Fake News in Trump’s America

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

“Fake news” has become a household term in contemporary discourse. A review of the Nexis Uni database shows that, in any given week, it appears in dozens of news stories in elite newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, and in hundreds of segments across American television media. In the first 10 days following Nancy Pelosi’s announced impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, “fake news” was referenced in relation to “Trump” and “impeachment” in nearly 1,200 newsprint articles in English-language media.

Following the announcement of the impeachment inquiry, Trump dismissed as “fake news” any reporting claiming he sought to extort Ukraine’s president to obtain political information against Democratic Presidential frontrunner Joe Biden. Brian Klaas at the Washington Post responded, that Trump was pushing a “fake scandal” of his own by claiming Biden intimidated Ukraine’s government to fire a prosecutor bringing charges against Burisma Holdings, for which his son worked. As this back-and-forth suggests, there is disagreement about what “fake news” actually means. But the risk endemic in exchanges like these is that “fake news” is defined simply through partisan politicking. It becomes a rhetorical tool for those holding power to settle grudges against their enemies.

In a perverse “post-fact” political-media landscape, it’s difficult to find a workable definition of fake news. Even tabloid “news,” despite its blatantly fraudulent and sensationalist format, is deemed credible, as seen in reporting that Trump sought to “buy all the dirt on him collected by the tabloid National Enquirer” for fear that these stories would damage his credibility in the 2016 electoral race.

I sought to inquire into the public meaning of fake news, to understand how Americans engage in the concept. I reviewed the two most authoritative surveys done on the subject – the June 2018 NORC national survey and the January 2018 Knight Foundation survey, and supplemented them with my own original survey, conducted through Harris Polling in August 2019.

Knight’s polling results provide some indication of what Americans think is fake news. The most commonly accepted definition – shared by 48 percent of Americans – is that fake news is journalists “knowingly portraying false information as if it were true.” It is rare to be able to demonstrate this level of deception among journalists. It does happen on occasion, however, for example when former New York Times reporters Jayson Blair admitted to fabricating stories out of thin air in relation to mass shootings and war.

According to Knight, the second most common definitions of fake news – both held by 35 percent of Americans – are when journalists report stories “before they check all their facts and sources to be sure they are accurate,” and when they “slant” their stories “to promote a certain point of view.” The concerns with slant and failed fact-checking are understandable, in a political era where “Russiagate” can become a major political scandal before the FBI even released its findings regarding the claims of Trump’s collusion with the Russian government to impact the 2016 election.

Finally, just 28 percent of Americans agree fake news is “accurate stories casting a politician or political group in a negative light.” This definition comes closest to Trump’s, as he has explicitly linked “fake news” to any reporting that’s critical of his administration. Perhaps the most egregious example of this practice is found in Trump’s Twitter feed, where he complains:

“The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?”

This lament is astounding, but unsurprising in a post-truth era, in which “negativity” and “false” are synonymous in the Trump administration’s attacks on the press.

NORC’s survey is somewhat different in how it examines perceptions of fake news. First is a definition, held by 71 percent of Americans, that fake news is “made-up stories from news outlets that don’t exist.” Think the blatantly false story that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for President, pushed by the fake news site “WTOE 5 News,” which was then covered by real news outlets in the U.S. and globally.

Second, there’s the concern among 63 percent of Americans with “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors.” Like when “mainstream” journalists endlessly reported that Barack Obama wasn’t a U.S. citizen, or that his health care reform bill included “death panels” that would murder senior citizens. Third, 62 percent of Americans cited “journalists from real news organizations that make stuff up.” This concern is occasionally grounded in real-world news. For example, when Fox News retracted a story reporting that DNC staffer Seth Rich was murdered, with partisan operatives like Sean Hannity shamelessly speculating about a criminal conspiracy going to the highest levels of the Democratic Party.

Additionally, 62 percent of Americans agreed that fake news is “news stories from real organizations that are unfair or sloppy.” “Sloppy” reporting in the form of poorly sourced stories is nothing new, for example, when CNN retracted a story due to “unverified” single-source reporting alleging the Russian Direct Investment Fund had established links with Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Finally, there is a concern, if only among 25 percent of Americans, that fake news is “satire or comedy about current events.” Some might view late-night comedy programs as “fake news” to the extent that millions of Americans look to these sources for information and news. This mindset fits with Comedy Central’s tongue-and-cheek reference to their flagship “Daily Show” program as “the most trusted name in fake news.”

The Knight survey findings are somewhat problematic for the Trump administration. Public sentiment runs contrary to his blunt efforts to discredit reporters for “fake news,” simply because they report stories that are critical of his office. But NORC’s findings also raise questions about Americans’ independence from Trump’s political agenda. In my statistical “regression” analysis of NORC’s survey, I find a number of significant predictors regarding whether Americans are concerned about “fake news” – in relation to stories that are “made-up” by “news outlets that don’t exist,” and by “fake news” “stories from real [news] organizations that are sloppy or unfair.”

The first definition above comes closest to some of the early discussions of fake news related to the 2016 presidential election, which spotlighted fabricated stories that were passed off as news in social media. The second is relevant to a broader definition of “fake news” as the equivalent of “bias” or “spin.” After statistically “controlling” for respondents’ age, race, income, education, gender, and level of attention to the news, I find the perception that fake news is “made-up” stories is primarily associated with partisanship, beliefs about a “liberal bias” in the news, and attitudes toward Trump. In other words, those most concerned with fake news are significantly more likely to be Republican Trump supporters who believe the media conspire against conservatives, and in favor of liberals. Controlling for other factors, partisanship and perceptions of media bias are also the main factors associated with individuals defining fake news as “sloppy or unfair” reporting. These findings are to be expected, since conservative pundits and officials have spent decades socializing Americans to believe the media are biased against the right.

