On Thursday the United States’ Press Secretary made headlines by suggesting that the United Kingdom’s surveillance service GCHQ had been involved with the Obama administration in wire-tapping Donald Trump. Met with instant derision and an unprecedented rebuke from GCHQ itself, the press secretary’s comments were withdrawn by White House staff within a single day.
Spicer’s comments are a fine example of the newest addition to our popular political vocabulary – “fake news”. The most curious omission from the scandal is any evidence. On 4 March the President makes a series of unsourced accusatory tweets towards the Obama administration; Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano then reveals that he has received information from “unknown sources” that GCHQ were involved; and finally, on 16 March Napolitano’s unverified claim is quoted live from the seat of Western democracy by Sean Spicer.
In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, the President stated simply that he had “been readings things”. When asked if the loss of truth devalued his comments, he astonishingly replied “let’s see whether or not I prove it”. With fake news, truth comes after the fact – if at all.
In the age of information overload, Donald Trump is the most prominent example of the frequent paradoxes forged in the relationship between press and power. Trump publically denounces the “fake news” of others whilst creating his own. His denunciation of media bias is on a basic level his broken clock moment. Mainstream media outlets have produced “fake news” since their inception. So really – what is “fake news”?
Who makes the news?
The mainstream media are the corporations which dominate traditional news platforms – radio, print, television and now online sites. To understand “fake news”, we must first look at the mainstream media’s foundations. On supermarket shelves and TV listings the consumer in the United Kingdom has a variety of choice. However, the truth of corporate ownership of media outlets is less diverse.
A recent study by the Media Reform Coalition estimates that 71% of the UK’s print media is controlled by just three companies – News UK, Trinity Mirror and DMGT. The most publicly recognisable is undoubtedly News UK, which forms part of a global media empire lead by the dynast Rupert Murdoch. Its parent company, News Corporation, owns large stakes in a staggering number of major outlets in the UK, Australia and USA including Fox, Sky, the Wall Street Journal and New York Post.
Of the 29% outside of these three corporations, ownership and choice are still blurred. For example, both the Daily Star and Daily Express are owned by the billionaire Richard Desmond. Coincidentally, they were the only papers to support UKIP in the last general election.
Ownership in the USA is similarly carved between massive corporations (see the “big six”) and their billionaire owners and stakeholders. What is clear on both sides of the Atlantic is that news corporations are rarely non-profit or social enterprises. News is commodified and distributed by companies at the apex of the corporate structure. The consumer is given the illusion of choice in a commercialised and usually free-market orientated media which often reflects the values of its ownership. In fact, the media world is so ultra-competitive and high value that a free-market, commercialised approach is almost a natural consequence.
The question is not so much what makes the news but who makes it. In a press which is arguably biased at an institutional level, there are several notable examples of direct political involvement – Michael Gove and The Times; Boris Johnson and The Telegraph and only yesterday George Osborne’s editorship at the London Standard. Editors play a crucial role in the conduit of ideology from ownership to print. The Daily Mail – which is quickly becoming the UK’s most read print and online newspaper – is molded very much in the image of its long-standing editor Paul Dacre. The result is a blurring of news and opinion. In a commodified and highly competitive news arena, factual news is given colour by ideological and commercial biases.
There are many examples of this “fake news”. Coverage by the Sun of Hillsborough is perhaps the most prominent but there are many examples from the last year:
“The Queen backs Brexit” (The Sun),
“One in five Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis” (The Sun),
“Amazing things we’d get back if we left the EU” (The Express)
All were retracted on complaint due to incorrectness. The Vote Leave campaign too exhibited (and later acknowledged) its own ambiguous respect for truth, with now infamous slogans on NHS funding and Turkish accession proven false. The media-spin low of the Brexit referendum was undoubtedly UKIP’s “Breaking Point” poster which not only echoed third reich propaganda but used as image taken not in the UK but in Slovenia.
These are examples of overt misinformation – the crudest form of “fake news” which forms an accepted element of our media. However, the spread of “fake news” is not limited to the commercial and ideological drive of the tabloid press.
Who decided what the news is?
The most insidious mistruths are undoubtedly those we cannot see. They are not splashed across headlines or falsified photos; they are not misquotes or deliberate misstatements. For a number of reasons – nativism, a westernised worldview, lack of research or institutional bias, the UK press has long been accused of presenting a consistently Westernised version of UK and US actions, particularly in foreign policy. This is what Chomsky calls the “propaganda model” and he explains it better than I ever could:
“The mass media serve as a system for communicating messages and symbols to the general populace. It is their function to amuse, entertain, and inform, and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs, and codes of behavior that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society”
There are numerous examples this model in practice. Take coverage of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Israel as starters; and more of lack of coverage – such as of Yemen or Saudia Arabia. The most current example is the coverage given to the Syrian conflict and the characterisation of its key players. Boris Johnston has changed position on Assad three times already. In December 2015, Johnston referred working with Assad as a necessary “dealing with the devil”. Within months, he backed Assad’s removal, saying “the suffering of the Syrian people will not end while Assad remains in power“. In January, the triple-flip was complete as the Independent reported Johnston’s view that Assad should be able to stand for re-election. The scenario had changed – Obama was gone and the Trump administration preferred Assad.
