that, paradoxically, has never really been at issue in all of the previous rhetorical wars over misinformation: actual fake news. While politicians and the media have not always been truthful, the scale of this disinformation campaign is unprecedented in the history of the United States.
And therein lies the problem. Democrats must adapt an old tool to a new purpose and convince the public that their accusations of deception are not just partisan maneuvering. But shedding over 200 years of historical baggage won’t be easy, nor will infiltrating the Republicans’ informational quarantine. Democrats have to defend facts themselves — and it’s unclear how many Americans value that fight.