Shortly after the November 8, 2016 election, the media was looking for explanations of how Donald Trump could have won the electoral college when most projections had predicted a Hillary Clinton win. At that time, even though some journalists had already covered the Russians hacking the DNC in order to influence the election through a slow and carefully timed release of one-sided damaging PR, the stories about Russia’s role in the election were not getting the most air time or the front-page headlines.
One explanation was the proliferation of what some journalists were calling “fake news” that were essentially total hoaxes or entire fictions usually based on zero facts, like Pope Francis supposedly endorsing Trump or Hillary Clinton supposedly running a pedophile ring out of a pizza joint.
Even though the outrage over “fake news” (you could also call it propaganda, lies, or hoaxes) is justified, I immediately saw people on the left start to back away from the term. “Be careful,” they said. “It’s dangerous. You start using the term ‘fake news,’ and then it will be co-opted.”
They were right, in one sense, of course—Trump’s mobs did start co-opting the term “fake news” to mean “news I don’t like” instead of “news that isn’t news and is in fact wholly made-up fiction.”
In another sense, though, they weren’t right. The term “fake news” isn’t itself more prone to being co-opted. If you have legions of unquestioning followers (as Trump does), any legitimate term can be co-opted, and they are, in fact, being co-opted—the term “safe spaces,” which used to be a way for conservatives to ridicule “special snowflake” liberals, suddenly became something Trump followers (or Twitter bots?) were co-opting to indicate they can engage in whatever hate speech they want without being called out on it.
It’s a strategic fallacy to believe that picking the right word or phrase to describe a phenomenon will somehow prevent someone else from misusing the word or phrase or co-opting it to mean almost the exact opposite. We do want to be precise with our language, but not because that means it can’t be co-opted—only to be accurate in what we are describing.
If you decide to use the word propaganda instead of the phrase fake news, Trump supporters can just easily start responding to any news story they don’t like with #propaganda. If you decide to use the word lies, they can similarly respond with #lies.
Of course you want to pick the right tool for the purpose. You don’t want to use a hammer to screw in a screw, and you don’t want a screwdriver to hammer in a nail. But don’t imagine for a second that if you pick the right tool, a malicious party can’t decide to use your “correct” tool to become a weapon.