President Trump speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Sometime as early as August or September 2016, a few teenagers in the small town of Veles, Macedonia, released the first articles of what would become a campaign of misinformation. These hoaxers weren’t concerned with the veracity of their write-ups. Theirs was a language of sensation and virality, not accuracy and ethics. Nor were these scammers influenced by ideology. Whether the falsehoods benefitted Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton didn’t matter, as long as the articles were getting clicks. At first, fake news wasn’t about journalism or politics: it was a money-making scheme. In a country where the average monthly salary is $371, these Macedonian teenagers devised an occupation that brought in upwards of $5,000 a month. What they did not realize is that they were also fashioning a linguistic sword for the future president of the United States, one that distilled an aspect of Trump’s worldview into a phrase that he could use in rallies and tweets alike.

It is implausible that fake news landed Trump in the White House. A study commissioned by Stanford University concluded that fake news could have changed the outcome of the election only if each false article were as persuasive as thirty-six television ads. In other words, there’s no evidence to suggest that many people voted for Trump because they thought he really was endorsed by the Pope.

And yet six months after those false stories began to pop up in Facebook newsfeeds, the phrase “fake news” hasn’t gone away. Its use, however, invokes a very different meaning now than it did last November. The very concept of fake news has proved to be much more potent than fake news pieces themselves. Seized by Trump, the phrase “fake news” has become a linguistic weapon that represents the culmination, in a distinctly Trumpian fashion, of a long history of presidential attacks on the media.

On the Genealogy of “Fake News” 

The term “fake news” first became widespread soon after the election, as pundits began trying to make sense of Trump’s victory. One analysis of the language used on television news credits the popularization of the phrase to none other than Mark Zuckerberg. At a technology conference that day, the Facebook CEO claimed that any fake news shared on Facebook could not have influenced the election. Google Trends, which visualizes data on how often a particular term was searched on Google’s engine, shows the uptick around November 13, as media outlets began writing about how companies like Facebook and Google should deal with false information.

The meaning of “fake news” at that time was straightforward: false information masquerading as authoritative news. But when the phrase entered Trump’s vocabulary less than one month later, the definition of the emerging expression had been altered: “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!” The news, of course, was not fake—Trump has in fact remained the executive producer of his former NBC show “The Celebrity Apprentice.” Yet Trump cried “fake news” anyway, because the story revealed a conflict of interest he would have as president.

The full transformation of the phrase’s meaning was completed when Trump, 10 days before his inauguration, refused to let CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta ask a question at his press conference. Trump jabbed at Acosta, “Your organization is terrible,” and then added, “You are fake news.” A phrase that before had been used to characterize fabricated stories posted by Macedonian teenagers had now been used twice by the president-elect to attack CNN, a staple of the American press.

For Trump, “fake news” can take on different meanings in different contexts. David Fahrenthold, a Washington Post reporter who broke the Access Hollywood tape story and has covered the Trump Foundation, sees two senses in which Trump uses the phrase: “He sort of mashes together two concepts,” Fahrenthold said, in an interview with the HPR. “First is that it’s especially inaccurate reporting, and the other concept is that it’s news he disagrees with. Maybe it’s true, but he doesn’t think it’s very important.” As president, Trump’s use of “fake news” has become commonplace. On his Twitter alone, he has used the phrase in tweets 44 times, and there seems to be no end in sight.

Learning from Nixon to Kick Back

So far, most efforts to place fake news within a historical context have focused on the history of misinformation and propaganda in politics, but this is a misguided approach to understanding the concept in its current use. The United States doesn’t have a fake news problem; it has a “fake news” problem. What that means is that Trump’s weapon isn’t propaganda; instead, it is the idea of a biased, duplicitous media that will stop at nothing to take him down. Thus, in the search for context, the proper historical arena is not propaganda, but the adversarial relationship between the presidency and the press.

Trump is hardly the first president to denounce the press. “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1807 letter. “Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle,” he added. In modern presidential history, Richard Nixon serves as the paradigm for the adversarial relationship with the press. In his concession speech following the 1962 election for governor of California, Nixon blamed his loss in part on the media: “Now that all the members of the press are delighted that I lost, I would just like to make a statement of my own,” he said. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Of course, Nixon’s political career did not end in 1962. And as Jon Marshall, Assistant Professor at the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism, noted in an article in The Atlantic, many of the strategies that Nixon employed to counteract the media as president have become part of the standard presidential playbook. Nixon and his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, a former advertising agency executive, created the first White House Communications Office to ensure that all of Nixon’s interactions with the press were scripted. Nixon was the first president to replace “the press,” which immediately conjures the freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment, with the pejorative “the media.” He did not hesitate to ban from the White House reporters he disliked and occasionally directed his vice president, Spiro Agnew, to make speeches attacking the media.

