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Is ‘fake news’ still a problem for society?

Updated Monday, 18 October 2021
Disinformation is a defining feature of our time. Why has it become such a problem, and what can we do about it?

Image credits courtesy of Dreamstime

PDF document Transcript 149.0 KB

According to Google Trends, interest in the search term ‘fake news’ has trailed off ever-so-slightly in the second half of 2021. It’s still a widely used term, but there are indications that its heyday may have passed. It will be interesting to see, a few years down the line, whether the words ‘fake news’ are as closely identified with the late 2010s and early 2020s as phrases such as ‘cancel culture’ and ‘social distancing’ are likely to be. Whether all of these will be remembered as terms that defined a particular period in history but which, once social norms began to change, started sounding very much of their time.

The phrase ‘fake news’...its meaning became stretched to cover everything from deliberately deceitful propaganda to mild criticisms of legitimate journalism.

The term ‘fake news’ burst into public consciousness in 2016, around the time of the US presidential election. It then remained popular – becoming one of the defining terms of the era – throughout the Trump presidency. This popularity wasn’t limited solely to US politics however. The term was soon operating as a global emblem for a worldwide phenomenon. The intersection of social media, political propaganda and a scepticism of mainstream news organisations caused the phenomenon to flourish in political contexts all around the world. But at the same time, the phrase ‘fake news’ itself began to be increasingly co-opted by a variety of different people for a variety of different purposes – until its meaning became stretched to cover everything from deliberately deceitful propaganda to mild criticisms of legitimate journalism.

By 2018, people were calling for the term itself to be avoided. It was too vague, its meaning too corrupted by populist politicians, and thus it was no longer fit for purpose. By this time, however, it had become such a shorthand in the media, and was so much a part of the language of contemporary culture, that it wasn’t simply going to drift away because a few media commentators said that it should. The way it snappily articulated a fear of fakeness in an era obsessed with authenticity, how it fed into a narrative of media bias and manipulation, meant that it was firmly embedded in our modern cultural vocabulary.

What we’re perhaps seeing now, however, is that the term’s close associations with Trumpian politics mean that it might begin to slowly disappear in the rear-view mirror in the same way that Trump’s political influence does. That’s assuming, of course, that Trumpism doesn’t make an unexpected come-back at some stage.

But even if the term itself does dwindle in popularity, what isn’t likely to diminish is the impact of the phenomenon it originally described. The issues of how reliable information gets pushed out by false information, of how news reporting can be corrupted by propaganda, of how we manage the outsized role that social media and digital technologies now play in our lives. These are all going to continue as pressing issues that society needs to address, whatever term we might decide to use to describe them.


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