During a press conference alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinistö Wednesday, President Trump took credit for inventing the term “fake news”: “I don’t even use fake anymore,” he said. “I call the fake news now corrupt news because fake isn’t tough enough. And I’m the one that came up with the term—I’m very proud of it, but I think I’m gonna switch it to corrupt news.”
That’s…what’s a good term for news that isn’t real…well, anyway, BuzzFeed News media editor Craig Silverman was in fact the person who popularized the term “fake news” before Trump got his greasy paws on it. Silverman first started using it in 2014 while he was running a research project at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism and later made it a big part of his beat when he moved to BuzzFeed in 2015. I connected with Silverman, my former coworker at the Poynter Institute, while he was on a flight Wednesday. We spoke via Twitter direct message. This conversation has been lightly edited to make both of us, but mostly me, look smarter.
I think I read that you started using the term in 2014—is that correct?
Yes, I first started using it in the fall of 2014 while I was running a research project that tracked unverified claims and rumors spreading online. I just pulled up my research proposal and it does not use the term “fake news.” I began using that terms once the work got underway and I came across sites like National Report that were designed to look like real news websites, published articles written in the news style, but everything on the site was false. So I called it a fake news site.
Was the term already in use?
I don’t recall ever sitting down as saying “I’m gonna label this stuff fake news.” It just seemed like a natural description for what I was seeing. Obviously, people have used the phrase “fake news” in the past. But I kept using using it in my research and reporting from that point on. I also saw sites like the Verge use it when writing about my research.
You definitely popularized the term. Then there was the weird moment when the president-elect picked up on it.
Things have gotten very weird. I used the term a lot in reporting I did in 2016, whether it was about Canadian teens making money with fake stories about Justin Trudeau, or about those now-famous Macedonian teens and young men making bank by spreading false pro-Trump stories on Facebook. Then, in January of 2017, Trump did a press conference and called CNN “fake news,” and us at BuzzFeed News a “failing pile of garbage.” From that moment forward, any attempt to be specific about what “fake news” is went out the window. It became weaponized and popularized at the same moment, and in the end Trump has really taken a certain level of ownership over it.
Did that make you want to stop using it?
For a while I kept trying to be clear about my definition of fake news: completely false content, created to deceive, and with an economic motive. But then reality sets in and it’s just like, I gotta try and avoid it. I still do use it at times but have moved more towards talking about mis- or disinformation or hoaxes or media manipulation.
I kind of hate hearing the term at this point. I want to give it a nice funeral and push it out to sea.
How did it feel to see the term become a cudgel?
At first it was nice to see everyone talking about this issue. There had been a relatively small number of researchers and reporters banging the drum about it, and all of a sudden everyone cared. But then it starts unfolding like a slow-moving train crash, because you see it being co-opted to serve different interests, and suddenly *everything* is being labeled fake news, and lots of low quality research, commentary, and articles get rushed out to capitalize on it. At the same time, Trump is using it as a cudgel to beat the media, and to undermine legit reporting. At that point I’m like Donald Glover returning to the room with pizza.
When Trump talks or tweets about inventing “fake news” I always see people being like, “Hey, no, this guy was using that term to describe a specific thing long before you used it!” And that’s very nice of people to want to credit me, but also I am so not interested in litigating this.