The Boy Who Cried Fake News

By Hind Berji

As America confronts the reality of living in an era dictated by a hashtag president, it’s becoming more and more difficult to navigate the plethora of news about Trump. The slew of argumentative fallacies and hysteria that has been thrown out by this president and his administration is only the tip of the iceberg. What’s more, we have a leader who is utterly obsessed with the media, and the media is equally obsessed with him. Back when he was only a celebrity millionaire and businessman, Trump relished in headlines from Newsweek and The Hollywood Reporter, calling in stories under false names and fake accents. No wonder he is shocked that he can no longer control the press; he steered and dominated the gossip columns for years.

Now, Trump and his administration are creating a climate of paranoia by giving all criticism the epithet of “fake news” and telling the world that the press is the enemy of the American people. How does one assert total power? With language and with lies. Nothing secures power better than the dizzying circulation of untruths, panicky scapegoating, bait-and-switch maneuvers, and the successful deflection made by his aides. But what’s unique about Trump and his administration is that they do not have to go great lengths to manipulate language, because hyperbole is convenient for him and everyone who chooses to believe him.

Still, he chooses to play the victim, feeling skewered by a press that has no obligation to the powers that be, but rather to the American people. By using ambiguous terms like “fake news” or “alternative facts,” Trump successfully undermines the credibility of a free press and directs public confidence towards the White House. If the American public is confused or uncertain of what is or isn’t true, Trump emerges as a hero. After all, ambiguity is the stuff that autocratic dreams are made of.

We should be concerned with our relationship with false information, because it does exist. The overwhelming, draining amount of information out there isn’t always easy for the average American to sift through. According to a Pew report from 2016, nearly half of American adults get their news from Facebook, a leading platform for the distribution of false information, and it’s even more difficult to realize its illegitimacy when you have false information coming from the White House.

Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of Trump’s behavior is its flagrancy: he is blatantly lying to Americans, yet this hyperbolic creature remains unquestioned by many. He dichotomizes good and bad coverage while chipping away at the safety and prosperity of this country. We have a president so wrapped up in his own ego that he cannot govern the people he took an oath to protect.

Deflector in Chief

What exactly does it take to defend Trump’s ego? Think of the effort it takes to play the verbal dodge ball of Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, White House press secretary Sean Spicer, or Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Along with Trump, they use phrases like “I think” and “he believes it to be true” in defending his accusations to media outlets. They bar major news outlets from White House press briefings and use condescending, exasperated tones and cheap rhetorical tricks that send many CNN anchors fuming.

Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller told George Stephanopoulos, ABC news anchor and host, that the unverified voter fraud accusation made by Trump “Is a fact, and you will not deny it,” even though there no evidence to confirm those claims. He continued, “ I’m prepared to go on any show, anywhere, any time and repeat it and say the president of the United States is correct, 100 percent.”

Trump hasn’t just changed our perceptions of political discourse and protocol—a Trump America has changed our perceptions of reality. There is a big difference in a hypothetical event and an actual occurrence. We know this to be true, yet the only thing that seems to matter is what he believes to be true.

Trump hasn’t just changed our perceptions of political discourse and protocol—a Trump America has changed our perceptions of reality.

In an article comparing George Orwell’s 1984 and Trump’s America, The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik writes, “When Trump repeats the ridiculous story about the three million illegal voters…People aren’t meant to believe it; they’re meant to be intimidated by it. The lie is not a claim about specific facts; the lunacy is a deliberate challenge to the whole larger idea of sanity. Once a lie that big is in circulation, trying to reel the conversation back into the territory of rational argument becomes impossible.”

Where Does the President Get His News?

Indeed, nothing should frighten us more than the never-ending loop of illogic propagated by Trump, especially since he is formulating real policies from false information. Trump’s information on major issues like immigration, the refugee crisis, unemployment, and health care comes from unreliable sources like Breitbart News (which gave us Trump’s Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon) and conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones of InfoWars. They’re the key players to Trump’s vicious media cycle: an unverified statement is circulated via Twitter, which leads a site like Breitbart to pick it up and write an article laden with rumors on the same subject, then our president takes to Twitter and spreads that same rumor, which is further spread by his supporters and administration officials.

