Fake News in Perspective

John Harrison

We have heard the words ‘fake news’ annoyingly often, particularly since President Donald Trump was elected. Everything and everybody can now be labelled fake news, particularly when news is critical of the current US administration and its ebullient President. Governments have formed commissions to look into the danger of fake news, our democracies are apparently in mortal danger of succumbing to this phenomenon, to some kind of plague rising up like rats from the dirty yellow bowls of digital journalism. In this extremely broad-brush article, I would like to try and outline some of the issues which perhaps are not widely discussed, but which are perhaps important. Namely – what is fake news, is this a new phenomenon, and should it be stopped? Warning – this is an opinionated piece.

What is ‘Fake News’

Professor Dutton, the Director of the Quelli Centre at the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at MSU, said on a radio programme recently that the term ‘fake news’ only became popular during the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, and is used to mean news which is purposely false, which was created specially to generate clicks, to garner advertising support. But that now the term is being used to describe any sort of news that people don’t agree with. Professor Dutton points out that there are many kinds of news. There is partisan news, patriotic news which is used during conflicts, these can now be called ‘fake news,’ so the term is rather abstract.

 The House of Commons’ Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s recent fifth interim report (2018) on ‘Disinformation and ‘fake news’ defines ‘fake news’ as:

Fabricated content: completely false content;

Manipulated content: distortion of genuine information or imagery, for example a headline that is made more sensationalist, often popularised by ‘clickbait’;

Imposter content: impersonation of genuine sources, for example by using the branding of an established news agency;

Misleading content: misleading use of information, for example by presenting comment as fact;

False context of connection: factually accurate content that is shared with false contextual information, for example when a headline of an article does not reflect the content;

Satire and parody: presenting humorous but false stores as if they are true. Although not usually categorised as fake news, this may unintentionally fool readers.

The use of sensationalism and manipulation of emotions, often stirred up by politicians’ speeches should perhaps be added to this list.

For old-timers like me who remember things called newspapers (news printed on paper), all of this sounds rather like what was called news, which emanated from a number of tabloid publications, and sometimes from the ‘intelligent’ broadsheets. I clearly remember some of the Sun’s (UK tabloid) headlines during the Falklands crisis in 2002. Reference to the ‘Argies’ who should be killed, and single word headlines, often covering a whole page such as: ‘INVASION’ did not display a highly developed sense of objectivity. Sun reporter Tony Snow, always willing to go that one step further to show his patriotism, courageously stepped aboard the HMS Invincible and inscribed the valiant message: “Up Yours Galtieri!” onto a rocket. The story appeared under the headline: “STICK THIS UP YOUR JUNTA: A Sun missile for Galtieri’s gauchos.”

Wikipedia tells me that during ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ there was a secret Pentagon program to pay Iraqi media outlets to publish articles favourable of the U.S. invasion and occupation. The Lincoln Group was apparently commissioned to write and place stories with headlines such as ‘Iraqis Insist on Living Despite Terrorism’ and ‘More Money Goes to Iraq’s Development.’ Around 600 journalists were ‘imbedded’ within military units, 80% being British or American. It was considered – correctly – that it was more likely that such war journalists would create positive stories about the war effort than if they were in Washington asking questions. Similar tactics have been employed by virtually all governments including that of our beloved Russia, China, N. Korea, Australia and Tanzania!

It would seem that fake news is not a 21st century phenomenon, in fact it could be argued that news has been fake, to varying degrees for as long as news has been around, and before. Teachers of life drawing know that there is no one way to draw the human form, it depends on the drawing style of the student, his or her ability, the position in the room that student views the human body (the angle), although everybody is sitting in the same room and breathing the same air. In other words, journalists have to be allowed to have different viewpoints, and their viewpoint will be different to yours as two people cannot occupy the same space if one is drawing from life. Whilst facts cannot change, one’s perception of them can, and the closer the drawer is to the object, the stronger distortion becomes. From one angle, the leg is longer than the arm, from another, the arm is longer than the leg.

Politicians know that facts can be leveraged by using the viewpoints from local  geographic locations and cultural markers. It can be argued that true objectivity does not exist, writers are always influenced by their surroundings. As one student recently said during a lecture on fake news given at MGU: “All news is fake, there are only various degrees of fake news”. George Orwell wrote: ‘No book is genuinely free from political bias.’

History has shown us that one person’s position as regards the objectivity of news can change in time. His or her position in the room can change within one lifetime, year or even day, possibly moment. Thomas Jefferson famously said: “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Later, when circumstances changed, he commented: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.” After Congress had declared war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson quickly issued an executive order creating the Committee on Public Information. The agency later established its own pro-war newspaper. In 1949, Sir Winston Churchill said: “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize; it is the most dangerous foe of tyranny… Under dictatorship the press is bound to languish… But where free institutions are indigenous to the soil and men have the habit of liberty, the press will continue to be the Fourth Estate, the vigilant guardian of the rights of the ordinary citizen.” Between January 1941 and September 1942, Churchill’s wartime Coalition Government banned communist newspapers and throughout the war all newspapers were apparently subjected to government censorship and were prevented from covering news, including the bombing of schools or anti-war marches, thought likely to damage morale.

