And why it no longer has anything to do with truth, but is all about power
Back in the mists of time, somewhere around early November, a number of media outlets started reporting on the trend of clearly fabricated stories being spread online. 'Fake news' was the term they used. A simple enough phrase, which seemed to sum up what was, if not a new phenomenon, one which had seen a sudden upswing.
Between then and now - a full three and a half months - this phrase has become one of the defining emblems of our time. But in the process, its use has expanded massively, and that early meaning has been replaced by something far more confused and contested. When someone like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad draws on the term to dismiss an Amnesty International report on torture and mass killings, one has to ask whether it has any useful meaning at all anymore.
So how exactly did a phrase which was first used to analyse the unexpected results of the presidential election come to be embraced by Donald Trump as his favourite insult? And how has it morphed into a rallying cry for an all-out assault on the validity of the press?
Words often change their meaning over time. There's nothing unusual about this. In Chaucer's day, for example, 'girl' referred to a child of either sex, and 'meat' meant any food which wasn't drink. Both of these have narrowed their meaning over the centuries. Some words even come to mean the opposite of what they once did. There was a time when 'terrific' was a synonym for 'frightening', and simply meant something that caused terror.
But the way 'fake news' has transformed before our eyes in just a few weeks is startling - and a striking illustration of the way language is so central to present-day politics.
The term started out, around the time of the election, referring to clearly fabricated stories which were spread virally on the internet. This led to a string of political commentators and public figures blaming it for 'poisoning civil discourse' and corrupting democracy. Attention was focused on websites which manufactured such stories in order to generate advertising revenue. This in turn led to a debate about what responsibilities tech companies such as Facebook and Google should have for dealing what was seen as an emerging problem.
There was an element of political partisanship even at this stage. Some on the right saw criticism of the phenomenon as an attack on free speech, or simply as the left flailing around for excuses after losing the election. Then there was the antagonism between old and new media, provoked by the changing economics of how news is consumed - which led to robust defences of the importance of 'real', paid-for journalism.
In tracking the meaning of any word, it's always important to look at the context in which it's being used - who says it, when, and for what purposes. It's this which imbues a word with its cultural force. And this became very apparent when, in stage two of its evolution, 'fake news' was appropriated by the right.
This began within a few weeks of the election. In early December, Trump tweeted that media reports that he'd still be working on The Apprentice 'are ridiculous & untrue - FAKE NEWS!' (he does in fact remain as executive producer). He followed this up in his first press conference as president-elect by greeting a question from a CNN reporter with a dismissive 'You are fake news!'
It was specific, disputed stories that the term was mostly applied to at this stage. The way opinion polls during the election had been so off the mark, or how a reporter from Time had mistakenly written that the bust of Martin Luther King had been removed from the Oval Office.
At first glance it seemed that the term had come to mean something different for left and right. But in the next stage of its evolution - when it began to be used as a general excuse for anything you wished to rubbish - it was picked up across the political spectrum. Not only was Bashar al-Assad invoking it, but at almost exactly the same time the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn used it to dismiss claims he might be considering stepping down.
Here again though, Donald Trump employed it with the greatest blunt force. He used it to blatantly chastise anything he disagreed with, tweeting in his relentless obsession with ratings that "Any negative polls are fake news". This use has quickly been picked up by his supporters - his deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, for example, avoiding a question he didn't like in a BBC interview by asserting: "You've just committed fake news!"
The end point for all this is how the term has ultimately begun to be used to undermine the legitimacy of the press generally. The concept has been co-opted into the right's long-running strategy of demonising the 'mainstream media' for being elite, patronising, and out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. By claiming that, as Rush Limbaugh puts it, the media are "fraudulently reporting and lying to you" and have "lost their moral authority" the assertion is that news organisations are failing at what their defining function is. Painting them with the self-contradictory notion of 'fake news' is attacking the very essence of their identity.
It's also a clever ploy for switching the focus away from the substance of actual reporting. The more provocative an attack by Trump is, the more critical the media sound in response. Which in turn allows Trump to complain that he's the one actually under attack. From here it's only a short step to Steve Bannon insisting that "the media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while". And to branding journalists as the enemy of the people.
Barely a month after inauguration, then, and the meaning of 'fake news' has lost any real relationship with identifying what's true and what's not. The phrase, along with the agenda, has been co-opted almost completely. It's now all about the exercise of power, clear and simple.
Dr Philip Seargeant is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at The Open UniversitySuggest a correction