Theorist Guy Debord wrote in his 1990 commentary on The Society of the Spectacle, “The spectacle proves its arguments simply by going round in circles: by coming back to the start, by repetition, by constant reaffirmation in the only space left where anything can be publicly affirmed…Spectacular power can similarly deny whatever it likes, once or three times over, and change the subject, knowing full well there is no danger of any riposte…”

Credibility comes with reassertion and noise. The spectacle fuels itself on a diet of inescapable media discourse and lies, so how can we protect the free flow of information without giving in to the proliferation of misinformation? And do we really want our government to regulate information? (Hint: If you hate “big government” or you loved calling Obama “big brother,” chances are, you don’t.) At the same time, Americans don’t feel comfortable with tech companies’ self-regulation of actual fake news and hate speech.

Furthermore, setting official steps towards regulating misinformation is tricky because it could easily lead to a climate of censorship. We shouldn’t take the epithet “fake news” lightly; journalists all over the world are prosecuted for publishing false information by autocratic regimes. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual prison census, 259 journalists were jailed in 2016; would you call them enemies of the American people? America’s greatest strength is its freedom of speech; the country has a long-standing reputation of being a beacon of press freedom. Trump’s hostility towards the press comes at a time when journalists all over the world are being jailed and killed for publishing factual information. The United States condemned prosecuting journalists for their work, but now it is setting a global precedent for chipping away at democratic barriers of media protections. And although Trump is learning the hard way that he can’t always manipulate the White House press corps, he can manipulate his image, the press, and the American people through social media.

And although Trump is learning the hard way that he can’t always manipulate the White House press corps, he can manipulate his image, the press, and the American people through social media.

The Blue Bird is a Red Herring

Trump’s Twitter strategy is all bait and switch; he gains satisfaction from the outrage. There is a strategy at play here to provoke the press and the American public. Regardless of political bias, the press lingers on Trump’s every word. Here’s the trick: Trump not only gets total media coverage but is also inadvertently seen as a president fulfilling his agenda. No matter how ridiculous he may be as president, he will always be regarded as doing something to enact his agenda. So, he is seen as an effective—albeit controversial—president rather than an autocrat with a tragically transparent ego.

Maybe that was the plan the entire time: jingle the keys in front of the snowflakes and watch as they dissolve into their keyboards. Feed the hands that bite you and watch as they eagerly take the bait. While he distracts the world, over 2,000 new bills have been introduced to Congress. These bills include, but are not limited to, the termination of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), defunding public, private, and home schools through HR 610 (Vouchers for Public Education,) the termination of the Department of Education, and the weakening of labor unions. And while you may argue that many of these bills have been introduced by politicians in Republican-controlled Washington, let’s not forget Trump’s rollout of executive orders (orders that, under the Obama administration, Republicans criticized for alienating the other branches of government,) and he has only been in office for a few months. (Let’s not forget his administration’s ties to Russia, the reports of Trump’s reliance on Fox News and his aides for simple clarification on policies, and the lack of trust and verified surveillance procedures between his staff members.) It’s no surprise that his presidency is under a veil of suspicion, vagueness and incompetence.

The anti-intellectual thread that has run through this country for decades has reared its ugly head in the most extreme way imaginable. Is this what happens when we don’t take candidates seriously? After all of the Saturday Night Live skits and late-night show appearances, we must live with a man we laughed into the highest office of the country, a man who successfully thwarted accountability on virtually everything he has said and done. A free press holds everyone accountable. It is a champion of truth and a conduit between the people and the government. We can’t hold our tongues, but we can’t feed into the hysteria, either. There are ways of reporting factually and critically, as we would do of any president. We cannot become distracted by the salaciousness of Trump’s presidency. The people and the press must articulate any doubts, resistance, or fact-checking practices in an eloquent, logical manner. Clarity is key; clarity is indispensable. Remember: the world of media regenerates by the minute. Don’t take the bait. Tweet wisely, and write ruthlessly.