Should We Get Rid of "Fake News"?

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In the wake of Donald Trump’s statement, while visiting England, that he didn’t take questions from CNN because “CNN is ‘fake news,’” Dr. Joshua Habgood-Coote wrote an opinion piece in The Conversation arguing that we should delete the term from our vocabulary:

It’s easy to think that everyone knows what “fake news” means—it was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017, after all. But to think it stops there is mistaken—and politically dangerous. Not only do different people have opposing views about the meaning of “fake news”, in practice the term undermines the intellectual values of democracy—and there is a real possibility that it means nothing. We would be better off if we stopped using it.

Habgood-Coote goes on to offer a number of examples of uses of the term to demonstrate that it means wildly different things to different people in different circumstances, so much so that the term is now essentially meaningless. Yet we continue to hear it used daily across a wide range of media and even in college courses that try to deal with the contemporary phenomenon.

I’m inclined to agree that the term is no longer helpful in that it has no clear meaning or referent. For my part, I’d rather use “misinformation,” defined as false or incorrect information intended to deceive. This broad definition allows for other subcategories—disinformation, clickbait, propaganda, perhaps even “fake news” if it earns a clear definition.

But almost as soon as I wrote these words I said, “Wait a minute: why not just the word ‘lie,’” which the OED defines as “a false statement made with the intent to deceive.” Sounds a lot like the definition of misinformation I’ve come across in many sources. What’s up with that? By coincidence, I happened to hear a piece on NPR that addressed this very issue. When a reporter for NPR called several statements Donald Trump made on his first day in office “not true” or “false,” she said her inbox “exploded” with people asking her why she didn’t just call a lie a lie. Apparently the folks at NPR had discussed this very question and decided that the word “intent” was key: since the reporter could not read Trump’s mind (what a thought!), she could not say anything about his intent but rather about his words. So NPR rarely if ever uses the word “lie” in such situations, preferring to stick with “untrue” or “false.”

But that still leaves me with a question about “misinformation.” Turning again to the OED, I find this by-now familiar definition of misinformation: “False or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive.” Sounds a lot like a lie, right? And indeed, the OED gives as first definition of the noun lie, “an intentionally false statement.”

So now I’m wondering whether “misinformation” is simply a euphemism for “lie,” which term to use in what instances, and especially how best to engage students in making such distinctions and in making sure that they are using such terms with precision.

If you have thoughts on dealing with this terminological thicket, please send them along!

Image Credit: Pixabay Image 2355686 by Wokandapix, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.