The stability of a dictator with predictable cruelties became palatable once more. But how was this triple flip reported in the UK? Did the UK press criticise the government’s decision to sanitize a leader who had been intensely demonized in the UK press for decades? The headlines tell a different story:
“Boris Johnston signals shift in UK policy” (The Guardian);
“Britain may accept Assad staying in power” (The Telegraph);
“UK TROOPS FOR SYRIA” (The Sun).
The Telegraph would describe the change simply as “realpolitik”. For a newspaper with a grim obsession for Assad’s numerous atrocities, the Sun showed uncharacteristic reserve with its story:
“In a break with UK policy [Johnson] also said a political solution might see tyrant Bashar al-Assad allowed to stand in UN-supervised elections.”
The point is that whether through deliberate editorial bias, individual journalistic failings or a climate created by the institutional processes of a corporate dominated news structure, the news often normalizes or buries controversial subjects through particular use of tone, wording or restraint
Yemen is practically unreported. Evidence of coalition bombs killing civilians in Syria received little attention. Activists are routinely hounded for bringing the crimes of soldiers to light; judges and lawyers lambasted for ensuring that UK soldiers abide by human rights standards abroad. You are more likely to read an in-depth critique of Jose Mourinho’s use of the 4-2-3-1 formation than a simple criticism of the results of our foreign policy.
Fake news means fake news
From the few examples above, we can build the outline of a press which has long tradition of “fake news”. However, with the growth of social media as a news platform, we can trace the development of new forms of fakery. In an excellent piece in the Guardian, Carole Cadwalladr explains its processes. Websites are created which resemble traditional news layouts. These sites then post content which is likely to be widely shared on social media. Sites can be created by interest groups, political funds or simply people looking to cash in on advertising revenue. Their content can likewise be anything. Content is then shared on Facebook en masse. Its sharers are often “bots” – fake profiles which can be bought and used to exploit the content management algorithms of sites like Facebook and Twitter. With more shares, any story can reach the top without ever going through the quality management procedures found in traditional media.
Obviously, for these processes to start, money trades hands somewhere. The creators of news websites pay good money for prominence in Google’s search algorithms, which are vulnerable to expert manipulation. Cadwalladr herself found that when searching Google about “fake news” the top result was an unknown outlet called “CNSnews”. More digging revealed that this outlet is owned by something called the Media Research Center – an organisation dedicated to “neutralising leftwing bias in the news”. This group is far from impartial – it has received over $10m in funding from US hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, who is widely recognised as the funder behind Donald Trump himself. All in all, Mercer has given around $100m to ultra-conservative groups and Republican candidates.
A casual search on Twitter reveals a second endemic issue – fake profiles. These are used to flood topics with positive or negative messages; to construct fake poll date or simply to share content as widely as possible to real users.
The use of fake profiles, bots and the simple exploitation of real users with eye-catching stories allows almost any story to gain momentum if it’s good enough. In traditional media, unknown or radical outlets struggle. Print and television are expensive. Alternate or simply poorly delivered voices are quickly snuffed out. Online, anyone can yell into the abyss and quickly cause an avalanche of sharing and coverage. Buzzfeed (I know) have produced an excellent analysis of fake news on Facebook. During the Trump campaign several patently false stories gained massive traction – that Obama was banning the pledge of allegiance; that ISIS supported Hilary; that the Pope supports Trump. Even when debunked, the damage of an accusation is often irreparable. Truth doesn’t stick as well as a good story. The effect is well summarised in an academic paper by Andrew Rojecki and Sharon Meraz published in the New Media & Society journal:
“The World Wide Web has changed the dynamics of information transmission and agenda-setting. Facts mingle with half-truths and untruths to create factitious informational blends (FIBs) that drive speculative politics“
Their piece was written about the 2004 presidential election but is increasingly relevant today. How often have you opened a news-story to find that the entire story is about a tweet or post? Online sources increasingly dictate what the traditional media talk about.
As our television screens and Twitter feeds parade increasingly laughable statements from professional liars/useful idiots like Kelly-anne Conway and Sean Spicer, the easy conclusion is that “alternative facts” and “fake news” are a new phenomenon. However, the reality is that fake news has been operating for a very long time and very close to home.
Our media has long been heavily influenced by its hegemonic ownership and editorial bias. The difference with Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and their ilk is that they have bypassed the editorial process and delivered untruths straight from source. The actions of newspapers can be explained by their commercial reasons or desire to influence politics. The actions of politicians themselves can only show their lack of respect for voters and democratic systems.
These politicians haven’t invented anything new. They’ve just started doing things for themselves. Populists like Donald Trump and their hidden backers appreciate the power of a good story and recognise the powerful snowball effect of emerging online platforms.
As usual, those most vulnerable are targeted. All democratic systems are informed by the assumption that the voter is informed enough to make the best decision for them. Misinformation turns voters into victims.
I am reminded strongly of a line from the English poet John Milton, who in a letter on reform of the Christian church remarked:
“They who have put out the people’s eyes reproach them of their blindness”