The term “fake news,” already embedded in the American national psyche, achieved global recognition when the UK-based Collins Dictionary declared it the Word of the Year for 2017, citing its “ubiquitous presence.”
The masquerading of fake news as real, and assaults on real news as fake, threatens democratic institutions, including that of a free press. This compounds problems and creates tensions worldwide.
Collins defines the term as “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”
In America, President Donald Trump uses it as a rhetorical device to discount an unfavourable story or distrusted news outlet or diminish the media at large.
Others are following his lead: Trump surrogates, members of Congress, autocrats and dictators elsewhere now alleging fake news treatment, and political analysts who argue that unverified information that is “out there” gives them license to repeat it as fact.
Fake news comes in different forms, ranging from total fabrication to distortion of facts to state-sponsored propaganda to the spread of erroneous content on social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
Trump repeatedly turns to Twitter to discredit the news media, tweeting about fake news 141 times from January through October, according to Fox News’ Chris Wallace.
Americans disturbingly are buying in. A politico poll recently found that 46% of voters actually believe major news organisations make up stories about Trump.
This is troubling in the journalism universe. At least most major news organisations admit their mistakes. Still, we clearly we need to do more to regain reader trust.
But readers and viewers also should find the spread of fake news troubling. Which brings us to another intriguing Word of the Year. Dictionary.com selected “complicit,” noting the word’s new relevance in politics and social commentary.
Dictionary.com says complicit means “choosing to be involved in an illegal or questionable act, especially with others; having partnership or involvement in wrongdoing.”
Put simply, it means being, at some level, responsible for something ... even if indirectly.
Interest in the word spiked during 2017, including after Republican US Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona announced his retirement, saying, “I will not be complicit or silent” about the current political climate and the tone of Trump’s presidency.
The connection between “complicit” and “fake news” is easily made.
People have become complicit in accepting and sharing fake news. All of us need to be smarter in recognising deception.
Some advice: Don’t trust everything a friend shares with you online. Be your own fact-checker. Share only stories you know to be true. Call out “friends” who send you unverified rubbish. Be willing to pay for journalism you trust.
The world needs discerning readers and viewers – those who welcome honest journalism that holds leaders accountable and provides vital information for citizens to cast informed votes and contribute to decision-making.
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