I drafted the title for this article weeks ago and have had it open since. Don’t tell Aaron Fishbone that I’m writing it now, as I should be focused on an EV charging white paper, but I felt it was finally time to roll through it as I wait for and then drink some late-night coffee.
Since December or so, it has been interesting, shocking, and disturbing to me what I’ve seen Donald Trump do with one simple term (… among other things). Before the last presidential election in the US, our top intelligence services had come to learn that Russia had been assaulting the US electorate with a tsunami of fake news from fake Americans on social media — Facebook, Twitter, reddit, etc. Framed in beautiful patriotic slogans and profile pics (American flags, galore), Russia-backed cyber warfare soldiers were posting fake news item after fake quote after fake status update about Hillary Clinton and Democrats. Yes, one thing US intelligence agencies found was that these efforts were very clearly focused on supporting Donald Trump (perhaps even in the Republican primaries, but I haven’t seen claims about this as conclusive as the ones about the general election).
I’m not diving into an investigation of the years-long relationship between Donald Trump, some of his family members, some of his top business colleagues, some of his top campaign officials and administrative appointments, and the Kremlin. Frankly, there’s so much there that’s absolutely insane I can’t even believe the timid, lame response.
But the craziness around “fake news” and what this term came to represent is amazing, and a huge lesson in communications.
First of all, you don’t have to watch these, but the two videos below provide 1) good background on the actual fake news being tossed about during the campaign season, and 2) a segment on “The Beat With Ari Melber” that more quickly summarizes that and then also highlights something equally crazy — a recent Trump claim that he coined the term “fake news.”
Yes, Donald Trump claimed that he came up with the term “fake” (or, presumably, he meant “fake news,” since he obviously didn’t invent the word “fake”).
Of course, Donald Trump didn’t invent the term “fake news” — not at all.
… But he sort of did.
Getting confused? Well, that’s exactly the point.
“Fake news” had a very clear meaning — completely fake, fabricated, made up news. The Onion, of course, has been creating awesome fake news for decades. But “fake news” in the context of the 2016 election was about one well understood (if not widely accepted) phenomenon — Russia and others manipulating social media and certain blogs via fake stories, claims, and quotes for a particular political purpose. That’s what the phrase was being used to describe … until Trump stole the phrase in December 2016, used it and abused it, used it and abused it some more, and some more, and some more … and some more.
He used the term “fake news” so much in an attempt to create distrust of genuine journalists and media investigating him and correcting his lies that now, when people hear the term “fake news,” they often think first of CNN, the media in general, and Donald Trump’s claims about them.
Trump has stolen the term, turned it on the honest journalism a democracy relies on, and warped the public’s opinion of multiple important matters: 1) the fake news campaigns funded by Russia (and ongoing, mind you), 2) genuine media investigations and coverage of Trump, his family, and his associates, 3) the role of the media in our society, and 4) FBI investigations of Trump, his family, and his associates.
One of the biggest US democratic failures in recent memory and one of the most damning and critical things about Donald Trump’s election “win” was something Donald Trump hasn’t acknowledged, but it’s also something he hasn’t run away from. Instead, he has co-opted the term to give it a different meaning, a very, very different meaning.
So, how has he done it? Well, aside from having a large population of supporters who will believe all kinds of nonsense fed to them by Trump and his political enablers at Fox News, he has used a simple method he surely learned long ago to warp reality to his wishes.
He has repeatedly used a term as he wanted to use it, not as it should legitimately be used.
You could say that he just went and grabbed it by the ***** — because he could, because millions of enablers let him do it, because he’s famous.
But the method is not something granted only to famous people. Hammering a message home repeatedly — over and over and over again — will get people to accept it, no matter how absurd the message is. Even if it’s an obvious misrepresentation and people who see it as that don’t fully fall for the trick, they still start to work within the communications framing that has been created. CNN and MSNBC journalists acknowledge that Trump considers them fake news. They don’t highlight every time this absurd claim comes up that, no, fake news is something else, and fake news was a core weapon of Russia and perhaps even the Trump campaign team to get Trump elected. They assume thoughtful viewers understand that. But every time they let him control the meaning of that term, every time they accept his interpretation of “fake news” and don’t emphasize the real, historical meaning of it, they further let him redefine the term and use it for his own selfish agenda. It is highly effective, and they don’t seem to understand that.
