The mainstreaming of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and other linguistic manipulations creates confusion, distorts truth, and threatens the fate of our democracy.
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Every year since 1991, in Germany, an independent jury comprised of four linguists, a journalist, and a member of the public chooses the so-called “un-word of the year,” a word, word group, or expression that is considered to be in violation of human rights and democratic principles, discriminates against certain social groups, or is deliberately misleading.
Citizens can send suggestions for consideration up until December. The un-word of the year is chosen in the first half of January after a long deliberation. The words or expressions need to have been issued in a public context, have some timeliness, and they need to be fact-checkable. People who want to suggest a word for consideration have to include context as well.
In 2017, this rather dubious “honor” went to an expression that Americans will immediately recognize: “alternative Fakten,” or “alternative facts.” The jury consisted of the usual five members (linguists Nina Janich, Kersten Sven Roth, Jürgen Schiewe, and Martin Wengeler as well as journalist and author Stephan Hebel), but this year, they were joined by the anonymous street artist known only as Barbara. According to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the country’s most prestigious newspaper, “alternative Fakten” was mentioned 65 times out of 1,316 suggestions sent to the jury.
It may surprise some readers to remember that this phrase is little more than a year old. U.S. presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway first used the expression “alternative facts” in January 2017 to comment on then-press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Donald Trump’s inauguration attracted more people than Barack Obama’s in 2009—which was quickly proven untrue with aerial photos. According to Conway, Spicer wasn’t lying. He was simply offering “alternative facts.” Conway is a skilled manipulator, twisting and turning the other person’s words to make it seem like she’s addressing what was said, but in reality, spinning them off in a whole new direction—one that better suits her agenda. It’s a tactic that the Trump administration as a whole has perfected—from the masterful deflection of press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders during every single White House press briefing, to the way the president himself twists language and its meaning to suit not only his agenda, but to appease whomever is putting the most pressure on him in any given moment.
The term “alternative facts” has been later criticized, satirized, and used in a subversive way. It reminded people of “Newspeak,” the language of George Orwell’s novel 1984, which helped sales of the book to surge. Other terms that come to mind—and have been used ad nauseam in the American press in this context—are “truthiness,” where feelings become more important than facts, “fake news,” “post-facts,” or “post-truth.” Most importantly, it quickly became one of the most recognizable terms of 2017.
In Germany, these turns of phrase have received media attention as well. “We expected this expression [alternative facts] to be suggested multiple times. It’s been discussed repeatedly in 2017. But after considerable research we found out that this original source was the only one that took ‘alternative facts’ seriously. In all other cases, especially in Germany, it was criticized or used sarcastically,” explained Kersten Sven Roth, a linguist at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf who studies contemporary German language and is also a member of the jury.
The jury nonetheless selected “alternative Fakten” as the un-word of the year for two reasons: because it shaped the nature of political debate in 2017, and because it stands for a new, worrying trend in political discussions challenging the consensus that what is said in the public sphere should be fact-checked, proven, and explained.
“We’re talking about the pressure to create intersubjectivity: If everyone insists on being able to have their own facts, that endangers the possibility of reaching democratic consensus,” said Roth.
It has also sent the U.S. media into a tailspin, spending at least as much time defending its reporting as actually performing it in the first place, which was likely the whole point. And in just a little over a year, it has become one of the most effective weapons in Trump’s arsenal, enabling him to dismiss any news he doesn’t like as “fake,” a statement the tens of millions of Americans who make up his base accept at face value.
Roth is aware of the fact that there could be many “truths” because truths are subject to interpretation. “Whether Trump saw the number of people at his inauguration as a success or his first failure in office, that’s a matter of his personal truth. How many people were there, that’s the fact,” he said.
Stefan Marschall, a political scientist at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, said that “politicians have always lied to the public, and that lies have always been a crucial part of political communication.” But it’s his impression that we’re dealing with wholly new ways of lying, that is much more direct, and facilitated by social media.
“We have so much more direct communication, it happens much faster,” he said. And that way, lies become much easier to spread. “It’s so easy to send a tweet that hasn’t been fact-checked,” he said. As a result, a lot of what is circulating around the web are lies or a misrepresentation of facts. Sadly, attempts at making people change their minds by confronting them with facts generally prove unsuccessful and make them even more stuck in their beliefs. And this could have far-reaching consequences for democracy.
