Will the press let Trump brand social media lies as 'TRUTH'?

Launch of lying former president's disinformation app poses media ethics challenge

Will the press let Trump brand social media lies as 'TRUTH'?

Sometime in the next few weeks, a former president of the United States will launch a new social media app. Its purpose: To bolster his authoritarian political aspirations by creating a new tech platform for his hallmark lies and disinformation.

The launch of this new propaganda tool will pose a serious challenge for the press, which must consider how to cover it without becoming a super-spreader of its deceitful and manipulative products.

Donald Trump told 30,573 lies during his time in office, according to an official count by the Washington Post. His defeat in the 2020 election only intensified his zeal for lying. His Biggest Lie of All – that he did not lose the election to Joe Biden – inspired the violent insurrection at the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The election lies, coupled with his electoral defeat, led Facebook and Twitter to finally ban him. The former president must now create his own social media platform if he wishes to lie with impunity.

Trump cannot survive without lies. His lies define him. He tells bold and shameless lies about everything. He even lies about lying. Like other would-be dictators, he uses lies as a calculated strategy to create a counter-reality for his followers.

“Fascist politics exchanges reality for the pronouncements of a single individual, or perhaps a political party,” wrote Jason Stanley in “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.” “Regular and repeated obvious lying is part of the process by which fascist politics destroys the information space. A fascist leader can replace truth with power, ultimately lying without consequence. By replacing the world with a person, fascist politics makes us unable to assess arguments by a common standard. The fascist politician possesses specific techniques to destroy information spaces and break down reality.”

In an Orwellian twist, Trump’s new social media app will literally attempt to brand his lies as truth by calling the platform “TRUTH Social.” With this move, the former president is trying to manipulate the press into associating the words “Trump” and “truth” in the minds of readers. He views repetition of the word “truth” in relation to his new lying machine as essential.

The press must outsmart this trap. It would be gravely irresponsible to allow the former president (or anyone) to present lies and disinformation under the banner of truth. Of course, the naming scheme of Trump’s new platform complicates the matter, since it’s the general practice of media outlets to call things by their official corporate names. In this case, however, incautious use of the platform’s official name would aid and abet the war against truth and democracy. Newsroom leaders must address this issue carefully.

One idea: Refuse to go along with the scheme by using its name sparingly, and only while placing it squarely in the context of Trump’s constant and strategic use of lies. Using the “truth sandwich” structure, reporters can give readers the necessary information without falling into the former president’s linguistic trap.

For example:

Truth: The former president, who was removed from other social media platforms for spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election and helping to foment the insurrection on Jan. 6., is launching his own social media platform.

Contextualized lie/falsehood/trap: In a twist, a president known for constant lies is calling his app “TRUTH Social” and promising it will not censor political views.

Truth: However, since the political views of Trump supporters largely depend on falsehoods – especially concerning the 2020 election – it seems likely that the new app will exist to promote the former president’s lies and attack the truth.

Again: Press outlets should use the misleading “truth” label sparingly. The official name could be used once (in proper “truth sandwich” context) and then replaced with “the app” or “Trump’s app” in the rest of the story. Keeping the false “truth” label out of the headline will be especially important (and challenging).

Another approach: Journalists could refuse to reward Trump’s trickery by refusing to use the app’s official name at all. They could inform their readers of this policy and explain why, given the former president’s assaults on democracy, the press and the truth, they will not participate in efforts to rebrand him as a figure of truth.

“Big Lie Media” or “DJT Lies” would be more accurate names for a Trump app. While we can’t expect most journalists to go that far, all responsible members of the press should avoid marketing lies as truth — which is exactly what the former president is trying to do.

Another big question: How will the press cover the former president’s antics on the new app? Hopefully, we will not repeat the mistakes of 2016, when the constant elevation of his outrageous tweets and statements helped to put him in the White House.

Authoritarianism and fascism pose an existential threat to the free press. The machinations of a twice-impeached former president who incited violent insurrection and now seeks to overthrow American democracy through a campaign of lies must be covered strategically, not objectively.

George and Gil

Further readings:

Can a former California dairy farmer help Trump slay Facebook and Twitter? (Gil Duran, The San Francisco Examiner)

Trump has turned words into weapons, and he’s winning the linguistic war (George Lakoff and Gil Duran, The Guardian, 2018)

Instead of Trump’s propaganda, how about a nice ‘truth sandwich’? (Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post, 2018)

How to stop falling for Trump’s tweets (George Lakoff and Gil Duran, The Sacramento Bee, 2018)

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to FrameLab.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.