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Why I’m done saying ‘fake news’

We’ve reached a dangerous point in time where the answers to “what is true” and “who to trust” dominate the debate on important issues like climate change, vaccines, and immigration. Reality is apparently even debatable for seemingly unimportant issues like crowd sizes and the price of beer in Ontario.
Why I am done saying fake news.

In this post-truth era, it’s not surprising that academics, think-tanks and the media are all tackling these issues. “Fake news” regularly appears in media headlines, policy panel titles and academic papers. These investigations and discussions are helpful, but what’s not helpful is the words we are repeating.

We use “fake news” as a catch-all term to refer to all types of misinformation—from Russian bots, and politicians making misleading comments to actual errors in legitimate reporting.

I admit it’s a very catchy phrase. At Evidence for Democracy, we have certainly been guilty of using it. It is an easy way to boil down many complex issues of the post-truth era into two words. But we lose nuance with such a pithy phrase.

And of course, there is another problem with the term “fake news.” It also used frequently by President Donald Trump and his supporters to mean something very different. They use the term to claim that the mainstream media is putting out intentionally false news stories and therefore should not be trusted. They cry “fake news” every time a journalist calls them out on blatant mistruths or criticizes their policies.

Trump has a knack for framing issues and coining soundbites that stick and support his storylines. The term “fake news” has been effectively co-opted by Trump and his ilk, and we can’t take it back.

Using “fake news” in any context now supports the story that Trump and the far-right are telling—that the mainstream media is lying to us. We cannot win the debate when we debate on their terms. Distrusting the press is all too often the first step along the path of believing dangerous conspiracy theories that are increasingly prominent on the far-right.

Regardless of how we mean it, what we’re saying everytime we use “fake news” is that the mainstream media is dishonest. Even if you are using the term specifically to defend and distinguish the mainstream media from untrustworthy outlets you are reinforcing the idea that mainstream media is dishonest.

I am the executive director of an organization that champions the use of evidence and data in decision making so of course, I’ll encourage you to take a look at the research on why we should stop using this term.

A study released earlier this year showed that exposure to the term ‘fake news’ hurt people’s ability to identify real news—meaning when they were shown real news, they thought it was fake. Exposure to the term didn’t affect their ability to identify news that was actually fake. It resulted in participants having less trust in media, and this was true across the political spectrum.

There is also evidence that Canadians are confused about the meaning of the term. A poll from IPSOS found Canadians split on whether the term means media stories with incorrect information, politicians or news outlets only reporting one side of an argument or a term used by politicians to discredit media reports they disagree with.

With a federal election just under a year away, it’s clear that Canada isn’t going to be immune to the post-truth issues plaguing other countries. Last week in Ottawa the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Scheer said he is going to ‘stand up to the media’ suggesting Canadian Conservatives could be planning to take a page from Trump’s playbook by aiming to discredit the mainstream press. Days later, Liberal MP Mark Gerretsen used the hashtag #Fakenews in an exchange with a Global news reporter on twitter. He has since acknowledged that he “should not have said it, even in jest.”

It’s time for organizations and institutions who care about the role of media in our democracy—media outlets, universities, think-tanks and NGOs among them—to stop using the term.

Evidence for Democracy won’t be using it going forward.

We’re not the first. Just last week the UK government announced it would stop using the term because it “is a poorly defined and misleading term that conflates a variety of false information, from genuine error through to foreign interference in democratic processes.” This decision was one of the recommendations following an investigation into how their government would combat the growing threat of misinformation.

Misinformation online, politicians sidestepping the truth, possible interference from outside countries: these are incredibly complex threats facing our democracy here and around the world. Quitting ‘fake news’ alone won’t solve the problem, but at least we won’t be making the problem worse.

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