“From a cross-cultural perspective, language can obscure a leader’s true intent, if the listener does not understand the cultural framework the speaker is using. This can lead to miscalculations in foreign policy, and underscores why diplomacy is so important,” explained Leah Windsor, a research assistant Professor at The University of Memphis.
Usually, people tend to use more passive language and fewer personal pronouns when they are being dishonest. “These are linguistic distancing strategies,” said Windsor. But in the case of Donald Trump, the opposite is the case: he uses simple, casual language to distance himself from the more formal speech established politicians traditionally use. This places him in the same box as other populists. “Populism is not bound to a political ideology—it is found across the political spectrum from left to right and is designed to appeal to universal emotions such as hope and fear. Populist language provides cognitive heuristics and shortcuts that help people connect ideas easily,” explained Windsor.
Trump’s speech provides countless examples, like when he referred to Mexicans as rapists. He said, “These are not people, these are animals,” when talking about immigrants, invoking the distressing tactics of other regimes to dehumanize certain groups, such as when Nazis called Jews “vermin” or “rats.” During the homicide in Rwanda, Tutsis were equated with snakes and cockroaches. While there is some evidence that promoting negative perception of others doesn’t cause violence all by itself, it is very often the first step to actual violence by normalizing extreme perspectives, and thus giving them some legitimacy. As the “Men Against Fire” episode of Black Mirror has shown, it’s much easier to kill people when you think of them as actual cockroaches.
It’s no surprise that the proverb, “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth” is attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. Hitler himself coined the term “Big Lie,” or “Große Lüge,” to refer to a lie so big and convoluted that it would be seen as the truth. Some historians even believe that Hitler made use of the “big lie” narrative as a first step to mass murder.
In other words, the rise of “alternative facts” and “fake news”—in terms of actually fake news spreading and the terms used to weaponize subjectivity or their power to cause actual harm to certain groups of people—are not the natural outgrowth of social media so much as they are effects intentionally created by an expert propagandist. For Trump, social media is not the driver, it’s simply one tool in his propaganda arsenal. And unfortunately, the rest of the world is taking notes.
“The AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s populist, anti-immigrant, far-right party) was hoping for the “Trump-effect,” said Marschall. This didn’t happen. Instead, while the party got 13 percent in the last elections, it was ultimately blocked by the new grand coalition.
The German press has been incredibly critical of Trump’s presidency. It sees the U.S. as an “an unreliable partner, according to Marschall. “Trump has become a bad example,” he added. But that doesn’t mean Germany can stay secure in its democracy.
It’s not just Trump who has discovered the power of subjectivity. Instead, it’s a global game that Trump and his team happen to be great at—it’s visible in the Brexit debate, the 2015 election results in Poland, and the most recent elections in Germany. “We don’t talk about facts, only about claims,” said Marschall. And that’s a huge challenge for democracy worldwide.
But the strategies so often used by populist politicians around the world—appealing to emotion, overreaction, and using simple language as well as Trump’s love for tweeting distract American people’s attention from what is going on in their own country.
Last year, two other un-words were chosen in addition to “alternative Fakten”: The first, “Shuttle-Service,” a belittling, offensive term coined by former CDU/CSU speaker Stephan Mayer, to describe refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea bound for Italy on rubber boats and the NGOs trying to help them. The other word, “Genderwahn,” which can be loosely translated as “gender insanity,” was used by conservative and populist circles to defame attempts to achieve gender equality, such as “marriage for everyone,” or acceptance of transgender people. Some jury members insisted that by calling it an insanity, these circles give the impression that the people committed to gender equality are delusional and mentally unstable—not unlike conservatives referring to liberals as “snowflakes,” thus showing them as overly sensitive “crybabies.”
As Windsor said, it’s very difficult to disentangle language and politics because politics is the process of negotiation which is accomplished through language. That’s why the German un-word of the year is not just a linguistic curiosity. It also tracks the way the German language has changed over time in reaction to political and cultural events. Language helps create reality, and “the un-word of the year is meant to make people more aware of this phenomenon,” said Roth.
This is the fourth installment in our ongoing series on America’s “shifting language.” In our previous piece, we look at how words have become weaponized and turn bigotry into law.
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