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alternative facts

What does alternative facts mean?

Alternative facts have been called many things: falsehoods, untruths, delusions. To break it down, a fact is something that actually exists—what we would call “reality” or “truth.” An alternative is one of a choice between two or more options, like when actor Maurice Chevalier said “Old age isn't so bad when you consider the alternative,” the alternative here of course being death. So to talk about alternative facts is to talk about the opposite of reality (which is delusion), or the opposite of truth (which is untruth).

Where does alternative facts come from?

Kellyanne Conway, an advisor to President Donald Trump, used the euphemism alternative facts when she was a guest on NBC’s Meet the Press on January 22, 2017 in a conversation with the show’s moderator Chuck Todd.

Conway used this term to describe false statements made by the press secretary Sean Spicer on January 21, 2017, the day after Donald Trump took office. Todd challenged her use of alternative facts immediately, saying “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.”

The term caught on widely with critics of the Trump administration. Alternative facts and its variants have been used on protest signs since Conway said it. At a protest challenging Trump’s controversial executive orders, one dog was spotted wearing a sign labeling it as an #ALTERNATIVECAT.

Variants of alternative facts have sprung up on social media. Hashtags like #SeanSpicerFacts and #SeanSpicerSays parody the way in which Spicer made several easily disprovable statements in his first-ever press conference as the press secretary to President Trump.

In conversations about alternative facts, the words post-fact and post-truth often come up. Post-fact and post-truth refer to an environment in which objective facts are a thing of the past. In a post-fact society, facts are viewed as irrelevant and emotional appeals are used to influence public opinion. This is not unlike Stephen Colbert’s concept of truthiness, which is trusting your gut feelings over facts. As his comical Colbert Report persona says, “Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you."

The expression alternative facts evokes Newspeak, the language of the fictional ruling party’s propaganda in George Orwell’s 1984. In the book, Newspeak leads to doublethink, which is when a person holds two contradictory beliefs in their mind at the same time, and accepts them both. An example of doublethink from 1984 is the idea that “war is peace.”

For example…

“You're saying it's a falsehood. And they're giving--Sean Spicer, our press secretary--gave alternative facts.”

Kellyanne Conway, Meet the Press NBC (January 22, 2017)

“Ms. Conway found a more receptive audience for her phrasing in a Monday interview with Sean Hannity of Fox News, who said that ‘alternative facts’ simply provide ‘a different perspective.’”

Ben Zimmer, “A Clash of ‘Alternative’ and ‘Facts’,” The Wall Street Journal (January 26, 2017)

“Sales of George Orwell’s dystopian drama 1984 have soared after Kellyanne Conway, adviser to the reality-TV-star-turned-president, Donald Trump, used the phrase ‘alternative facts’ in an interview. As of Tuesday, the book was the sixth best-selling book on Amazon.”

“Sales of George Orwell's 1984 surge after Kellyanne Conway's 'alternative facts',” The Guardian (January 24, 2017)

This is not a formal definition of alternative facts like most terms we define on, but is rather an informal word summary that touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of alternative facts that will help you expand your word mastery.