Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Phony War on Fake News

I see that the hoary old business about the evils of 'fake' news stories on the web has raised its ugly head again.  A fellow satire site owner has drawn my attention to a recent online article headed 'Facebook, Twitter Join Coalition to Defeat Fake News', the gist of the article being that the social media giants are joining up with other tech and news organisations to create a 'platform' where news stories can be 'verified' before they get disseminated across the web.  The article cites the usual nonsense about 'faux news' stories going viral to create fake terror alerts and false reports of celebrity deaths.  The problems with this are manifold.  For one thing, false death reports and fake terror alerts tend not, in my limited experience, to be the result of 'fake' news stories, rather they are a result of the way in which social media itself operates, where a single person with sufficient 'followers' or 'friends' can set something with no substance whatsoever trending.  The other big problem is how, exactly, do we define a 'fake' news story?  Just because something published online isn't true, doesn't mean that it has malicious intent.  Obviously, I have a vested interest here, as the owner/operator/writer of a satire site, (well, I like to think that The Sleaze is satirical, others might differ), nothing I publish is actually true.  But that doesn't make me guilty of peddling fake news.  The site makes clear on its masthead, which appears on every page and story, that it isn't true, that it is intended as satire and parody.

This, however, doesn't stop The Sleaze being lumped in with the so called 'fake' news sites on many of those web sites which purport to be able to tell people what they are reading is true or not.  The very fact that such web sites exist indicate where the problem with 'fake' news really lies: the lak of critical faculties amongst some users of the web.  I mean, really - if you can't make a judgement for yourself on the veracity of something you come across online, then I despair of the human race.  Sure, increasingly I find there's a problem when people whose first language isn't English read satire stories, the fact that what they are reading isn't meant to be taken literally, is sometimes lost in translation.  But, I'm afraid, gullibility is what lies at the source of this problem (if, indeed, it really is a problem, which I doubt).  I'm guessing that the very same people who allegedly believe these 'fake' news stories are also taken in by those emails from Nigerian generals and the like, who just need you to give them all your bank account details in order to make you rich.  

But to return to the point, online satire isn't targeted at such an audience.  It's aim isn't to bamboozle the gullible.  Indeed, the only people I've ever seemed to have 'fooled' with any of my stories are researchers working on TV programmes and journalists - people who really should know better.  Although, to be fair to them, I think that they are lazy rather than gullible, trying to find an easy story sourced from the web, without actually bothering to check out the origin of the information they've found in a Google search.  I am aware, though, that there are sites out there whose sole purpose seems to be to promulgate fake news stories, usually in order to generate 'click bait' via search engines and social media, which, they hope, will generate ad revenue from unwary visitors to their own sites.  More recently, we've seen the appearance of a number of right wing sites, some actually masquerading as satire sites, whose mission is to promote their pathetic, but still poisonous racist, homophobic and mysoginistic propaganda, trying to get it onto mainstream outlets via social media.  Of late, they've specialised in churning out outrageous nonsense about Hilary Clinton as part of their support for Donald Trump.  Ultimately, though, I can't help but feel that even if anyone does actually believe any of their fake stories, it will be a case of them preaching to the converted.

Of course, there's another, far more dangerous and prolific source of fake news: the mainstream media itself.  The very organisations which are apparently now committed to 'defeating' fake news on the web are, themselves, filling their pages with palpably false news stories, usually designed to push their own, highly dubious, agendas.  Just peruse the pages of any UK tabloid, from the Daily Mail to The Sun and you'll find all manner of screaming headlines about Muslims, benefits claimants, single mothers and immigrants, heading stories which, upon even the most cursory examination, prove to have no foundation in fact whatsoever.   Even worse are their 'science' articles, promising all sorts of medical breakthroufgs and holding out hope for the seriously ill and disabled, none of which are actually based upon any kind of reputable scientific research.  If the news media are serious about defeating fake news, then they need to start looking closer to home than the web.  Because, let's face it, few, if any, people are really going to believe any story originating from a site called The Sleaze, they might be inclined to believe it if it comes from a supposedly reputable and trusted mainstream news outlet.

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