Monday, July 30, 2018

Faking Fake News

Fake news.  There was yet more hand wringing about this over the last few days.  Apparently, it presents an existential threat to democracy.  As usual, the 'blame' was being placed on the web and, most specifically, social media.  As if the phenomena of misleading and even completely made up 'news' didn't exist long before the net ever existed.  The British press, most specifically the right wing press, have, ever since anyone can remember, been spewing forth disinformation and propaganda in the guise of news stories.  Not just about politics, either.  Take a look at the back pages and all the completely made up football transfer stories there: how many times can Harry Kane be sold to Manchester United or Real Madrid, despite having signed a new contract at Tottenham?  (Actually, can it be a coincidence that the quality and accuracy of tabloid transfer gossip has significantly declined since they were forced to stop tapping people's phones and hacking their voice mails?)  But none of that matters any more because nowadays, according to the traditional media, people are getting their news from that evil social media.

Which is, I'm afraid, utter bollocks.  Sure, print media might, supposedly be in terminal decline, (although the sales of some sectors, such as traditional printed books, have actually begun to increase again), but newspapers and network TV news are still seen as far more authoritative sources than online media.  Their lies are far more likely to influence voters than those peddled online.  If, indeed, voters really are influenced by either - there's scant evidence that they do.  Let's not forget that what is said to be one of the most influential lies of the Brexit brigade's EU referendum campaign - that leaving the EU would save £350 million a week, which could, instead be spent on the NHS - actually appeared on the side of a bus.  Besides, the whole argument about the supposed growing influence of social media is surely undermined by the claims (gleefully reported by the print media) that fewer and fewer people are actually engaging with social media, isn't it?

But the internet provides traditional media with a convenient scapegoat to try and divert public attention (and potential regulators) away from their own nefarious activities.  Even when they aren't peddling outright untruths of their own invention, the UK press spends its time uncritically repeating the pronouncements of whichever right wing would be demagogue they favour at any one time.  And that's the problem - the lack of any coherent critical analysis.  Of anything.  Let alone politics. Which leads to all sorts of bias, whether intentional or not.  Lately, I've become very frustrated with the BBC's reporting of the Electoral Commission's findings that Vote Leave had broken electoral law, presenting these as 'allegations', effectively accepting, uncritically, Vote Leave's line that the Commission is somehow biased and pro-Remain.  But its findings are fact.  The Electoral Commission is the body which sets the rules for the conduct of elections in the UK.  It is an impartial body.  It is interested only in investigating allegations of electoral fraud brought to its attention and its findings reflect the facts that it uncovers.

The BBC would doubtless say that they were trying to be 'balanced' in their reporting. Except that there is no 'balance' between the opinions of Vote Leave and the factually based findings of the non partisan Electoral Commission.  Following the BBC's logic on balance, every time the courts find someone guilty of criminal offences, they should continue to refer to the convicted felon as an 'alleged' murderer, or 'alleged' rapist.  After all, just because the court, having considered the evidence, has convicted them, it doesn't mean that the guilty party has to accept it, does it?  But it is an accepted principal that, until they can prove otherwise in another court, those convicted in court are guilty.  So it is with Vote Leave and the Electoral Commission: until the former can disprove the latter's findings, we have to accept that they broke electoral law.  Come on BBC, we expect better of your much vaunted news services.

I know I've said all of this before, but it seems that it needs saying again.  'Fake News' is one of the most unhelpful concepts bandied around in recent years.  It is so vague that it can be used to dismiss anything that someone in power doesn't like, whether it be factual reporting, fair comment or satire.  The worst aspect of this latest moral panic is the whole idea that false news stories hadn't existed before the internet.  As for all that mock horror from the traditional media as, in the wake of Trump's victory, they suddenly 'discovered' that people write stuff on the web which isn't true!  Oh, the horror of it all!  Who would have thought such a thing?  Worse even than that, is the way in which commentators have flocked to use this alleged 'fake news' as an explanation for the rise of Trump and his ilk, despite the fact that people posting right wing propaganda on Facebook can no more explain the Trump presidency than it can Brexit.  The roots of both are far more complex (and implicate the traditional media), but analysing these would prove just too uncomfortable forte pres, who prefer to rely on their own lazy assumptions about the web.

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