President Truman compared the press to ‘paid prostitutes of the mind’ in 1955. Nixon’s surrogates attempted to revoke the license of a television station owned by the Washington Post which broke the Watergate scandal. The paper’s tense relationship with the Nixon White House was recently chronicled in the somewhat romantic but nevertheless must-watch 1917 film ‘The Post’.

One can perhaps explain the actions of war time leaders as nations do need to rally morale when nations are threatened, and this seems to be part of the price to be paid for  the creation of nation states in the first place. Examples of ‘fake news’ are not, however, limited to war-time patriotic state of emergency messages.

After a two and a half year old child named Simonino had gone missing inTrent, Italy on Easter Sunday 1475, a certain Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre preached that Jews had murdered the child, and drunk his blood during Passover. The Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes IV Hinderback immediately ordered the entire Jewish population arrested, many were tortured. Fifteen of them were ‘found guilty’ and burnt at the stake. By this time, popular support for this pogrom had reached such proportions that even papal intervention could not stop anti-Semitist extremism spreading to other communities.

Pope Sixtus IV found out that wild fake stories with roots in popular prejudice often prove too much for responsible authorities to handle. Witch hunters, instigators of the Inquisitions, Nazi propagandists and delusional Soviet communist sadists, to mention a few episodes in our collective histories were not known for promoting fact checking or objective thinking, unless the facts and figures were as perverted as they were. Fundamental religion (and extreme political campaigns can sometimes be very similar to extremist religious missions) have sadly often been used as justification for suppressing science, that is, the necessity to ask the question ‘why’; as Galileo found out as he languished in house arrest after providing scientific evidence  that the world is not actually flat. America’s science community is at present under pressure under Trump.

Sensationalism as a drawing and writing style has always sold well. One only has to look at 19th century scoops and exposes, and fake stories to increase circulation. The New York Sun’s ‘Great Moon Hoax’ of 1835 claimed that there was an alien civilisation on the moon, and established the Sun as a leading, profitable newspaper. Yellow journalism’ flourished even during the Gilded Age, a time when professional, objective journalism was finally supposed to have taken root, using fake interviews, false experts and bogus stories to spark sympathy and rage as desired. Dmitry Trenin, the director of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow  in a recent talk touched on the dangers of liberal foreign polices (not domestic policies) when a country assumes that its own ideology can be viewed as superior to others.

Fake news therefore is indeed the spreading of malicious or misinformation. But this is often confused with the phenomenon of journalists simply doing their job. Most believe in what they are writing, in a partisan manner, and that is why they write so convincingly. It is far too easy to dismiss all news which goes against the adopted ideology or mainstream arguments of a government, or the truths that a population has conditioned itself to believe in as some kind of psychological comfort in times of uncertainty, as being fake news.

We need scapegoats. News which backs up accepted perceived myths is not called fake news though. A new study by King’s College London of attitudes to Brexit, for example, established that nearly half of the British public still believe the false claim from the Brexit referendum campaign that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU, despite the British government’s own statistics’ office, the UK Statistics Office denying the claim. There is also no evidence available to demonstrate that extra money will be spent on the NHS after Brexit. The then UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson’s comparison of the 2018 FIFA World Cup with the 1939 Hitler Olympics was based on very dubious factual evidence.

Can Fake News Be stopped?

In a word, no, unless we control the whole mews making creation and distribution process. If we subscribe to the general idea that journalistic standards have slipped (which I agree to)  and that there is a difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ news, then we can entertain at least a conversation. Today, we seem to be in a situation where the mainstream press is still coming to terms with their monopoly of information being undermined by digital platforms. Progress seems to be being made in that most centralised media have, or are in the process of putting up ‘paywalls.’ This could lead to the possibility that newspapers will be able to afford more professional objective journalists. However, the damage has been done. Pew reports that between 2003 and 2014, with the decline of the printed press, the number of professional reporters dropped 35 percent. Since then numbers have dropped again. For decent, at least semi-objective journalism to survive there has to be a demand for exposure to articles which offer different viewpoints. Endless prioritising for clicks tend to debase good journalism. In the past, adverts printed on paper could pay many of the costs involved, and support independent journalism. Those days have sadly gone or are going fast.

There is academic evidence available which leads us to suspect that electronic media has already affected our ability to critically assess the external world. Even if paywalls could save us from infinite clickbait, there is no guarantee that we will want them to, and mainstream media platforms will continue to decline in number and quality.

Whilst the arguments have a lot of truth in them, there are other points of view. The new media is accused of encouraging echo chambers and of reinforcing our own mental bubbles. However, during the Vietnam War; the U.S.’s first ‘television war,’ more than 90 percent of U.S. households had a television and almost 60 percent of them used it to get most of their news. There were only a few channels in those days and it is unlikely that the angle taken by news presenters of different channels differed anything like as much as the views offered by today’s thousands of digital news feeds. Newspapers were expensive. My family could not afford to subscribe to more than one – The Daily Telegraph, or ‘The Paper’. No other version of reality was taken particularly seriously in our household.

