I want to clarify up front that this article is not about politics. I am not concerned right now with whether or not you support Donald Trump. I am not taking aim at any particular policy or agenda item of his administration. I am not giving an overall evaluation of Mr. Trump as a person or as a president. What I am doing is pointing out a fallacy that the President uses frequently.
Mr. Trump’s repeated misuse of the term “fake news” is an example of what good thinkers call “false equivalence,” and it is blurring legitimate discussion of actual fake news. False equivalence occurs when someone tries to take two things that are not the same thing and tries to call them the same thing. A popular version of this you may have seen on the internet involves taking whatever it is someone is against and associating it with Nazis. President Trump is doing the same thing by equating news coverage that he finds unfavorable with “fake news.”
During the 2016 election, actual fabricated “news” could be found spreading like a wildfire across social media platforms, disproportionately targeting conservatives and Trump supporters. It should be noted that fake news is not unique to conservatives. In fact, Trump’s presidency may be leading to a greater prominence for fake news targeted at liberal readers.
Let’s take a look at some actual fake news websites for comparison.
One common feature of fake news sites is that they try to emulate respectable news outlets. This is the case with ABCnews.com.co. A quick glance might trick you into thinking you are looking at ABC’s website, but you are not. This website is behind fake news stories like a protestor getting paid $3,500 to protest Donald Trump, Obama being a gay Muslim, and marijuana making people gay. Other sites the make use of this category include Bloomberg.ma, cnn-trending.com, and DrudgeReport.com.co.
One of the most well-known fake news sites is InfoWars.com. This site, like many other fake news sites, focuses on conspiracy theories. Not all conspiracy theories are false, but many are the result of people seeing patterns that aren’t really there. Examples include the claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax perpetrated by the government and that a child sex-slave ring was being operated out of a pizza restaurant.
Contrast these outright fabrications with Donald Trump’s claim that any polls that seem negative are fake.
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
While Mr. Trump may have legitimate complaints about a certain amount of media bias and the occasional failures of the mainstream media to live up to their journalistic ideals, that does not justify lumping together legitimate and generally reliable news sources with falsehood factories such as InfoWars.
Give the public a break – The FAKE NEWS media is trying to say that large scale immigration in Sweden is working out just beautifully. NOT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2017
Mr. Trump is using false equivalence in a couple of ways here. First, he uses the terms “media” and “news media” broadly at times and more specifically at others, sometimes being vague and sometimes targeting specific networks. What may be true of the Huffington Post may not be true of CNN. By lumping various outlets together he obscures reasonable conversations about the media and its shortcomings. This broad terminology does not distinguish between news programs, commentary, or even comedy. Second, Trump suggests that major news outlets are the same kinds of operations as click-baiting fiction pushed out by teenagers trying to pay for college by capitalizing on American anxieties.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017
This kind of false equivalence undermines rational discussion and our ability to grasp reality. Civil society depends on people being able to share a common reality, and redefining terms to shape reality to fit your agenda destroys the foundations of a free society. While we should always be skeptical, even of the mainstream news media, we also cannot function if the only metric of truth is whether or not the president likes the story.
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