In his eight years as president, Barack Obama picked up a few of Nixon’s tactics. He mostly took interviews from people he knew would ask softball questions, and he and the White House staff were often accused of evading reporters. The Obama administration also had strategies for handling nosy White House reporters. “The Obama people would try to overwhelm you with their response,” Fahrenthold told the HPR. “First they would try off-the-record to convince you not to write the story at all. Then, they would call back and try to give you all this information about how you were wrong. Their idea was that it would be overwhelming and you couldn’t help but come out on their side.”

Trumpspeak from a Cognitive Perspective

Characterizing mainstream media as “fake news” is a step above even Nixon’s devices. George Lakoff, the Director of the Center for Neural Mind & Society at the University of California at Berkeley, observes a pivotal dividing line between “fake news” and earlier phrases to the refer to the media. “On the one hand, ‘the liberal press’ describes news from the perspective of liberals,” he said in an interview with the HPR. “On the other hand, ‘fake news’ describes news with a purpose to deceive that is therefore not serving democracy.” For Lakoff, who has studied the relationship between language and politics since he wrote his book Moral Politics in 1996, Trump’s use of the phrase “fake news” is characteristic of the way he uses linguistic and cognitive science to his benefit. “Thought is 98 percent unconscious,” Lakoff explained. “It works through the neural system, and it uses mental structures like frames and conceptual metaphors all the time. Trump uses your brain against you.”

Lakoff’s observations of party politics over the last two decades have led him to conclude that conservatives are simply better than liberals at using mental structures like frames and conceptual metaphors to explain their policies to voters. The root of this, he believes, is that conservatives tend to study marketing in college, while liberals study subjects like political science, public policy, and economic theory. Marketing necessarily involves cognitive science, Lakoff says: “You study how people really think.” Underlying the standard education for a progressive, meanwhile, is the theory of Enlightenment reason, which emphasizes logic and rationality over psychology as the driving human cognitive force. This dichotomy is where conservatives begin to gain a linguistic advantage over liberals. “If you believe in Enlightenment reason,” Lakoff said, “what you believe amounts to science denial. It denies cognitive science, cognitive linguistics, neural computation, and many other things.”

Trump is no stranger to marketing. He spent decades as a real estate mogul in Manhattan, where he honed his ability to negotiate. In Trump’s freewheeling style of speaking, Lakoff sees the deliberate and intentional use of language that propagates Trump’s own worldview onto voters. “Trump is a master salesman,” Lakoff told the HPR. “He’s always selling himself, his view of the world, and his policies. He knows how to use your brain to his advantage, as every master salesman does.” Trump, Lakoff argues, uses repetition and framing to great effect. Every time Trump repeats an assertion, a voter is more inclined to believe it. Trump also has a knack for being able to boil down people and positions into easy-to-digest frames: “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” and “Build The Wall” are just a few examples of Trump employing this tactic. From this perspective, it is easy to see how Trump’s repetition of “fake news” would be potent. In fact, a March poll by Quinnipiac University shows that 81 percent of Republicans agreed with Trump’s claim that the media is the “enemy of the people.”

The Liberal Response

If liberals are to succeed throughout the next four years, Lakoff believes that they must battle Trump’s rhetorical prowess with linguistic strategies of their own. Lakoff is currently involved in building the Citizens’ Communication Network, a service that aims to provide framing suggestions that can be used by activists and ordinary citizens alike to make their policy arguments more linguistically compelling. For example, the project would help liberals reframe “regulations,” which sound like restrictions that should be reduced, as “public protections,” which sound like safety measures that should be preserved.

The Citizens’ Communication Network is just the latest part of a long effort by Lakoff to engage liberals with cognitive science. He has been arguing for over a decade that if liberals do not catch up to the linguistic savvy of conservatives, they will lose at the ballot boxes, and he sees Clinton’s loss as a vindication of his warning. “The Hillary Clinton campaign assumed that if they put up Donald Trump just saying what he normally said, people would vote against him, whereas what they actually did was give advertisements for Donald Trump,” he said. In Lakoff’s view, the Clinton campaign’s anti-Trump strategy failed to account for the phenomenon known as neural inhibition. In order to neurally inhibit a thought, the brain must first activate that thought. The catch is that every time the thought is activated, it becomes stronger. Lakoff published a book called Don’t Think of An Elephant! in 2004 to make this very point. “If I say ‘don’t think of an elephant,’ what are you going to think of?” he explained. “When Nixon said, ‘I am not a crook,’ you thought of him as a crook.”

With neural inhibition in mind, perhaps the best strategy to combat “fake news” is to simply stop using the phrase at all. As Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist for the Washington Post, has written, attacks on accuracy are much better served by words like “falsehood,” “untruth,” and “lie.” The media could stop repeating Trump’s attacks on “fake news,” and the phrase might slowly go out of style. But, if Trump’s linguistic history and the media’s history covering Trump are any indication, “fake news” is here to stay, even if the false stories by those Macedonian teenagers are long gone.

Image Credit: Flickr / Gage Skidmore


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