Fake News is for some reason associated only with social media, which is unfair because fake news can be detected in all media. What social media has done though, is introduce us to other mind sets. The idea of ‘post-truth’ could in fact be interpreted as ‘post-single-truth’. The inventors of the internet knew that their invention would change the world, and that is what it is doing. Whether this is good or bad depends on one’s point of view.

There was only one town crier at a time in your local town in medieval Europe. Now there are many, and each attracts individual audiences which share and like messages between them. Perhaps it is better only to have one teller, and perhaps it isn’t. Town folk in those days didn’t have a lot of choice, but we do, and are, so far, free to move from one group to another, as long as other groups are allowed to exist.

The danger of course is that I will be persuaded by a demagogue to believe in one truth only, because I am unable to process information correctly because of a lack of ability to contextualise information. Whilst the manipulation of our brains by companies like Cambridge Analytics and indeed those of certain governments and political parties in the realm of social media should be stopped, we have to be very careful how we do that.

Perhaps governments should consider paying attention to increasing general literacy in terms of critical thinking at schools and universities. Reading, contemplating  and criticising great literature, both contemporary and classical is something that could be encouraged to help people understand that there are such things as different mindsets, and just because somebody thinks differently does not mean he or she is a ‘useful idiot.’ Sadly, we see, across the world, governments taking action against social media platforms but not taking steps to heighten this kind of basic intellectual literacy amongst young people. Critical thinking skills are perhaps the only thinking which can protect us against a sea of biased news. Biased news coverage, as discussed above, is nothing new. Meanwhile, whilst social media is free, good education is becoming more expensive.

Pressure is being put on European internet companies that harvest personal data. The EU’s ‘meme-killer’ articles 11 and 13, passed in September seem to be directed at the commercial side of social media platforms, and require internet companies to pay news outlets for hosting content, the same applies for songs, images and videos. Application of these articles has been stalled it seems, for the time being, due to lack of clarity about what a ‘hyperlink’ actually is. The UK’s possibly final European Commissioner is also calling for limits to internet harvesting for political proposes, however such an approach begs the question whether all political messages, including those of his own party will be treated in the same way.

The French President, Emmanuel Macron promised to introduce a law to ban fake news during his election campaign, although he has not yet done so, it seems. Malaysia has, however, already applied such a law, and offenders face up 6 years in prison. As already stated, algorithms are already being applied to all of our social media platforms whether we like for not, so the question of whether we approve or not is academic. Whilst there seems little doubt that forcing users to pay for songs and videos is a good thing, and promoters of child porn should be stopped, there are arguments as to whether users should have to pay for news content which is imbedded with commercial banners. Paywalls are already making this more difficult in the case of the mainstream media, however we are still waiting the arrival of a successful business model for news outlets in the 21st century. Critics of coming down on internet companies, such as Alberto Alemanno, a professor of law at HEC Paris business school argues that the EU does not have a coherent method for deciding whether a publication is producing misinformation. Once mechanisms – algorithms – have been created to control flows of information, it would be foolish to think that they will not be used. Facebook has reportedly gone ahead and purged over 800 accounts and pages ‘pushing political messages’.

A fundamental point highlighted by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report was that of the difference between publishers and platforms. Platforms allow anybody access to any information that is placed on them. A publisher, by definition, selects information that is made available to a particular audience.  Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management is quoted in the report: “…Our community would not want us, a private company, to be the arbiter of truth”. The report adds: “The definition of ‘platform’ gives the impression that these companies do not create or control the content themselves but are merely the channel through which content is made available. Yet Facebook is continually altering what we see, as is shown by its decision to prioritize content from friends and family, which then feeds into users’ newsfeed algorithms.” In other words, by succumbing to political and commercial pressure, Facebook (which is used by about 2 billion people use daily; roughly the same amount of people as there are practicing Christians in the world), is becoming a publisher, and an arbiter of truth.

Please, internet Gods in the sky, I personally want to be able to read different views of an event or series of events as presented by Adam Garrie, Alexei Navalny, Dmitry Bikov, Dmitry Babych, The New York Times, RT and a host of other contrasting providers. Only then can I make an informed and mature judgement, and this principal is similar to that which I was taught in old fashioned journalism courses. I do not wish an algorithm to decide what I can or cannot read, as that would be an insult to my intelligence. By encouraging social media platforms to become publishers we are in fact pouring petrol onto the fire. That same fire that Ray Bradbury talked about in Fahrenheit 451.

To survive in the 21st century we need to be resourceful and creative. Bracketing our minds by ‘protecting’ us is not the way to go. As George Orwell wrote:

‘The imagination, like certain wild animals, will not breed in captivity.’

We should try to prevent governments and corporate interests from influencing us, however they always have and they always will. My own view is that more attention needs to be paid to the causes of the problem than trying to put out fires. Otherwise we shall end up, all of us, prisoners in our own self-made prisons. As Number 6 said in 1967: ‘I am not a number, I am a free man.’ But he could never leave the village, which was safe and comfortable. After all, it was guarded by giant bubbles which prevented intruders getting in, but also residents getting out.