“If you don’t read the news then you’re uninformed. If you do read the news, you’re misinformed.”
This quote is normally attributed to Mark Twain, although in an ironic twist many internet sources credit it to various people, from Voltaire to Denzel Washington. This witty aphorism demonstrates that scepticism towards the news has existed for quite some time. False stories have been rife in the media for centuries. In 1844 Edgar Allan Poe perpetrated “The Balloon-Hoax”, a fabricated story about a transatlantic hot air balloon trip, just to see if people would believe it. Websites such as Snopes.com have existed since the mid-90s to debunk internet rumours. Newspapers regularly publish retractions after getting something wrong. Clearly, the reliability of the media has been an issue for a while. So why is it that 'post-truth' has suddenly become the buzzword of modern times? Why is 'fake news' only now being seen as a real problem?
The simplified answer to this is that things got political. At some point in the last few years hoaxes moved away from convincing people they eat eight spiders in their sleep every year (you don’t, just FYI) and took on a more sinister role. The click-and-share community of the internet allows one individual or a small group of people to proliferate information in a way previously not possible, even if the information is wrong. Did you hear how the Pope endorsed Donald Trump? Or how Barack Obama deleted tweets endorsing Hilary Clinton? Perhaps one of your friends shared the meme which quoted from an interview with Trump in People magazine from 1988 saying:
“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.”
All of this would be rather damaging, if it were true. Yet in reality it is all fiction. These were just a few of the widely circulated yet totally fake news stories surrounding the American presidential election. This isn’t just the product of some bored guy trolling people for amusement; this is a deliberate attempt to influence popular opinion. It may even have been utilised by Russia in a misinformation campaign to promote Trump, whose foreign policies are more amenable to Russia than Clinton’s. More recently, Russian news sites RT and Sputnik were accused of spreading false news about French presidential hopeful Emmanuel Macron. The Russian Foreign Ministry then recriminated that it was Macron’s team who were spreading fake news about Russia. It is becoming increasingly difficult to know exactly who to believe.
This raises an important question: is 'fake news' a useful label to discredit dissenters and brush off legitimate criticism? Trump has already publically called major news organisations such as CNN 'fake news' for reporting negatively on him. Rather than seek to defend himself, Trump simply brands his detractors liars. Journalists have the capacity to hold the powerful to account – see the Watergate scandal for a good example – but the Fourth Estate’s influence is far from total. If journalists want to be invited to press conferences, want to build a career for themselves, want to get interviews with the president, they need to be in his favour. The only concrete way to achieve this is to be laudatory. This chills investigative journalism and exposés. As George Orwell said, journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.
Telling the truth is not always greatly rewarded. Indeed, sometimes it is heavily punished. It is particularly telling that while media moguls such as Rupert Murdoch live in mansions and have dinner with presidents, Julian Assange has been trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy for an astonishing five years now in an attempt to avoid what he suspects is a complex ruse to allow the Americans to arrest him on espionage charges over the documents he has published on WikiLeaks. Assange has crossed the line of how much truth the authorities are prepared to reveal. If it can be argued that the press only has as much freedom as it is permitted, and in reality the government is often able to control the flow of information in the news (for example through a DSMA-Notice in the UK), Assange has created a real source of pure information, and in doing so has become an enemy of several states.
What is equally telling is that Assange, once lauded by the political left for exposing crimes committed by the American military in Iraq, has now been ostracised by those very same people after he released Hillary Clinton’s emails just prior to the election. Conversely, Sarah Palin, who had previously condemned WikiLeaks for releasing her own emails, publically backed the organisation over this action. Recently, Assange’s call to get Trump’s tax returns after Donald reneged on a promise to release them has cooled Republican support once again. It would seem that both Republicans and Democrats love sharing the truth when it is the version of the truth that suits them, and prefer to discredit it when it doesn’t.
The paradigm shift in the way we consume news has had both positive and negative consequences. We have undone the hegemony of a few corporate elites and democratised news reporting. Yet we have also opened the floodgates for unscrupulous and ill-intentioned people and organisations to spread misinformation. It is healthy to be sceptical of mainstream media, but the rising power of alternative media could come at a cost. With more people getting their news from Facebook and Twitter and seemingly not bothering to verify it, we are allowing the boundaries of what is fact and what is fiction to blur.
How much of this is fiction. is showcased at FACT until 21 May 2017.