Delivering fake news

Part one of a two-part series on fake news.

When Donald Trump announced his intention to become the Republican candidate in the 2016 Presidential election, some people were curious. It quickly became common knowledge that the reality television “star” was willing to say anything at rallies. Politics became entertainment! The mainstream media gave his campaign enormous coverage, more than the other Republican nominees combined. Trump was great for ratings, and most mainstream newspapers have experienced financial difficulties in recent years.

This was a huge mistake on the mainstream media’s part. It even became one of Trump’s targets. In the process, American democracy and civil society has become even more vulnerable. The man is a demagogue.

Shortly after Trump won the election last November to become the 45th President of the United States, Americans and people elsewhere quickly realized that the new leader was a manipulator of truth like no other. Facts don’t matter, in Trump’s worldview: the truth is simply what one can get away with. The man is a tyrant.

Friday, January 20, 2017 was Inauguration Day for Trump. The New York Times estimated that Trump’s inauguration crowd was about one-third the turnout for Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Based on photos and videos, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now said it was even much smaller than that.

Over that weekend, however, President Trump and his team tweeted that it was the “biggest” turnout for a president’s inauguration in the history of the United States. Sean Spicer used his debut as White House Press Secretary to accuse the mainstream media of “deliberately false reporting” and shouted that the Trump administration would
hold the press accountable.”

White House aide Kellyanne Conway went on NBC’s Meet the Press to defend Spicer, saying that he had merely given “alternative facts” about the number of attendees. Not surprisingly, journalists were upset over this flagrant display of Orwellian newspeak. The consensus? “Alternative facts” was the new administration’s term for outright lying.

This initial struggle over something as trivial as the number of attendees at a ceremony suggests that much more important battles over facts versus falsehoods await the American public, indeed, the entire world. What if the media challenge the President’s claims on matters pertaining to budgets, jobs, climate change, or clandestine meetings with top-ranking Russian officials? Should citizens expect Trump and his team to simply lie? The short answer is yes.

To get his message out to his supporters, Trump often uses Twitter. He has over 27 million followers and has tweeted almost 35,000 times. Twitter allows the president to bypass the mainstream media and send his messages without a journalist’s interpretation. More disconcerting, when fake news is posted on the internet it often goes viral, creating so called echo chambers. Social media is why fake news today is so much more sinister than in the past.

Trump’s game plan of manipulating the truth is composed of two basic approaches in which he utilizes Twitter. The first is his flippant dismissal of facts around particular events or policies that are reported in the mainstream media — “That’s just fake news,” he tweets when confronted with a fact, statistic, or poll he doesn’t like. The second category of Trump’s use of the term fake news, however, is even more disconcerting. This guy completely fabricates stories without any evidence.

Both of Trump’s approaches recently appeared in one egregious example. After being repeatedly asked by journalists about his administration’s ties to Russia, the newly elected president employed his first type of usage by dismissing all of these stories as “fake news.”

When media stories continued to probe into Russian connections to the Trump administration, the president attempted to deflect attention by utilizing the second fake news approach — he completely concocted an unrelated story based on no evidence whatsoever. Through a series of tweets Trump alleged that President Obama had wiretapped his communication lines prior to the 2016 election. This claim appeared to catch everyone off guard, including members of his own party, the media, and the American public. Trump insisted that forthcoming evidence would prove him right.

The President, however, was wrong. After investigating his claims, the director of the FBI, James Comey, testified under oath to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that “Trump had falsely accused his predecessor of wiretapping his headquarters during last year’s campaign.”

The Trump team, however, was not going to let this major challenge be a blow to his authority. Two days later, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes, announced that he had seen intelligence reports making references to Trump campaign officials. (It came out afterward that it was the White House who gave Nunes a few routine CIA reports.) Despite the dubious timing and Nunes’ refusal to disclose who gave him these reports, Trump said he “regarded Nunes’s disclosures as validation of his…claim that he was the illegal target of a wiretapping operation last fall ordered by President Barack Obama.”

Who would believe this guy after this comedic episode? His supporters apparently do.

Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star did a series of interviews with 25 Trump supporters in “hardscrabble Ohio” a few days after the FBI Director had debunked Trump’s wiretapping story. Almost all of them simply did not care that the president had lied. As one unemployed construction worker put it, “He’s ruffling every feather in Washington that he can ruffle. These guys are scrambling. So yeah! I like it. I think it’s a good thing. I want to see them jump around a little bit.” Only one person out of the 25 interviewees criticized the president for lying to the public. It would appear that significant numbers of American citizens are not concerned about what constitutes the truth, let alone ways to strengthen democracy. This is troubling. 

In late February, Trump spoke before a large conservative convention. He told the large crowd that journalists that he claims create fake news about him are  “the enemy of the people.” The White House followed this outrageous statement by banning the major media outlets from a press briefing that Trump felt were attacking him: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CNN, among others.

Critics contend that Trump wants to quash all dissent in America that is critical of himself and his policies. Should we be worried? Consider the following:

Lügenpresse is a German term that translates to the lying press. It originally appeared in print form in Germany in 1914 to refer to “enemy propaganda” in the context of anti-Semitism. Two decades later, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used the term to foster hatred of journalists and anyone who opposed the “will of the people.” Lügenpresse was part of the rhetoric used by Hitler’s team to gain support for the Holocaust. Recently, the term has been appearing frequently at anti-Muslim rallies in Germany.

When “lügenpresse” was heard at a recent Trump rally it understandably raised concerns. Although he personally has not used the term, the President says things that are very close to the German translation. The “enemy of the people” indeed.

Trump makes stuff up at rallies to gain support for his policies. For instance, when his infamous “Muslim travel ban” was blocked by several judges, he announced to a large conservative convention in Florida that Sweden had just experienced a terrorist attack because it accepts Muslim refugees. Swedish officials told him he was wrong, but who knows how many Trump supporters heard their rebuttal. (Sadly, Sweden did experience one about a month after Trump’s claim.) White House aide Kellyanne Conway followed up by defending Trump’s Muslim travel ban policy in television interviews by referring to “the Bowling Green massacre,” an event that never took place.

Canadians cannot be complacent about the fake news trend either. Nick Kouvalis is a conservative operative and former campaign manager for federal Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch. Kouvalis recently tweeted that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was giving “Billions to other countries while Canadians stand in line at food banks.” When people challenged him on this, he boasted that he likes creating fake news to “make the left go nuts.”

The rising phenomenon of fake news is proving to be a major threat to civil society and democracy almost everywhere. No one wants to live in a post-truth era. Most of us would prefer to live in a vibrant liberal democracy that values the truth. We need informed citizens to fight back against the fake news scourge.

Part two will discuss what citizens can do about fake news.

Image: Flickr/Stuart Rankin

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