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There’s No Such Thing as Fake News (And That’s Bad News)

By Robert B. Talisse.


It seems everyone these days laments the polarized condition of democratic politics.  It is widely agreed that fake news is a central cause of the degradation of our political culture.  That there is accord on this point is noteworthy.  Perhaps the consensus on fake news offers a swath of common ground amidst all of the divisiveness?  Maybe our shared condemnation of fake news provides a basis for a broader plan for rehabilitating democracy?

Such optimism might be premature.  The unanimity over fake news possibly owes more to the semantics of the word fake than to a convergence of political values.  Note that to call something fake is, at the very least, to mark it as suspect; it is to say that it is posing as something it’s not.  So, yes, everyone denounces fake news.  We oppose that which professes to be news, but isn’t.  But we do not thereby agree about which institutions and reports are authentic.  Unless there is a shared view of what fake news is, the consensus about its dangers is likely merely verbal, thus providing no basis for a rehabilitation plan.

There is as yet no canonical definition of fake news. Still, there might be reason to hope.  Perhaps we share a conception of fake news that is inchoate, waiting for an explicit definition.  Given this possibility, we should attempt to devise a definition.

Begin with an intuitive view.  Whatever else might be involved, fake news attempts to deceive by means of communication.  This suggests three components.  First, fake news is a kind of communication; specifically, it involves reportage.  Second, as fake news aims to deceive, it involves reportage of what is false (or at least misleading).  Third, as authentic news sources can report what is misleading (due to honest journalistic error, for example), fake news must involve an intention to mislead.  Tying these together, fake news is intentionally misleading reportage.  To tighten things up further, add that fake news is the reportage as news of content that is intentionally misleading.

This simple definition looks promising.  But difficulties loom.  To see what they are, let’s explore an analogy with garden-variety lying.  It is surprisingly difficult to produce a satisfactory definition of lying.  Take the popular view that lying is intentionally asserting what’s untrue.  This analysis fails, as one could lie while asserting what is true.  To wit, if I believe that your spouse is at the bar, but when you ask me her whereabouts I report that she is at the library (a report which I believe is false), then I have lied to you, even if your spouse is indeed at the library.  I intentionally asserted a true proposition, but I nonetheless lied.

Perhaps our initial view could be rescued with this minor tweak: lying is intentionally asserting something as true that one believes is false.  Although this improves on its predecessor, it also fails.  There are contexts where one lies even when asserting a truth that one believes.  Think of cases where one makes an assertion that one knows one’s audience will misunderstand.  Bill Clinton famously asserted “there is no sexual relationship” with Monica Lewinsky, knowing that his audience would understand him to be claiming that there never was a relationship.  Clinton uttered a true proposition that he also believed, but he nonetheless lied.

Given such considerations, one might distinguish asserting what is untrue from making an assertion designed to mislead.  But we needn’t pursue this matter further.  My point has been only that popular definitions of lying fail to capture certain clear instances of lying.  The broader lesson is that simple definitions of complex phenomena must give way to nuanced ones.

Similar problems lurk for the tidy definition of fake news.  We said that fake news is reportage as news of content that is intentionally misleading.  Though initially plausible, this can’t be correct.  Consider two cases.

First, imagine a television news channel that routinely over-reports crimes committed by immigrants, and neglects to report crimes committed by non-immigrants.  Regular viewers tend to develop the impression that crime is far more common than it is, and that immigrants commit the most crimes.  This channel offers no misleading reports; it accurately depicts the events it covers.  Nonetheless, this is a clear case of fake news.  Our definition cannot identify it as such.

Second, consider someone who seeks to maximize revenue produced by his website.  He finds that posting fabricated accounts of lurid conspiracies involving prominent politicians reliably increases site traffic, which in turn enables him to sell ads at high rates.  Suppose that his intention is not to mislead anyone, but only to maximize revenue.  Stipulate further that he would be sincerely surprised to discover that visitors to his site tend to believe his outrageous posts.  Perhaps he regards his site as a source of sardonic entertainment, and so denies that his site presents content as news.  Still, visitors tend to regard his site as an authentic news source, and accept what he posts as fact.  Our proprietor has none of the intentions or motives required by our definition, but this nonetheless is a case of fake news.

As with lying, one could introduce tweaks designed to more finely contour the concept of fake news until it fits the varied cases.  Regardless of its general utility as a philosophical exercise, as a political matter, this endeavor is doomed.  Here’s why.

