Fake News and Alternative Facts

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In Alice in Wonderland, Alice and Humpty Dumpty have a conversation about words:  “’When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’ `The question is,’ said Alice, `whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ `The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master – – that’s all.’”

Danielle Kurtzleben recently wrote an excellent article for NPR about how President Trump has mastered the term “fake news,” making it mean what he wants it to mean, and thus demonstrating his disturbing power. Trump has changed the meaning of the term from even a few months ago, when it still meant news that was presented as truth but that was false. Now when Trump uses the term, he is referring to any unfavorable news coverage. Kurtzleben writes, “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.”  

Could something seemingly so simple actually pose a threat to democracy? After all, can’t people see through what Trump is doing? Therein lies the rub. Trump has tweeted the term “fake news” fifteen times in February and used it seven times in his February 16th news conference. In one tweet he stated that “any negative polls are fake news.”  Kurtzleben quotes Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, who explains, ”A fake does not have the primary function, but is intended to deceive you into thinking that it does have that function, and hence to serve the secondary function. A fake gun won’t shoot, but if you are deceived into thinking it is real, it can intimidate you.”  Kurtzleben adds, “By Lakoff’s logic, putting most modifiers in front of the word news—good, bad, unbiased, liberal, conservative—still implies that the news is still somehow news. It is in some way tied to that main purpose, of being tethered to reality, with the intention of informing the public.” Trump’s use of the word “fake” means something different. It  implies that “the story is intended to serve something other than the public good, and that the author intended to falsify the story.” When people believe that—as some Trump supporters apparently do—the function of truth in a democracy is undermined.

If people are convinced that the news media are not to be believed, how do you make them see the truth? Trump has proved himself a master at making his supporters believe that what he says is the truth, and facts be damned. Kellyanne Conway was ridiculed for coining the phrase “alternative facts,” but so far Trump has succeeded in building a campaign and now a presidency on just such alternative facts. It is amazing to notice how many headlines from a variety of news sources openly refer to Trump’s lies. It was noteworthy recently when he did tell the truth about the crime rate in Chicago. After his February 16th news conference, even commentators on Trump-friendly Fox News were dumbfounded by what they had heard.

When will people who believe Trump when he says not to believe the media see the truth? Perhaps only when what he says is contradicted by what they see in their own lives. It may not matter, to them, that Trump misrepresented how his number of electoral votes compares to the number gained by other recent presidents. It may not matter how he ranked in his college class. It may not matter that he referred to a terrorist attack in Sweden that never happened. After all, ICE is rounding up illegal aliens and trying, against the opinion of the courts, to block terrorists from entering the country. He is purging key federal departments of those who ran them under Obama. He is reversing policies set by Obama and making America great again.

Kurtzleben cites George Saunders and his theory that America is now divided between LeftLand and RightLand. The fact that different Americans can see the Trump presidency so differently reinforces Saunders’s contention that these two countries within a country “draw upon non-intersecting data sets and access entirely different mythological systems.” In fact, they inhabit increasingly different realities.  

Credit: Fake News AVI by Nikko on Flickr, used under a CC 2.0 license

About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.