Like “terrorism” and “WMD” before it, “fake news,” through sheer repetition of the conceit, is now officially a thing. Something to be combated. Something we must all get behind and destroy. Since the election—and to an extent right before it—the scourge of fake news as a unique, distinct, and morally urgent threat to our democracy has been thrust upon the public. In this discussion the primary focus has been how, not if, we stop it. “Officials” are “worried” and “governments” are “looking into” curbing the “epidemic.” Hillary Clinton emerged Thursday for the first time since her concession speech to warn that “lives are at risk” over fake news and that the “danger” must be “addressed quickly.” Everyone’s on board: Fake news must be stopped.
But what exactly is “fake news”? The reality is, no one seems to know. Or, at least, those who have publicly attempted to define the “phenomenon” have failed spectacularly at it. Obvious examples of fake stories are easy to find: the “Pizzagate” theory that resulted in a North Carolina man opening fire at a DC-area restaurant after online rumors spread the owners were running a child-sex slavery ring connected to the Clintons; the pope endorsing Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton snuffing out FBI agents. These are all manifestly false stories being cited as examples of the scourge of fake news. But from here, many in the media and nominally independent research groups have pivoted to a much broader, far more pernicious definition of what is and isn’t “fake,” with little notice.
Over the past month, three separate lists of “fake news” websites—boosted and shared by major media outlets, journalists, and pundits—have gone viral, despite the fact that all three lists included legitimate outlets well within the mainstream. These “fake news” outlets include RawStory, Consortiumnews, Crooks and Liars, Antiwar.com, naked capitalism, Truthout, and Truthdig. Several of these outlets are presently threatening a lawsuit against the most egregious peddler of fake news lists, PropOrNot, an anonymous group of researchers whose blacklist The Washington Post credulously vouched for with little care or consideration.