Ironically, Donald Trump has used a fake definition of “fake news” to shift a large portion of the public against the real news, real journalism, and the critically important 4th estate. If you thought the irony would end after one of the most ironic presidential elections in history — maybe the most ironic — think again.
The message for us isn’t to warp reality and lie to achieve selfish aims — I hope that’s not the message anyone took away. The point is that owning a term and a concept is insanely possible if you just repeat a simple point over and over and over again. If you stick to a conscious message and hammer it home every chance you get, you can change minds.
That’s why so many Americans think more regulation would be bad in a tragically under-regulated society. That’s why so many Americans don’t understand that pro-environment policies actually create jobs and help the economy. They’ve been
brainwashed conditioned to think otherwise.
Also, a message couched in a package and framing that appeals to people is hard to compete with. The thing that finally triggered me to write this article was news — and old information — about JFK’s assassination … as well as an odd quirk or two about the director, producer, and screenwriter of the 1991 film JFK.
I saw that film when I was a kid. As such, I assumed it was representative of reality. If you’ve seen the film, you know darn well it leaves a receptive viewer thinking that JFK wasn’t killed by Lee Harvey Oswald but was killed in a much more conspiratorial way. That’s what I have basically assumed since watching the film as a kid, and something like 61% of the population have also been convinced this wasn’t the simple murder it was officially determined to be.
What I learned today was that Oliver Stone’s film was heavily criticized for presenting incorrect facts and dramatically misleading viewers. Here are a few lines from Wikipedia:
“David Wrone stated that ’80 percent of the film is in factual error.'”
“Warren Commission investigator David Belin called the film ‘a big lie that would make Adolf Hitler proud.'”
“Washington Post columnist George Will called Stone ‘a man of technical skill, scant education and negligible conscience.'”
Interesting stuff. I’m not going to claim to know what actually happened, but if the various criticisms of Oliver Stone’s film are at all accurate, it indicates that the movie was highly misleading and may be the reason much of the US population believes JFK’s assassination was a conspiracy.
If someone wanted to sow distrust of the FBI and CIA, well, they’d have a hard time beating what Oliver Stone achieved via that film.
Interestingly, Oliver Stone’s latest masterpiece is The Putin Interviews. I haven’t watched the interviews, but they are apparently carefully managed and presented talks between Oliver Stone and Vladimir Putin — you know, a guy who loves to be intimately interviewed by investigative journalists from the United States. The interviews covered 20 hours that were granted to Stone over the course of two years. Again, I am not jumping to any conclusions about motives or any nefarious deals related to that, but I was shocked and confused when I saw a cutting interview with Oliver Stone earlier this year in which he wouldn’t say a single negative thing about Putin and basically wouldn’t acknowledge some common criticisms of the regime Putin has employed. In fact, he said a lot of rosy things about Putin.
Again, seriously, I am not trying to make anyone jump to conclusions — I highly recommend against it. However, I find it amazing how incessantly anyone with access to Putin and any kind of “friendship” with Putin won’t say something negative about him. He controls the messaging, and that contributes in some sizable way to his long-standing place at the top of the Russian power structure. (He was Russia’s “Prime Minister” 1999–2000, “President” 2000–2008, “Prime Minister” 2008–2012, and “President” again 2012–present. In other words, he’s been running Russia since the end of Bill Clinton’s time as president — through the George W. Bush years, through the Obama years, and now into the Trump insanity.)
Controlling the message is a powerful thing. Trump understands that as well as he understands anything, and he controls key messages he finds important. Despite dramatic lack of success, he branded himself as successful to an amazing degree. Putin understands that, and he used it as cyber warfare in a tight political race that ended up putting his flattering “counterpart” in the United States into power. Controlling the message is powerful whether the message is fake or not — and you basically just have to employ a few key tools. Here are the two big ones:
Simplicity of message. Repetition, repetition, repetition.
Even “fake news” can become fake news with those two communications tools.