33 Why Rhetoric that Includes “Fake News” Matters to Everybody

Matt Wolpe

This chapter is dedicated to Liverpool Football Club, for no reason other than that they are the greatest football club in the world. My fandom began years ago as a result of my brother’s constant watching of their matches, as well as our constant playing of the video game FIFA 14.  Where I once despised watching the sport on television, Liverpool made everything look precise and beautiful and their crowds were raucous.  They also represent an amazing history full of highs and lows. The highs were each and every trophy the team has won, while the lows are events like the Hillsborough Disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans were accidentally crushed.  Learning about the history, as well as the current players in the club, has brought my brother and I closer together as well as taught us valuable life lessons like acceptance, attention to detail, and to never give up. YNWA – You’ll Never Walk Alone.

 Keywords: Fake vs. Real, Definition, Deflection, Narrative, Media


 

We are surrounded by news every day. Whether you’re an avid follower of current events or someone who actively aims to stay away from news for whatever reason, news stories – particularly significant ones – have a way of making the rounds. Especially in the era of the iPhone, Americans are interacting with media more than ever; the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) writes that “the average number of hours a typical American spends taking in some form of media rose from 7.4 hours per day in 1980 to 11.8 in 2008” (FCC 226). At the same time as these apparent technological and mass media peaks, however, the FCC also notes that news consumption has actually gone down during that period: “while sources of news have increased, so have entertainment and sports choices” (FCC 227). With so many outlets yet such little clarity regarding which ones are being truthful – and Americans more prone than ever to simply reading a headline and nothing further – there has scarcely been a more important time to discuss use of the term “fake news.”

 

In the year 2021, fake news is used primarily as a rhetorical device. Those who shout fake news are rarely referring to stories like those which claimed that Hillary Clinton stole fifteen states in the 2016 presidential election – also known as news that is legitimately fake. Instead, they are often shouting fake news at entirely real news stories because, as people like Craig Silverman understand, “fake news” does not literally mean news that is fake any longer. It is especially crucial for young people – who on average pay less attention to the news and in less depth – to understand that not every claim of fake news is actually backed by the facts. As the Independent pointed out in 2020, “Donald Trump has called journalists and news outlets ‘fake news’ nearly 2,000 times since the beginning of his presidency” (Woodward, 2020). And as we know, President Trump was not particularly concerned with the actual veracity of the news stories he mentioned. He was, instead, using fake news “as a term to try to discredit news stories that individuals don’t like, in order to suggest that they were made up or that they blow out of proportion something that should be trivial” (UCSB). That is the rhetoric of fake news in the modern day, and the rhetoric that people must be wary of. If a mother gives a legitimate criticism of her child – saying he or she drinks too much alcohol or does not do enough homework – they do not respond by saying that this is fake news, because they know it is not. Readers and watchers of news must understand that this has become the rhetorical tactic of using “fake news.”

 

The birthplace of the term fake news is, naturally, up for debate. It is unlikely that any one person can share the distinct pleasure – or shame, depending on how one views the term – of creating the phrase. Craig Silverman, a writer for Vox Media, is one of those generally credited with popularizing the term. In 2017, Silverman wrote an article entitled “I Helped Popularize the Term ‘Fake News’ And Now I Cringe Every Time I Hear It”; precisely as it sounds, Silverman expresses regret for using the term fake news in a 2014 article for Vox in which he decried a report published by nationalreport.org, which falsely claimed that “an entire town in Texas was quarantined after a family contracted Ebola” (Silverman, 2017). Rhetorically, Silverman chose to use the term fake news because it got at a deep truth – that nothing about the Ebola story was accurate. It was totally fake, so much so that the publisher website had even used entirely fake quotations in an attempt to make the story seem accurate and believable. Thus, it is intriguing that Silverman himself now believes the term to be “a deeply troubling warning sign.” To further illustrate his worries about how the term is employed as a rhetorical strategy, Silverman references a tweet by David Clarke, a pro-Trump sheriff, which reads: “LYING Lib media spreads FAKE NEWS about me and @realDonaldTrump to fool their liberal followers into believing LIES because as Mrs. Bill Clinton once said, “Look, the average DEMOCRAT VOTER is just plain STUPID. They’re easy to manipulate” (Silverman, 2017). Unlike Silverman, Clarke is not using the term fake news to actually describe news that is altogether fake. He is, instead, using the term rhetorically to deflect attention from verified court documents about him, while also citing a totally phony Hillary Clinton quote to do so. This is what I hope to show through this chapter; perhaps in 2014, someone referencing fake news was truly referring to a false news story. In 2021, however, fake news is often used as a deflection term for those who wish to sully legitimate news stories that damage their narrative surrounding a topic.

 

The history of misinformation goes back a long way. As researchers at the University of Santa Barbara have pointed out, “by the early 19th century” modern newspapers had begun understanding that fake news stories could “increase circulation” (UCSB). Classic historical examples of guided misinformation, what some might even term propaganda, include Nazi newspapers publishing fake stories intentionally to generate anti-Semitic sentiment, as well as racist, fake newspaper articles published across the United States in the 1800s seeking to make Black Americans appear as criminals and simpletons (UCSB). Perhaps the most infamous instance of fake news, however, which also best illustrates its potential impact on real world affairs, was what became known as “yellow journalism.” Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst were both prominent journalists of the late 1800s, hoping to score greater readership by reporting unconfirmed information of potential attacks between Spain and the United States. These stories helped dramatically escalate tensions between the two countries, eventually leading to the Spanish-American War. While there was a push for more honest journalism as a direct response to this, technology and the dawn of the new digital media age has reintroduced the use of the term fake news to a newer audience.  As shown through the instance of yellow journalism, fake news matters because it has real world consequences, and thus it is crucial for everyone to understand its existence and widespread nature.


Works Cited

 

“A Brief History of Fake News.” Center for Information Technology and Society – UC Santa Barbara. (n.d.). https://www.cits.ucsb.edu/fake-news/brief-history.

FCC, key cross-cutting issues. transition.fcc.gov. (n.d.). https://transition.fcc.gov/osp/inc-report/INoC-20-News-Consumption.pdf.

Silverman, C. (2017, December 31). “I Helped Popularize The Term “Fake News” And Now I Cringe Whenever I Hear It.” BuzzFeed News. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/i-helped-popularize-the-term-fake-news-and-now-i-cringe.

Woodward, A. (2020, October 2). “’Fake news’: A guide to Trump’s favourite phrase – and the dangers it obscures.” The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election/trump-fake-news-counter-history-b732873.html.

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Rhetoric in Everyday Life by Matt Wolpe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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