Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis, Mo.-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media.
As Aleppo fell, as children were slaughtered, as women chose suicide instead of rape, and as terrified Syrians said their last goodbyes, Sputnik – a Russian state propaganda outlet – issued a bulletin:
"#Aleppo atrocities: the mainstream media's latest psyop #SyriaCrisis #FakeNews"
There is nothing fake about the atrocities of Aleppo. It is arguably the most well-documented war in history, with four years of brutality and bloodshed meticulously tracked daily. A cheap phrase – "fake news" – is used to throw documentation of suffering into doubt.
More from Sarah Kendzior
"Fake news" is a term that entered the vernacular following the election of Donald Trump. Allegedly coined to bemoan the terrible reporting that helped facilitate Mr. Trump's rise, it actually serves to stabilize his rule. "Fake news" poses a false binary, blurring the distinction between political propaganda, intentional disinformation, attention-seeking click-bait, conspiracy theories, and sloppy reporting.
When the United States elects a man who peddles falsehoods, obfuscates critical information about his business transactions and foreign relationships, and relies on both mass media outlets and untraditional venues like conspiracy websites to maintain his power, the manifold ways he lies are as important as the lies themselves.
According to reporter Daniel Dale, Mr. Trump told at least 560 lies during the course of his campaign. Some lies are audacious in that they are easily disproven – for example, when Mr. Trump claimed he did not tell U.S. citizens to "check out a sex tape" after tweeting to them to do so. Flagrant lying is a hallmark of despotism. It sends the message that one should not bother speaking truth to power when power is the only truth. It implies that the teller of the lie defines reality, no matter what evidence there is to the contrary, including the liar's own words.
However, Mr. Trump's most powerful lies contain a grain of truth that plays to the preconceptions of his audience. When Mr. Trump lies about the conditions of inner cities, about the economy, or about Hillary Clinton, he exploits the vulnerability of some citizens while telling others what they want to hear. These lies are propaganda: false information with a political purpose, tailored to incite.
But instead of both parsing the meaning of Mr. Trump's propaganda or searching for the critical information he refuses to disclose, much of the U.S. media has leaped on the term "fake news" as an easy explanation for why Mr. Trump triumphed. "Fake news" co-exists with "post-fact world": an odd phrase to invoke when describing a candidate known for threatening journalists, forcing employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, and using libel lawsuits to intimidate critics.
If "there's no such thing as facts" – as one of Mr. Trump's surrogates proclaimed – why does Mr. Trump's team work so hard to suppress them?
But as inauguration looms, Mr. Trump's team may not have to work too hard to keep the U.S. press in line. U.S. journalists, always his greatest ally due to corporate collaboration and fear of retaliation, are already mainstreaming the Trump administration's most inflammatory ideas. To read the U.S. media today is to see a CNN debate on whether Jews are people, the Associated Press falsely tweet that the KKK has disavowed white supremacy, and countless mainstream media puff pieces on neo-Nazis that focus more on their fashion sense than their fascist beliefs.
With hate crimes soaring, it is unnerving to see the media glamorizing or excusing extremist views. But that is where the term "fake news" controversy becomes useful for them. An outlet criticizing fake news implies that its own news is true news. To bemoan a "fake news" crisis bolsters one's own legitimacy, which is a dangerous thing to do when you are writing glossy profiles of people who endorse ethnic cleansing. Such coverage abets Mr. Trump's goal, which was always to pull the fringes to the centre, making the extreme mainstream.
U.S. citizens are facing a twofold assault on truth: one, of propaganda intended to change standards of what is considered normal; and two, of instilling a nihilistic helplessness in those aware of the propaganda deluge. "LOL nothing matters" has become the catchphrase used by those peddling flagrant lies.
But do not be fooled by cynical claims that "nothing matters." When people are suffering, it matters. When lies enable that suffering, exposing them matters. Truth is always worth fighting for. But to get to the heart of the truth, you must examine the nature of the lie.