After losing a presidential election propelled by misinformation and outright lies, liberal America launched another battle: fighting the scourge of "fake news." The left lost this one, too.
Hillary Clinton's defeat in the Nov. 8 presidential election sent shock waves throughout the United States political system. Immediately, the defeated Democrat's allies and large stretches of the media began looking for an explanation.
They blamed FBI director James Comey, whose suspiciously timed announcement — that the agency was investigating even more of Clinton's emails — may have thrown the election in Donald Trump's favor. They blamed "Bernie Bros" — supporters too loyal to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to stand with Clinton. They blamed the electoral college and millennial voters.
Even if these explanations were thinly veiled attempts to gloss over Clinton's failures, they were fairly conventional, relying on established notions of how elections work — but the finger-pointing didn't end with familiar liberal boogeymen.
"My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time," Paul Horner, one fake-news profiteer, told the Washington Post. "I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don't fact-check anything — they'll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist."
As accusations of Russian intelligence interference in the elections in favor of Trump spread, the fake news narrative took on renewed urgency. One dubious Washington Post exposé alleged a massive network of "fake news" sites that spread pro-Trump propaganda at the behest of the Kremlin.
Hillary Clinton herself decried fake news, saying "lives are at stake."
But there's a big problem: Fake news is one of the weakest explanations for Clinton's loss to Trump. And since the "fake news" phenomena exploded into the public consciousness, the term has been largely appropriated by conservatives and the right.
In short, liberal hysteria over fake news legitimized a skepticism of valid news sources. Conservatives now shout "fake news!" whenever they encounter a story they don't like. They've reduced the concept to utter meaninglessness.
Prominent Trump surrogate Sheriff David Clarke labeled "hands up, don't shoot," the rallying cry of the Black Lives Matter movement, a form of "fake news." North Carolina Rep. David Lewis accused the NAACP of spreading "fake news" while the state GOP was plotting to strip the new Democratic governor of its power. According to progressive site Right Wing Watch, fringe conservatives like American Family Radio host Bryan Fischer and the Liberty Counsel's Mat Staver have cried "fake news" to deflect accurate coverage of offensive remarks
Far-right site InfoWars has used cries of "fake news" both to portray itself as the victim of a grand conspiracy and to circulate accusations the mainstream media are the real purveyors of lies.
At a recent white supremacist conference in Washington, D.C., organizer Richard Spencer took the tactic back to its historical roots, leading a crowd in cries of "Lügenpresse!" — a Nazi slur against the press.
"As soon as media outlets and progressive activists began citing 'fake news' as one of the reasons Trump won enough electoral college votes to be elected president, his supporters pushed back hard, as they have on the Russian hacking phenomenon," says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at Right Wing Watch. "They are denying and discounting evidence of anything that could taint his legitimacy."
The term "fake news" itself is vague and pejorative. It's been used to refer to anything from outright hoaxes and spammy clickbait sites to deliberate political disinformation campaigns. It's also a punchy line for shooting down whatever legitimate news story happens to be inconvenient at the time. These factors made it ideal for hijacking by Republicans — whose trust in the media reached an all-time low of just 14% in 2016, and for whom raging against the press has become a rallying cry as much as a conviction the news really is fake.
"What the conservative media machine does, in tandem with its delegitimization of real news, is much more dangerous," argued the Nation's David A. Bell. "Its leaders take any story that, however glancingly or speculatively, throws doubt upon the patriotism, honesty or competence of public figures they dislike, and immediately cast it as the greatest outrage in American history."
The catchphrase has even caught on with the big man himself. In early December, Trump tweeted that a CNN report saying he would remain an executive producer on The Apprentice was "FAKE NEWS!"
The report, however, was subsequently verified by other news sites.
Trump has only relied on the tactic more over time, repeatedly dissing critical media reports as "fake" or "dishonest."
As the Intercept's Robert Mackey argued, "fake news of the sort peddled for profit by apolitical entrepreneurs on Facebook" is often just regurgitated material originally spread by pro-Trump political operatives. The New Republic's Jeet Heer noted Republicans who were genuinely wary of Trump's flaws may have spread fake news damaging Clinton as a way of reassuring themselves she was even worse, thus providing a justification for supporting Trump. Heer theorized it was this "partisan appetite for validating narratives that caused the spike in popularity for fake news."
Maybe the phrase should be retired once and for all. "There's something about the term 'fake news' that doesn't really get at the problem," added Right Wing Watch's Montgomery. "What has been labeled 'fake news' this year is more in the category of hoaxes, conspiracy theories and pure political propaganda that misled voters."
According to Brooke Binkowski, an editor at hoax-busting site Snopes, "It's just the same tired old conspiracy theories and disinfo. But because of current events, it is front and center."
"I think what's going on is that people are throwing around the phrase 'fake news' as though it's a new thing and everyone is reacting to it accordingly," says Binkowski. "But really, what this particular brand of 'fake news' is, is, of course, propaganda."
The Washington Post report that the fake news apparatus was linked to Russian intelligence, for example, relied on spurious testimony from an anonymous group of researchers called PropOrNot.
"Like 'terrorism,' one can point to the excesses of 'fake news' & like terrorism, the definition is whatever power needs it to be at the time," tweeted Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting journalist Adam Johnson.
But as Clinton's campaign recedes into memory, controversy over "fake news" — and accusations the mainstream media are the real traffickers of it — seem destined to live on as a tool of the right.
"Sixty-two percent of Americans receive news from social media," noted right-wing pundit Mark Epstein in the National Review, citing Pew data. "Yet now the Times demands that powerful digital networks cut off articles it does not like."
He added, "Americans will never agree on the definition of 'hate speech,' 'fake news' or the latest manufactured outrage."
"The fake news is the everyday news," right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh said in a December rant. "They just make it up."