This is a guest post by ClimateDenierRoundup
Along with “alt-right” and “post-truth,” “fake news” has become the latest and greatest term to describe the bizarre media landscape we all now inhabit. Sadly, it’s a home we’re comfortable in, as we’ve been exploring it for the last five years. (That said, Politico’s Simon Van Zuylen-Wood does a good job chronicling a two-week fake news diet.)
Since we’ve called out Breitbart’s fake climate news on numerous occasions, we’re encouraged that other outlets are now debunking its propaganda, too. Case in point, both AP and Guardian covered a Breitbart story which falsely claimed that on New Year’s Eve, a mob chanting “Allahu Akbar” attacked police and “set fire” to Germany’s oldest church. It was shared nearly 17,000 times on Facebook.
A more realistic version of the story is that a stray firework lit some netting outside a scaffolding around the church on fire, and it was put out in just 12 minutes. And there was no damage to the church, which isn’t actually the oldest in Germany at all.
Not content to let the fake news rebuttal lie, Breitbart instead allegesthat the debunking is a “dishonest attack” coordinated by a web of the German press, establishment politicians, German police and the liberal media. Because, just like with climate change, there’s no conspiracy theory outlandish enough not to use to justify their anti-Islamic fake news.
But this brings up a larger point – the co-opting of the term “fake news” by those who buy into it or benefit from it. As pointed out by Jeremy Peters last month, the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones and Donald Trump have begun using the term to describe and discredit any reporting they don’t like. And now, Rep. Lamar Smith is doing it too.
That, combined with the lack of specific definition for fake news (it’s used to describe satire, lies, propaganda, biased reporting and hoaxes), is why WaPo’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan is saying it’s “time to retire the tainted term.”
As much as we agree with her advice that we should stop using it and instead just call out lies, hoaxes and conspiracy theories for what they are, the odds are slim people will drop it. (Hard to put toothpaste back in the tube and all that.) Plus, even if legitimate media does stop using it, the right-wing will keep it as a way to attack the truth they don’t like. As Sullivan points out, fact checks once considered bipartisan and fair are increasingly being labeled fake news by those being checked.
This is where things really start to get worrisome. As we’ve seen from the climate issue, a rejection of facts and reality by a small cadre of actors, aided by a sympathetic media, has real consequences- in our case, decades of inaction on a problem scientists are practically unanimous on the need to fix.
Beyond that, though, it’s hard to see where the fake news problem is headed, and seems unthinkable that it’s being guided by anything more than a loose coalition of profit-driven corporations in an ad-hoc fashion. Which is scary, but something that we’ve been able to begin to overcome.
But what if there were more? What if it is an intentional effort to weaken the free press upon which an informed electorate is built? What if it were part of a sustained effort by former KGB agents to destabilize the intellectual and democratic foundation of these United States?
That’s exactly what’s happening, according to Molly McKew in Politico Magazine, who uses examples from Ukraine, Syria and the US to lay out Putin’s Real Long Game. Though it’s a more high-level examination of the type of informational warfare that’s being waged, it is brought right back to climate when combined with Joe Romm’s piece headlined Did Putin help elect Trump to restore $500 billion Exxon oil deal killed by sanctions. Because if the sanctions on Russia are lifted and the deal goes through, it will sure look like a quid-pro-quo.
So from the core of Western Liberalism and the ideals of journalism to the very atmosphere above us, the news may be fake but the threat is all too real. (Though it seems a more accurate term is “Russian Propaganda.”)
Ironic, then, that the same voices who call climate change a communist hoax are embracing fake news from former communist agents.
Image credit: Flickr CC