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Combatting misinformation and disinformation in a world where leaders falsely decry "fake news"

Updated: May 9, 2021


Global Business Journalism reporter

Former U.S. President Donald Trump called American journalists and their news outlets “fake news” nearly 2,000 times his presidency, according to The Independent.

The term “fake news” began as a description of intentional misinformation spread online or through social media, but quickly was transformed into a political propaganda weapon after Trump first tweeted the phrase in December 2016. Then the president-elect, Trump labeled as "fake news" stories that were critical of him, even if they were accurate, as well as reporters who posted stories that earned his disfavor. Authoritarian leaders around the world mimicked Trump's behavior to cast doubt on negative news reports.

As media analysts note, propaganda becomes effective when you repeat phrases so often that it eventually sinks in to the psyches of citizens. Trump’s use of the phrase "fake news" led Trump’s supporters’ trust in media to hit rock bottom.

In fact, leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the public’s engagement with “fake news” through Facebook was higher than through mainstream sources.

In addition to labeling news media he did not like as “fake, phony, and corrupt,” Trump went as far as to call journalists “the enemy of the people.”

“Those words, the 'enemy of the people,' have really taken it to a new level,” Margaret Sullivan, media columnist at The Washington Post, said in an interview with BBC. “In fact, to a dangerous level, because it turns people against journalism as one of the pillars of our democracy.”

Trump's political strategy succeeded in dividing the American public further, which manifested itself in the massively divergent Covid-19 pandemic coverage in mainstream and right-wing media. The growing polarization of the news in the United States caused the pandemic to be politicized, contributing to the deep differences in perspectives on topics such as mask-wearing and the danger posed by the virus.

“Many right-wing media are running with the fake news that the pandemic is not that serious,” Patrick Butler, Vice President of Content and Community at International Center for Journalists, told Global Business Journalism students. "I think the pandemic is giving people the opportunity to politicize things that in the past didn’t have political implications at all. Health stories were always something that was non-political, but they have certainly become more political in this era,"

Trump's use of the term "fake news" poisoned the information ecosystem, confusing accurate reports with misinformation – the spread of false information – and disinformation – the intentional spread of falsehoods for political or economic reasons. While some falsehoods are relatively benign, others can contribute to social discord and foment violence.

“Not every false story or piece of misinformation is necessarily harmful to the same degree,” said Oren Levine, technical adviser to ICFJ. “However, some fake news can have a real-world effect, for example, when COVID-19 vaccinations began being rolled out and half of the citizens don’t want to be vaccinated because they believe the vaccine is harmful, that’s where misinformation is having real world effect."

Another deadly example is the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump backers who believed false news reports and social media posts claiming that Democrats had conspired to steal the presidential election from Trump.

"The challenge [with misinformation] is trying to understand where the boundaries are, where action is required, and where it might be better to ignore it to not give fake information more fuel to spread,” Levine said.

The rise of misinformation and disinformation has been fueled by the rise of the internet as a massive source of information. The internet and social media give anyone instant access to post content online to reach an audience. The proliferation of disinformation in recent years makes it more and more difficult to distinguish between true and false information. Legitimate journalists must make difficult ethical decisions about when to refute false information, because they must repeat the falsehood in order to counter it.

"The challenge [with disinformation] is trying to understand where the boundaries are, where action is required, and where it might be better to ignore it to not give fake information more fuel to spread,” Levine said.

To serve the public more effectively, Butler suggested that reporters wrap false information in "a truth sandwich": Start by stating the truth, followed by “sticking the lie in there” to acknowledge it, while always ending the fact-check with more truth.

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