Floating Words and Fake News by Jacqueline Littleton

On November 29, 2016, a dictionary spoke back to the people: “‘Fascism is still our #1 lookup. # of lookups = how we choose our Word of the Year.” Merriam-Webster’s Twitter account warned before imploring its audience, “There’s still time to look up something else.”

Merriam-Webster continued its social commentary in the weeks to come. On January 24 2017, Kellyanne Conway coined the phrase “alternative facts” when defending misinformation propagated by the Presidential administration which employs her. That same day, Merriam-Webster spoke again, “In contemporary use, fact is understood to refer to something with actual existence.”

The day before, after news had broke that President Donald Trump had planted paid staffers to clap during a press conference, there was a surge in lookups for the word ‘claque’. The dictionary clarified that, “if you’re part of a group that’s paid to applaud, you’re a claqueur.”

It’s fitting that a dictionary, made sentient by a woman with her doctorate in English, would be the vanguard of language as it degenerates at a rapid and exponential pace. Human language has had a good run, but its death seems inevitable and close; the experiment as a whole is a failure. After thousands years of our species constructing more and more elaborate means at perfecting our favored mode of communication, both written and oral, from temple inscriptions to radio announcements to think pieces to paid speaking engagements with little positive results. The culmination of these attempts have only led humans to commit atrocities because groups often hold opposing understandings of language in their arsenal.

An analysis of virtually any political speech would show the conversation is bereft of meaning. In the official readout of former US President Obama’s phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, regarding the Russian intervention in Ukraine, Obama uses the phrase “going forward” twice in less than four sentences, a phrase which conveys dynamism but meant little. He speaks about diplomatic measures and gently hints at sanctions, which both parties must have known was an empty threat since most of Europe is dependant on Russian oil. There is no record of Putin’s response, but he in contrast has used language clearly. In what linguists would call a speech act, he does as he says, such as when he declared he would “hang Saakashvili by his balls,” referencing the Georgian President as Russian tanks were rolling into Georgian territory. The Russian involvement in Syria on behalf of cartoon villain and President Bashar al-Assad sends a stronger message on Russia’s commitment to protecting its allies (in contrast to NATO) than any language ever could. Overall, though, distinguishing between words and actions has increased in difficulty.

President Obama used his words to draw a “red line,” or use of chemical weapons by the government against Syrian the people, which he warned the Syrian government not to cross under threat of a U.S Military response. The Assad Regime later crossed this line as their rebuttal. The response promised did not take place. A line was drawn, but the line did not exist, a conundrum indicative of the failing of human speech. Language has infected action, but action has not returned the favor, and thus language creates a simulacrum in which leaders, regimes and media can play in while completely ignoring any real-life destruction they leave in their wake.

Israel has built settlements on Palestinian land since its inception, but most infamously since capturing territory after the 6 Days War in 1967. The land is called occupied territory by some, but disputed territory by others. The choice in label has everything to do with one’s position on the Israeli-Palestine conflict; if the land is occupied, its rightful ownership is clear, but if it’s disputed then its ownership is uncertain. This masterful sleight of hand likely goes unappreciated by Palestinians, who must endure foreign architecture built atop their land, often by their fellow citizens who have few other options for employment, but it is an art nonetheless. That is exactly what language does: it obfuscates meaning.

There is no clearer example of this than all the -isms which are often tossed around with little impunity. A clip from the VICELAND documentary Hate Thy Neighbor went viral recently, treating the public to the spectacle of a man performing bigotry on camera. In an interview with British comedian Jamili Maddix, a fellow Brit Tommy, spokesman for the English Defense League, shares his views in a long, and racist, rant while simultaneously denying any accusations of racism. A transcript from the video is as follows.

“You got people who walk around, suck their teeth [makes sucking sound] I’m bad, I’m a gangster I’m this, I’m that, you’re a n*****. If you walk around and you’re just a general black guy, it’s not racist. If you’re a general black guy that walks around and you wanna be nice, you wanna be kind, you wanna be kind, you wanna be acceptable, you wanna join in on what we’re doing, then sweet. Same with p*kis, yeah. To me, you’re a p*ki if you’re a p*ki. It’s not racist in my view and opinion. It’s what I agree with, it’s what I feel like. Racism is when you use derogatory terms against people, and I’m not like that.” - Tommy

He defends his use of a slur against black people by claiming it is descriptive and that he has no problem with black people in general. He just feels entitled to use offensive words towards the black people he does not like, but he does not believe the words are racially offensive in any way..

