President-elect Donald Trump just slammed BuzzFeed—one of the most prominent, visible media organizations in the world—as “a failing pile of garbage” during a Wednesday morning press conference.
The venom is a direct response to the news outlet’s controversial publication of an unverified dossier alleging close ties between Trump and Russia. The report contained unproven claims of a highly personal nature—some involving bizarre interactions with sex workers in Moscow—and it’s dominated the news cycle since its publication Tuesday night.
“It’s all fake news. It’s phony stuff. It did not happen,” Trump lamented, at his Wednesday press conference.
And hit with a question from a reporter from CNN—which also published a story about the documents, but not the documents themselves—Trump fired back:
“Not you, your organization’s terrible. Your organization’s terrible … I’m not gonna give you a question. You are fake news.“
There are a number of arguments against BuzzFeed’s publication of the document. Chief among them: It’s a totally unverified report, yet, gets legitimized as a natural consequence of its distribution. There are no doubt plenty of people who’ve seen these rumors spread, sans context, on social media, who might take them as fact, sight unseen.
For Trump to put BuzzFeed on blast for propagating “fake news” is ironic at best.
But to lump BuzzFeed’s coverage into the now overly-broad category of malicious “fake news” isn’t quite right, either.
Trump should know this better than most. His campaign disproportionately benefited from the spread of viral, fabricated stories during the election.
BuzzFeed’s own reporting last year revealed how young men in Macedonia profited from fabricating stories about the American election, learning that “the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.”
While “fake news” supporting both candidates existed, pro-Trump, anti-Clinton stories were far more popular, a separate BuzzFeed analysis found.
As Craig Silverman wrote for the site (emphasis ours):
Of the 20 top-performing false election stories identified in the analysis, all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton. Two of the biggest false hits were a story claiming Clinton sold weapons to ISIS and a hoax claiming the pope endorsed Trump, which the site removed after publication of this article. The only viral false stories during the final three months that were arguably against Trump’s interests were a false quote from Mike Pence about Michelle Obama, a false report that Ireland was accepting American “refugees” fleeing Trump, and a hoax claiming RuPaul said he was groped by Trump.
For Trump to put BuzzFeed on blast for propagating “fake news” is ironic at best, given what he’s reaped from the viral spread of legitimate misinformation. And it’s troubling for another reason: It gives people license to cry “fake news” when the media reports something they simply don’t like.
The term has arguably outlived its usefulness at this point, distorted as its definition has become. But “fake news” was originally intended as a label for online articles that deliberately misled for some secondary purpose—to profit or electioneer.
BuzzFeed’s publication of incendiary documents, heavily couched as unverified, was not “fake news.” It is real news about information that may not be true.
There’s a difference—a big one. And if we want a free press to continue working for the public, we’d do well to understand it.