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Fake News and Donald Trump’s War on Truth

Posted on Feb 9, 2017

By Sonali Kolhatkar

  President Trump with chief of staff Reince Priebus, center, adviser Kellyanne Conway and members of the press aboard Air Force One in January. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP)

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The term “fake news” entered into popular usage soon after the 2016 general election, when Donald Trump beat most poll predictions and won just enough Electoral College votes in swing states to tilt the results in his favor. Many shocked Americans looked for explanations for how the unthinkable had happened.

One idea that jumped out was that some voters, particularly those who favored Trump, had been duped by fabricated reports sporting sensationalist headlines, specifically designed to be click-bait. Thus the idea of “fake news,” as an insidious and deeply out-of-control phenomenon with the power to sway elections, took hold.

No sooner had this theory been established than Trump and his surrogates deployed the idea themselves as an offensive tactic. In a recent tweet, Trump explained to Americans how he makes presidential decisions, saying, “I call my own shots, largely based on an accumulation of data, and everyone knows it. Some FAKE NEWS media, in order to marginalize, lies!” He has also dismissed surveys demonstrating the unpopularity of some of his policies in this tweet: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election.”

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It is a brilliant move, designed to keep the purveyors of fact-checked stories off balance and under suspicion.

Facts are the enemy of charlatans and con artists, hence Trump’s adviser and campaign chair Kellyanne Conway’s offer of “alternative facts” in the face of real ones on the size of Inauguration Day crowds in Washington, D.C.

In Trump’s milieu, bona fide news reports are considered “fake news,” while Conway’s lies (and those of the president) are simply “alternative facts.” In effect, Trump has skillfully turned the notion of fake news on its head and weaponized it against the media. All he has to do is dismiss any inconvenient media claim, no matter how well-documented and verifiable, as fake news and stand his ground. Most frightening—and dangerous—is the possibility that many of his supporters will believe him over The New York Times or The Washington Post.

Pushed to explain why she made up facts, Conway suggested that it was to counter criticism from the press. “Your job is not to call things ridiculous that are said by our press secretary and our president. That’s not your job,” she told NBC’s Chuck Todd. “Think about what you just said to your viewers. That’s why we feel compelled to go out and clear the air and put alternative facts out there.”

Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s deputy assistant, echoed that attitude recently when he told right-wing broadcaster Michael Medved, “There is a monumental desire on behalf of the majority of the media—not just the pollsters, the majority of the media—to attack a duly elected president in the second week of his term.” Gorka added, “Until the media understands how wrong that attitude is, and how it hurts their credibility, we are going to continue to say, ‘fake news.’ I’m sorry, Michael. That’s the reality.” Gorka basically admitted that the administration’s accusations of “fake news” are being wielded as weapons against a media establishment that he perceives is intent on embarrassing his boss.

Trump himself has been the generator of fake news for years, most notably his “birther” falsehood that Barack Obama is not a U.S.-born citizen. In response to popular anger over his “Muslim ban,” recently, Trump once again indulged in false claims. During a speech about terrorism, he said “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even reported, and in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t even want to report [terrorist attacks].” Later, his press secretary, Sean Spicer, reiterated the bizarre claim, saying that terror attacks “aren’t exactly covered to a degree on which they should be.” Journalists responded with factual evidence to the contrary.

The underreported type of terrorism both Trump and Spicer were referring to is that committed by Muslims against Muslims. Attacks by white supremacists, such as Charleston, S.C., shooter Dylann Roof, are naturally not included in the narrative being used to justify a “Muslim ban.”

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