With 'Fake News,' Trump Moves From Alternative Facts To Alternative Language
Friday night, President Trump took to Twitter to deliver one of his favorite insults to journalists: "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!" he wrote.
It's a phrase President Trump has now tweeted 15 times this month (10 times in all caps). He used the phrase seven times in his Thursday news conference.
Anyone who has followed the news knows this isn't what "fake news" meant just a few months ago. Back then, it meant lies posing as news, made up by people from Macedonian teenagers to a dad in the Los Angeles suburbs. The stories impacted the election to some unmeasurable degree, and they also presented a tangible threat when a gunman inspired by false stories fired shots inside Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong.
Now, Trump casts all unfavorable news coverage as fake news. In one tweet, he even went so far as to say that "any negative polls are fake news." And many of his supporters have picked up and run with his new definition.
The ability to reshape language — even a little — is an awesome power to have. According to language experts on both sides of the aisle, the rebranding of fake news could be a genuine threat to democracy.
The danger of the word "fake"
As a linguist, University of California, Berkeley professor George Lakoff is one of the few people in the world who can truthfully say things like "I've studied the word 'fake' in some detail."
Because of that expertise, he finds the term fake news uniquely troubling. He explained to NPR exactly what is so destabilizing about calling news "fake."
To illustrate, he used the word "gun." Putting the adjective "black" in front of it doesn't negate that it's a gun. It just specifies a kind of gun. That black gun still has the same primary function of any other gun — that is, it can shoot something.