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The Goal of the 'Fake News' Canard Isn't Propaganda—It's Epistemic Chaos

What started as a political tactic has evolved into a social virus.
U.S. President Donald Trump announces his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accords in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, D.C., on June 1st, 2017.

"Fake news" is more than a century old, but it's only now starting to make its mark on American society.

A new Monmouth University poll published on Monday indicates that a whopping 77 percent of Americans believe that major broadcast and print outlets report fake news "at least occasionally," up from 63 percent in 2017. But fake news doesn't mean hoaxes or lies: While 25 percent of Americans said the term applies to stories that are factually wrong, a majority of respondents (65 percent) said fake news also involved "how news outlets make editorial decisions about what they choose to report," according to Monmouth.

This isn't that shocking on its face: Trust in the Fourth Estate is in a free fall. But the rallying cry of fake news, exalted by President Donald Trump and adopted by politicians and governments around the world, hasn't remained a unilaterally conservative maxim. Monmouth's poll shows an uptick in skepticism across the political spectrum, with the most significant increases among independents (16 percent) and Democrats (18 percent) compared to Republicans (10 percent). According to Monmouth University Polling Institute director Patrick Murray, the public is uniformly convinced that fake news "is the result of both outside agents trying to plant fabricated stories and the editorial processes of mainstream media outlets that disseminate false narrative."

The poll comes in the wake of a weekend uproar over Sinclair Broadcast Group, after it was discovered the broadcasting giant pushed its news anchors to read a script decrying national media networks' dependence on fake news. "The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media," the Sinclair script goes. "Members of the national media are using their platforms to push their own personal bias and agenda to control 'exactly what people think.' ... This is extremely dangerous to our democracy."

While Sinclair may look like a mechanism of the Trump administration—and indeed he has tweeted his support for Sinclair—it's not as though Americans are any less skeptical of the president's own reliability. Monmouth's data shows Trump is even less trusted than cable news targets like CNN (35 percent of respondents versus 48 percent). Besides, Americans have come to loathe traditional institutions with such intensity that even Trump's well-worn outsider status can't protect him from the ire of the aggrieved citizen.

Given the growing furor of an American populace abused and misused for decades, Trump's brand of chaos was a logical conclusion of the 2016 election. But Trump's assault on the media has been built on an assault on reality, a national gaslighting that has wrought epistemic chaos among what was supposed to be an informed citizenry.

And this is a fundamentally deleterious blow to democracy. No society works if people don't speak the same moral and ethical language, if they can't find a way to communicate—and, more importantly, if they don't trust each other.

What started as a political tactic has evolved into a social virus, an epistemic pandemic rotting the central nervous system of American public life. Forget ideals of freedom or liberty or individual sovereignty or self-determination, the superstructures of modernity and the watchwords of our daily political skirmishes. Trust—fundamental, implicit trust—has been at the center of every society since the dawn of man. You know what happens when the center does not hold.