The ‘danger’ of Trump’s fake news rhetoric

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The U.S. media has become used to being derided as “fake news” by Donald Trump on Twitter. This week was no different, with the president blasting the “fake news media” and “truly bad people” in the wake of the killing of a protester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, while he celebrated the return of his former chief strategist Steve Bannon to Breitbart: “Fake news needs the competition!”

Many media organizations define fake news as false information deliberately created or circulated by sites to misinform, usually for profit or political gain. Trump, however, frequently criticizes news coverage that he disagrees with as “fake news” in a bid to undermine its credibility.

He also uses it to bolster his persona as an outsider taking on the Washington establishment. “The FAKE NEWS media (failing , , , , ) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!”, he tweeted to his 36.4 million followers in February.

The president’s use of the phrase is prolific. It appeared in 17 of his tweets between 20 July and 20 August, for example. He also attacked the media in 13% of his tweets in a two-month period between June and August, according to Michael O’Donnell, a professor of communication and journalism at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.

In one sense, the insults don’t seem to have done the media any damage. The “failing” New York Times accumulated about 300,000 digital subscribers in the first three months of the year – the strongest growth in any quarter since the newspaper implemented its online paywall in 2011 – while CNN reported a 21% rise in total day viewership during the same period.  

But some media commentators fear Trump’s constant taunting could be damaging the industry. “He is systematically trying to delegitimize the news as an institution,” Tom Rosenstiel, the executive director of the American Press Institute, told Vox News.

The chair of the UK's culture, media and sport committee, Damian Collins, agrees, labeling Trump’s appropriation of the phrase “dangerous”.

“We have to fight for the term ‘fake news’…  [otherwise we could] end up in a position where the real perpetrators of fake news can continue spreading lies, unchallenged,” he told the Press Association in March.

Americans’ trust and confidence in the media dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history in 2016, with 32% saying they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

The industry has made a big effort to tackle our definition of fake news by exposing false information and showing our working when it comes to fact-checking. But can we do more to counter Trump’s?