Debasing language as a political strategy

by John MacBeath Watkins

One of the biggest aspects of Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential campaign is fake news, that is, deliberate deceptions promoted on social media or "news" sites like Brietbart as propaganda to influence people predisposed to believing weird things.

And one way of derailing that narrative is to redefine "fake news." President Trump has been doing this by labeling any news story that shows him in a bad light as "fake news."

The original meaning of "fake news" was stories like the one about the Clintons running a child-sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. What Trump labels fake news is more like the leaks coming from the White House, for example calling leaks about Michael Flynn's contacts with Russian officials after the election and before Trump took office as "fake news."

The fact that Flynn's actions were proven to be true did not disrupt his insistence that this was "fake news."

Most often, he uses this technique when talking about reports of his campaign's possible collusion with Russian intelligence and propaganda organizations. At this point the main way we are aware of that the Russians tried to influence the campaign was with fake news, and distorted news, aimed at people who it seemed possible to influence.

The Russians seem to have waged information warfare through Twitter, Facebook, and other outlets. Some of this was done by trolls, actual human beings who had accounts made to appear that they were of the same social group as the people they aimed to influence, some were bots, software that automated the same process.

An example reported by Politico is the following tweet:

 @Flossy_gurl tweeted, “CORRUPT #FBI #JamesComey Received Million$ From #ClintonFoundation- Brother’s Law Firm Does #Clinton’s Taxes.” 

Certainly not true, intended to muddy people's thinking and get them to be cynical about our political class, and an actionable slander, if you could sue a bot.

This is a problem for Trump, and his response is ingenious. If fake news is a problem for him, muddy the thinking about fake news by labeling things that are true, and reported by major news organizations, as fake news, putting them on the same level as the Russian bots' tweets.

His goal is the same as that of the Russian bots and trolls, to undermine peoples' faith in the institutions of democracy so that they become incapable of responding to the threat.

Trump remains an expert flim-flam man, and his inability to actually run the government is, from a Russian point of view, an asset. After all, what could undermine peoples' faith in democracy more than a government unable to address their problems?

So, from the Russian point of view, they are still winning the information war, and the more it appears that Trump is in over his head, the more they win. I don't think they'll get tired of winning.

And at this point, Trump is in so far over his head, he's seeing deep sea anglerfish.


  1. Trump is exploiting a brew that has been simmering for a long time. When the idea of words' meaning is assigned less value than the impact they have upon the reader or hearer, then anything goes. The line between 'real news' and 'fake news' no longer means anything. I'm no Trump fan, but I don't fool myself about how he came about. Classical liberalism has been replaced by an 'ethos' which dictates that meaning is subjective.

  2. I'd say classical liberalism is fighting for its life. And as for the meaning of words, the sounds are arbitrary and the meanings they signify are socially agreed upon. By undermining the meanings of words, you undermine the entire enterprise of language, of agreeing upon meanings. To my way of thinking, this is the real basis of the social contract, and in the end, that's what is being undermined.


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