We were hoping that the consensus across political divides on the dangers of fake news could provide fertile ground from which repair fractures in our democratic culture.  However, in order for an analysis of fake news to serve this purpose, it must be politically impartial.  That is, we require a definition that could identify instances of fake news independently of the political valence of its perpetrator.  Obviously a definition fails if it stipulates that fake news is a tactic used only by conservatives (or liberals, or Republicans, or what have you).  Our conception of fake news must not be politically opportunistic.  Whatever we say fake news is, our definition must render it possible for parties across the political spectrum to be guilty of deploying it.


[Photo: Michael F. Hiatt/Shutterstock]

Therein lies the trouble.  We saw above that no simple definition of fake news will suffice.  However, as our discussion of lying demonstrated, in order to construct a nuanced definition, we must build upon specific cases that we take to be clear-cut instances of the phenomenon in question.  Remember that we appealed to Bill Clinton’s statement as a case of lying, and then used that case to show the inadequacy of one proposed definition of lying.  In other words, we craft a definition of lying partly by testing proposed conceptions against cases that we independently assume to be clear instances of lying.  We proceeded partly by saying, “Whatever lying is, this definitely should count as a lie!”  The same goes for an analysis of fake news.  We test the merit of a proposed definition partly by looking to cases that we already regard as instances of fake news. 

Thus we confront what philosophers call the paradox of analysis.  Any definitional endeavor must begin from presumed instances of the phenomenon that is to be defined.  In many philosophical contexts, the paradox’s “I know it when I see it” circularity is manageable because philosophical debates often proceed against wider background agreements.  For example, philosophers who disagree sharply about justice nonetheless agree that antebellum slavery is an exemplary instance of severe injustice.  Similarly, metaphysical disputes over the nature of physical objects typically presume that tables and chairs are among such entities.

Things are far more troubled with fake news.  In order to devise a nuanced definition that is also politically impartial, we must identify cases of fake news that can be presumed to be noncontroversial among otherwise divided citizens.  I doubt that there are such cases.

Consider that any proposed conception of fake news will include reference to the intentional dissemination of false or misleading political information by institutions posing a news sources.  So if we require a politically impartial account that could win broad assent, we will need to begin from assumptions about specific instances when purported news institutions have engaged in intentional deception.  It seems to me that our political divisions run so deep that there are no cases that will be generally agreed to be instances of intentional political deception.  What’s more, there are similarly deep divisions over what makes an institution an authentic news source, and even what journalism is.  Accordingly, any definition that begins from the premise that, say, Pizzagate is a paradigmatic case of fake news will likely be dismissed as politically opportunistic.  To any such account, one will find conservatives who will respond, “If that’s the paradigm of fake news from which your view proceeds (rather than, say, the whitewashing of the Benghazi incident), then your account is rigged against us.”

To put the concern more generally, every nuanced definition of fake news is likely to appear to some as opportunistic, designed to impugn certain regions of the political spectrum and vindicate others.  A definition of fake news that serves only to further tar our political opponents is counterproductive.  In order for a conception of fake news to do positive work in rehabilitating our political culture, we require an account of the phenomenon that could win agreement across our political divisions.  Under current conditions, no such account is available.

Our current media and news environment is toxic for democracy.  It deserves unrelenting critique.  Nonetheless, we ought to give up the idea that there is such a thing as fake news.  There is no such phenomenon.  The term is best regarded as a political slur, much like “snowflake,” “libtard,” “wingnut,” or “trumpkin,” except that it attaches not to individuals, but to the (nominally) journalistic enterprises that one regards as hostile to one’s political loyalties.  Accordingly, the statement “CNN is fake news” should not be understood as ascribing properties to CNN that render it a spurious news organization; rather the statement is strictly expressive, akin to the exclamation “CNN sucks!”  No one bothers to devise an analysis of what it means for a network (or anything else) to suck.  That’s because there is no such property.

There is no fake news.  But that’s distressing, isn’t it?  Although we all agree that our political divisions are threatening our democracy, those very divisions may now run so deep as to subvert our attempts to explain the dangers they pose.  Yet in the absence of a detailed account of those dangers that could be embraced by all, we have little chance of counteracting them.


Robert Talisse specializes in contemporary political philosophy, with particular interest in democratic theory and liberalism. His most recent work engages issues at the intersection of political philosophy and epistemology. In addition, he pursues topics in pragmatism, analytic philosophy, and ancient philosophy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, June 9th, 2018.