Tommy’s views, while abhorrent, are not strange. His continued insistence that he is “not racist,” however, what is strange is that he declines to provide an alternative definition for the word which would make his statement true. He seems to be of the generally agreed upon opinion that racism is a bad thing to do, and he of course does not think any of the views he expresses are bad or else he would not have done so with a camera rolling. This is strange, but not uncommon. Most excretions of bigotry begin with the prefix, “I’m not a racist, but…” a qualifier that is deservedly mocked, but also merits examination. Tommy knows that racism is wrong so rather than debating the wrongness of his statements, he debates his racism. Regardless of his adversaries’ response, he can always reply, “No I’m not.”

The insistence by racists that their racism is not racism demonstrates the word has been emptied of all its content. The work of anti-racists has been successful, to an extent: they have driven home the message that racism is bad into the collective consciousness. It is not a message many will disagree with; even modern white supremacists resist the label and prefer “race realist,” when branding themselves, citing biological determinism justifies their beliefs rather than simple prejudice. The word is claimed by no one, but deployed by many. It has taken on a second meaning: the thing which I am not. Even unmissable examples of racism, such as the disproportional police killings of unarmed black Americans, are shrouded to appear differently. Any attempt to label these instances for what they are results in the label revolving back towards the initial accuser, who is then accused of racism for noticing race in the first place. Racism has become a thing which nothing is possible to be. Any anti-racists must define their terms at the unavoidable risk of a denial of their terms existence.

Fascism, as a word, has functioned similarly. Dr. Lawrence Brit’s “14 Points of Fascism” is a fairly good guideline for determining what is and is not fascism, but few analyze an ideologue or a government they dislike to see whether or not they “make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia” or “are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism” before deploying the label. Just as racism is the thing which it is impossible to be, fascism is the thing which describes my enemy, and has ceased to mean anything fungible. Fascism has been extracted and abstracted from a historical movement with a defined ideology to a functionless descriptor synonymous with evil.

This can be seen in the application of “Islamofascist” towards the regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan by neoconservatives in the United States used to drum up support for the War on Terror. At the time, liberal opponents of President George W Bush called him and his administration fascists for the same war. Saddam Hussein and Dick Cheney were many abhorrent things, but they were not fascists, at least not by the dictionary definition of the word, which Merriam-Webster defines as someone who has “a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

However, the literal definition of a word has little clout against its abusers. The word  fascism has evolved beyond such limiting things like its definition and has taken on a new life as a symbol of evil. The word has come to represent something universally reviled; no political organization would self-identify as fascist, regardless of their similarities with its description. In that way, it has been stripped of meaning. On words, Wittgenstein says, Wittgenstein says “we picture facts to ourselves,” meaning that to understand something is merely a matter of picturing it. When words lose their meaning, they become impossible to picture and therefore, impossible to understand. The loss of fascism and racism as serviceable words represents something grave: it allows us to ignore the lessons history has imparted and gives us no outlet for identifying problems.

This is how language is dangerous, like an unholy hybrid of a many-headed dragon and a phoenix, with obstacles that multiply and recreate itself upon any attempt to vanquish them. But this is the nature of language. When Judith Butler was deciphering gender, she identified the seminal problem with performance: “Performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate “act,” but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names.” In other words, the performance of gender creates a cyclical effect whereby one who acts out the roles of one’s assigned gender reaffirms the definition of said gender. A woman who performs the conventional roles of femininity recreates the roles she is instantiated through, but a woman who does not perform these roles also recreates the roles when she is then labeled atypical. The word woman itself carries connotations through its definition which seem impossible to avoid through its usage as a label.

Butler discussed performativity in this context strictly as it relates to gender, however there is some of crossover in the conclusions of her work and in How To Do Things With Words where J L Austin delves into language’s performative nature. He asks, “can saying it make it so?” Does language itself produce the effect that it names? Austin asked how one can do things with words, but the more imminent question is how do words do things to us?

The answer becomes apparent in the narratives surrounding the most recent, and exhausting, US presidential election. Austin supposes that it is not inaccurate to say “to say a few certain words is to marry.” A legal marriage ceremony is composed entirely of words, said in a certain specific order by certain specific people, and the entire validity of it hinges on the proper people verbalizing their consent to the event by saying “I do.” The marriage is made real by its participants saying so: their vocalization of the marriage renders them married.

In the same way, when Hillary Clinton first spoke of the alt-right, she unified disparate fringe elements who previously had not realized the advantages of solidarity. Besides their opposition to her, and what she represented to them, the groups which make up the alt-right have nothing in common, which is why there has been infighting amongst them ever since the election. Richard Spencer coined the term alt-right, but it did not enter the general milieu until Clinton mentioned them in an August speech, describing them as people “with race-baiting ideas, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant ideas, anti-woman –– all key tenets making up an emerging racist ideology known as the ‘Alt-Right.’”

