“Fake News”: A (short) Genealogy

Matthew McKeever
5 min readApr 17, 2022

“Concepts and practices moved from east to west. An example is the word “fake,” as in “fake news”. This sounds like an American invention, and Donald Trump claimed it as his own; but the term was used in Russia and Ukraine long before it began its career in the United States” (Timothy Snyder, The Road To Unfreedom, p11)

“During 2014, Russian TV channels changed the way viewers were informed about events in Ukraine to impose propaganda theses, incite hostility and spread outright lies. The scale of this phenomenon is such that the word “fake” could be called the media word of the year.” (Taras Nazarook, “The Year Of Fakes: How Russian Propaganda Lied”, 31 December 2014, my emph, translation google’s)

““Fake news” has acquired a certain legitimacy after being named word of the year by Collins, following what the dictionary called its “ubiquitous presence” over the last 12 months.” (Guardian, 2 November 2017 )

The aim of this post is to trace the spread of locutions involving ‘fake’, documenting Snyder’s (not explicitly referenced) claim. The second aim is to propose an important consequence of this spread. If it’s the case that the ‘west’ has taken up developments in propaganda and ‘information war’ at a delay, should that have any bearing on how we encounter and interpret news about the ongoing war?

Noun first: ‘fakes’ before ‘fake news’

In Russian, there are two terms initially to look for: there is фейк ньюс, which is more or less simply a transliteration of ‘fake news’ as best the Russian alphabet permits, and second фейковые новости, which is more of a translation, with Russian declension on the adjective ‘fake’ and the Russian word for news. But more fundamentally there’s a noun, фейк (plural: фейки). It is this noun for, I think, that marks the introduction of ‘fake’-discourse in Russian and Ukrainian political discourse.

(For reasons unclear to me, stopfake.org, in media such as their 2016–7 annual report, translate ‘fake information’ as the more Slavicly proper (you can see ‘pravda’ in there if you know Cyrillic) неправдивої інформації (this is Ukrainian), despite elsewhere using фейк and cognates.)

There are several ways to see this. It’s worth noting initially that фейк functioned as a neologism around its introduction in 2013–4. A Russian language website concerned with explaining Russian idioms, published in August and updated in November of 2014, tells us that that word is ‘gaining popularity on the internet, social media, and blogs’. It tells us that it’s from the English word, and goes on to explain that it might mean

These can also be fake user pages on social networks, i.e. the name and photo do not belong to the real owner, it may be false news, it may be edited videos, etc.

It ends by telling us that one might encounter it in phrases such as фейковые новости, which is incidentally the earliest use of the term that my — very perfunctory Sunday morning only — googling found.

In further support of its being a neologism from around 2014, we can look at this article “Manipulation in 2014 mainstream media: ‘fake’ and ‘duck’”, which begins by telling us that “one of the most popular themes in recent mainstream media” is fakes. What is particularly interesting about this article — indicated by its surprising anatine title — is that it seems ‘fake’ and cognates had been taking over a pre-existing Russian expression, “newspaper duck”, which means media misinformation (compare the English use of ‘canard’, French for ‘duck’, to mean a likely tale).

Finally, we can note the founding in 2014 of the still going website ‘stopfake.org’, a website devoted to pointing out Russian propaganda, which, on its about page, says that it’s concerned with the dissemination of fakes, фейки (incidentally, if you put the whole first paragraph into google translate, it will translate фейков (which is just the declined form) as ‘fake news’). It also focuses on:

on the dangers of propaganda and dissemination of false information (фейков) in the media

The least racist wikipedia image for ‘propaganda’, licence

When did the adjective come?

I think there’s accordingly pretty solid reason to think that the nominal form, where ‘fake’ is a noun that could apply to stories, videos, pictures, accounts, and so on, comes first. A question is when that use transformed into the adjectival use we see in фейк ньюс and фейковые новости, and thence — if there is indeed a single cross-linguistic process — into ‘fake news’.

I had little to no success in trying to find the first uses of that, partly because the modern web makes time-limited searches on news websites very difficult (search for something from Jan 2010 to Jan 2015 and you’ll get back lots of irrelevant sidebar results from recently; if anyone is better than searching at me, if one could search for html page titles containing ‘feyk nyus; — in English — that would help). But nevertheless I think the evidence above is enough to verify Snyder’s claim, and, just as importantly, to make plausible that talk of ‘fake’ media didn’t just sprout from Trump and Brexit.

Does any of this actually matter?

You might be a bit non-plussed at this amateur etymologising. Does it matter when a particular idiom was introduced? In fact, one can go further. Some philosopher, such as Josh Habgood-Coote, think we shouldn’t take about ‘fake news’ altogether; Jason Stanley, perhaps the leading philosopher of political rhetoric, thinks that ‘fake news’ is simply propaganda relabelled. (The literature on fake news in philosophy is bizarrely gigantic; see here for a response to Habgood-Coote)

But I think it does matter, at least a bit. One reason for this is it’s arguably — and this is a big point of Snyder’s book — that we in the US and UK are retracing steps in political discourse and movements that countries like Russia have already started. It’s thus helpful to go back to 2014 and see the rather large body of journalism, mostly in Ukrainian, on ‘fakes’, ‘information warfare’, and so on. Scrolling this website in reverse order turns up a lot of results that makes evident that Ukraine has been thinking about their safety in informational warfare terms for a long time (understandably, since they’ve been the target of the Russian informational war, something increasingly evident of late as people helpfully present translated clips from Russian state-backed TV shows). Perhaps we have things to learn from them.

And that thought helps, I think, understand our media. One of the things I find jarring as an observer is the bellicosity of social media onlookers who seem to cheer on the war, forgetting that war is hell. While I certainly see the temptation to idolize Zelenskyy or cheer e.g. the sinking of Moskva, it’s hard to do so one when, for example, follows the telegram channels of besieged cities such as Mariupol where there is unfathomable suffering going on and desperate appeals (for news about people, about getting civilians out, for internet). One way to make sense of this is to view oneself as the object of a Ukrainian information war, one which aims to get us to pressure our representatives into providing aid. Big questions arise in this vicinity: should we propagate fakes if we think it’ll help further our political and moral causes? If nothing else, attending a bit more to the history of the concepts of information war help bring those questions into view, and thus to think about how to engage with today’s media.

Matthew McKeever

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/