My findings are disturbing because they reveal the “fake news” phenomenon is largely a repackaging of old rightwing rhetoric about “biased” “liberal media.” My examination of the Knight survey reveals a familiar pattern for those accepting claims about “liberal media bias.” Those most likely to hold this belief, statistically speaking, are higher-income, white, male, Republican, and Trump supporters. In other words, they’re exactly the kind of people you’d expect to be concerned with “liberal bias” due to the Republican Party’s longstanding attacks on the press. To sum it up, these data suggest “fake news” operates largely as a proxy for relitigating old battles over “liberal media” treachery.

If the fake news phenomenon is merely “old win in new bottles,” then it operates as a political tool – a rhetorical weapon – for Republican partisans to continue policing the media. Reinforcing this point, it is troubling that one’s actual level of attention to the news in the Knight survey is not a significant predictor of opinions regarding fake news, as related to concerns with “made-up” stories and “sloppy or unfair” reporting. If the “fake news” phenomenon is meaningful as a conceptual framework, then those paying the most attention to the news – people with the most practical, hands-on experience with consuming news content – should be more concerned with fake news. It’s possible that journalists’ successful indoctrination of media consumers with false consciousness and misinformation would make it harder for heavier news consumers to recognize fake news. But we don’t see this either: increased media consumption is not associated with fake news attitudes one way or the other.

One limit here is that my findings thus far fail to present Americans with a radical, critical alternative to “mainstream” political discourse for defining fake news. Neither the Knight Foundation nor NORC offer respondents an alternative option emphasizing fake news as akin to the uncritical dissemination of government misinformation and propaganda. Media scholars have long spotlighted the official source bias in the news – and even a propagandistic bias – as the primary means through which journalists distort political information. The official source bias means the marginalization of citizens’ and dissident voices – particularly those outside the range of views embraced by the two major political parties.

Most intellectuals historically scoff at the idea that American officials and journalists practice propaganda. That’s something, we’re told, that happens only in authoritarian regimes. This position is itself propagandistic. U.S. business and political leaders were instrumental in the early development of propaganda. And propaganda remains central to U.S. discourse today. For proof, we need look no further than the example of journalists’ systematic failure to raise questions about the Bush administration’s manufactured and fallacious claims that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction” and ties to al Qaeda terrorism, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

My Harris survey was designed to address this “propaganda shortcoming” in how we understand fake news, providing Americans with an option allowing them to identify the practice as related to media amplification of official misinformation. I asked Americans to select from a variety of choices when defining what practices “describe fake news.” I included a definition of fake news as propaganda: with “news organizations failing to question deceptive statements made by political leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties.” Additional measures included in my survey included: “content from tabloid newspapers (e.g. the National Inquirer, Star) that claim to be real news organizations”; “content from websites impersonating real news sites”; “when real news organizations (e.g. CNN, Fox, ABC, The New York Times) publish stories that are made up or fabricated”; “liberal bias in the media”; “conservative bias in the media”; and “when Americans get their information from late night comedy-entertainment shows (e.g., Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel).”

My findings are mixed, although they reinforce the notion that Americans generally fall into traditional definitions of fake news. On the one hand, the most popular beliefs about fake news are establishment-oriented, revealing that Americans indulge in parochial ways of thinking about fake news. The largest group of Americans – 53 percent – accepted the very pedestrian notion that fake news is made-up content from tabloid “newspapers.” Similarly, responses were limited in that 51 percent of respondents agreed fake news is “content from websites impersonating real news sites.” Forty-eight percent felt fake news is stories “made up or fabricated” by “real news organizations.” Only 30 percent agreed that “late night comedy-entertainment shows” were fake news, while just 28 percent said fake news was “conservative bias in the media.”

But not all the findings reinforced conventional takes on fake news. Contradicting Trump’s and the Republican Party’s rhetoric, just 34 percent of respondents said fake news is “liberal bias in the media.” And a sizable minority of Americans – 42 percent – agreed fake news is “news organizations failing to question deceptive statements made by political leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties.” So fake news seems to be a contested phenomenon for the mass public. Even if most Americans fall into conventional definitions of the concept, large numbers also embrace a radical critique recognizing fake news as reliance on official manipulation and propaganda.

What to make of the findings above, when taken collectively? First and foremost, most Americans have an “understanding” of fake news that’s limited to the frameworks established in the news media before, during, and after the 2016 presidential election. This “mainstream” approach includes feelings that fake news is defined by flagrantly false tabloid “news” content, that it is linked to individual false stories made by fake news organizations, and to the occasional story in the news media that’s blatantly fabricated by a wayward reporter. Most Americans don’t recognize fake news as journalists’ overreliance on official propaganda.

Similarly, a large majority – between two-thirds to three-quarters of Americans – define fake news as biased reporting and “made-up” stories. As I documented, these concerns are largely tied to support for Trump and old Republican Partisan rhetoric about “liberal media” bias. Such concerns are not tied to news consumption, which is a problem for those who believe the rise of “fake news” discourse represents a critical backlash against actual reporting in the mass media.

But a large minority of Americans don’t fall into mainstream or reactionary definitions of fake news. This segment of the public sees the news media as fundamentally corrupting our American discourse, via their amplification of official voices, and their failure to explore dissenting views outside of those held in our bipartisan dominated political system. Public recognition of media propaganda provides some hope for media reform advocates who support the creation of a public, non-profit media system. That system could avoid the official source bias by providing for a genuine pluralism of coverage – through the exploration of a rich variety of political voices, including those outside the realm of bipartisan American politics. But this sort of substantive dissent against the status quo will need to intensify in the future should there be any meaningful push for media reform.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.