Opposition to certain groups does not an ideology make, or at least not a coherent one. Some members of the alt-right have come to their political positions through reading the work of reactionary theorists like Nick Land, some long for the economic and cultural stability they believe existed before the era of multiculturalism, others simply love trolling, and have found voicing extreme right-wing beliefs the easiest method of doing so. Outside of their disdain for diversity, liberalism and the concept of political correctness, these factions do not have much in common, and have starkly different ideas for how the world should be run. Since the election, key players in the alt-right, like Richard Spencer and the recently defamed Milo Yiannopoulos publically called each other out and made their dislike of each other known in the public internet forum. But in those few months after Clinton first spoke of the alt-right, these groups happily adopted the banner and the label “deplorable.” The alt-right solidified after they were unified under a single banner by Clinton’s speech.

The existence of “fake news,” the history of which is unfolding in real time, was also created by its naming. The phrase had a short, but exhilarating life as a thing with meaning, during the immediate aftermath of the presidential election of Donald Trump. When it became clear it was he, and not Hillary Clinton, who would assume office, the media pundits who had long assumed her victory scrambled to find a suitable answer for her loss. As it turned out, some websites fabricated stories about the presidential candidates and the issues surrounding them in order to maximize clicks, which is where ad revenue is generated. Because of Facebook’s model, the stories with the most clicks would often find their way to the top of users’ newsfeeds, legitimized by a seemingly trustworthy social media’s endorsement. There were many options at hand for diagnosing this difficult situation, like examining the universal desire to seek out news which affirms one's’ beliefs, or tweaking the Facebook newsfeed model. Instead, it seems, the easiest path was chosen, and the phrase “fake news” was born, despite already available words like propaganda and lies. This diagnosis saw the trees for the forest, while fabrications-as-news is certainly problematic, far fetched “news” stories is not a new phenomena, as shown by the longevity of The National Enquirer’s run and other such magazines. What was new was the acceptance of these fabrications by the mainstream.

For some, it served as a ready diagnosis for the election as a whole. A month after her defeat, Hillary Clinton said “Let me just mention briefly one threat in particular that should concern all Americans — Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike — especially those who serve in our Congress: the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year. It’s now clear that so-called fake news can have real-world consequences.”

Though she did not outright say it, others did: fake news was responsible for the surprise election of Donald Trump. This theory was convenient in that it allowed neoliberals and Hillary supporters to scapegoat their loss rather than engaging with any factual reasons. However, the phrase backfired nearly immediately on its creators. While Infowars, Breitbart and other alt-right media outlets make use of fringe theory, they function on more than a desire for fantasy. They lure their audience in with this proposition: the media is not telling you the truth. They argue that the mainstream media presents the public with only a limited view of events and are purposefully obscuring the truth while they maintain control of the story. There is some similarity between their thesis and Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s explanation of how the media manufactures consent:

In sum, the mass media of the United States are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions and self-censorship, and without significant overt coercion. This propaganda system has become even more efficient in recent decades with the rise of the national television networks, greater mass-media concentration right-wing pressures on public radio and television, and the growth in scope and sophistication of public relations and news management.

It is the goal of these media outlets to create a break in trust between the public and the mainstream media, so as to offer themselves as messengers of the truth. In coining the term “fake news,” liberals gave their opponents the ammunition they needed. It should then come as little surprise that right-wing media pundits quickly adopted the term fake news and brandished it as their own. Alex Jones, the most infamous face of Infowars, picks through any news story that makes its way through the mainstream media cycle and looks at it from the angles he feels have been ignored. After a thorough examination, he declares the media is, yet again, lying, explains the inaccuracies present and shares the vested interests the media has in deceiving the public. The ultimate conclusion here is that it is they who are the real fake news, and general distrust for the media grows. Clinton and her ilk have helped produce the effect they have named.

One solution for the decline of language would be to create new words and better language, but this has been tried. Neologism is fun, but it is a greuling, and probably impossible, task to put slippery depravity back in the box from which it came. Knowing this, the best possible solution comes from the biblical parable of the Tower of Babel.

Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another's speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

Humans once had a universal language, according to the Bible, but they grew hubristic and built a tower with the intention of reaching heaven, using the tools given to them by their shared speech. This displeased the Lord, who saw humans were using the power of speech to go beyond the means He intended for them. The greatness which they could achieve with this power was immense but so was the harm they could cause. In response, God scattered them and confused their language, making universal communication impossible henceforth. This may have worked well temporarily, but the next time God decides to punish humankind, He should go a step further and confiscate human language entirely. Until then, language will be further abused by those with the skills to do so. Words will continue to contribute to a culture of ignorance, until that ignorance becomes the basis of culture.




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