THE BLOG

Fake News Isn't New, It's Just Been Industrialised

27/03/2017 11:47
filo via Getty Images

At the best of times, you can't move for media conferences. And this isn't the best of times, so all the trite and the good are gathering repeatedly and especially to form little echo chambers on panels, on which they spend their time bemoaning echo chambers on social media.

And this new energy is channeled around the new phenomenon of fake news, putting renewed energy into agonising over problems which has recently emerged in just the last two thousand years or so.

Because, in the beginning there was the word. And the word was God. Or at least the authority was from God (and feel free to pick your own deity). Information used to be delivered by those who ran us. It might be kings who took the idea of the Divine Right or Popes taking the notion of Papal Infallibility or whatever justifications for their authority they could find, to allow them to decide what was the authorised version of events. A kind of live version of the notion that history is written by the winners.

Fake, or false, news then was the information that contradicts what the authorised version prescribed. The news was what those in authority said it was: and the source, or the medium, gave credibility to the message. It helped when only those who had education, or writing skills could deliver that information. The act of writing something down often created the only permanent record. And often that was tied to religious institutions - monasteries in Europe, perhaps - who spoke with the authority of both God and of the written word.

As societies developed, and the sources of 'authority' become more diffuse, and the invention of the printing press allowed for the media become more plentiful, a singular version of news, or truth, became more difficult to sustain. There were more competing claims to fact, and to a monopoly on the truth.

After the Reformation in the 16th century, and the scientific revolution of the 17th, there were explicit efforts to different 'truth' from 'falsehood', to provide the empirical foundation for information, or the evidence to support perception. The influence of science emphasised the importance of supporting evidence to back claims about facts.

But still, the source was important: a gentleman was more authoritative than a commoner; an eye witness account more credible than hearsay; an 'official publication' more reliable than others. So it may not be totally right to say that before the17th/18th century, the distinction between fact and fiction was not there, but there was certainly a greater effort to determine and differentiate them by this time.

All regimes censored the press in order to maintain control of information and authorise truth. But it was always an impossible task to suppress 'false news'. Indeed, trying to prevent or control the truth getting out there actually encouraged people to invent fake news: the old adage of tabloid newspapers, if there is no news we just make it up. So that made it all the more necessary to try to distinguish fake from true, but even more difficult to do so.

So, where we once had a handful of sources of information and that handful created an authorised picture of what was news and fact and what wasn't, we began to have, in what might be termed the golden age of newspapers, the unmistakeable sign of the growing industrialisation of fake news. The Sun's famous 'The Truth' story about the behaviour of football supporters during the Hillsborough disaster is but one of the most appalling examples of an agenda overcoming facts. The role of proprietors and editors in the selection and presentation of news via their own political and personal is a corrupting influence that still affects how mainstream media, for want of a better phrase presents events.

In short, fake news isn't new. We've not always had good reason to trust the mainstream media either.

In the UK, the recent decision by Wikipedia to reject the Daily Mail as a credible source is another version of that problem.

As an aside, for all the outrage, it took the football club at the centre of it all, Liverpool, 27 years to ban the Sun from its press conference. That illustrated their confidence in themselves as a media brand rather than their lasting outrage. They no longer see the need to allow established brands they don't trust to deliver their information for them. And, of course the decline of trust in those brands - see for example the classifying of the Daily Mail as an unreliable resource by Wikipedia - has happened at the same time and partly because of the rise of all sort so other organisations and people who see themselves as media brands.

We can all publish - so a lot of us do. And we do so with no filters, fact checkers, sub-editors or responsible adult of any kind.

And for a while, that was seen as the threat. Anyone could say anything - and frequently did. And there was the danger that people might take it seriously. And sometime they did - celebrity deaths were announced and un-announced. Laws of libel were flouted. It was all a bit anarchic, but the biggest complaint was that it was all so glib. People taking photos of their breakfast, posting pictures of their kids. How lightweight was that? And what an innocent time that now seems, when the lure of the sidebar of shame of the meaningless links that suck up time while we find out what might have happened to that celebrity or the 17 things we never knew about that woman off that programme we've never watched. The sort of information which informs only advertising, not our minds. It drives traffic, wastes time but its only mildly toxic compared to other issues.

First, the death of objectivity. While old brands head to the wall (and while they may not have all been loved, but we at least felt we understood them) the new ones have abandoned any pretence of being anything other than wholly partisan. According to Axios, almost all the news sites launched in the last 20 years have a partisan angle. They mapped the launch dates of 89 digital outlets in the US from 1993 to 2015 and found an explosion in the founding of right-leaning sites since 2010 that it argues can't be fully explained by an increase in political polarization in the U.S. -- it's instead at least partially attributable to the rise of Google and Facebook; "Facebook, in particular, algorithmically favors content that appeals to user bias and interest." Axios categorizes Politico as the only mainstream news site that's launched since 2000.

It's those algorithms that are the real issue now. The creation of industrial-scale operations that use enormous amounts of personal data to target particular groups for political purposes has seen its first triumph in the election of Donald Trump.

Trump's associates are heavily linked with the company Cambridge Analytica, which claims that it has 'psychological' profiles of 220 million American voters, via 5000 different data types. And they used that to target content to people 'vulnerable' to its suggestions. A process which may have helped tipped the balance in the election.

In such situations, that targeting is done on social platforms and they get the blame - Axios were quick to point the finger. Especially at Facebook. But don't blame the deliverers of this information as much as the creators. Whether its Breitbart or Macedonian teenagers, it is those who create the content in the first place who are the real problem. Once we ask Facebook to take an editorial role, we're passing on the problem. They can signal the obviously fake better, they can push more trusted brands artificially and they can change their algorithms to spoil the fun for the likes of Cambridge Analytica. But I don't want Mark Zuckerberg, however well-intentioned, to choose what I should be reading.

Instead, Facebook, and the rest of us can remember two things.

Its all about the users and it's all about the economics.

If we become more news literate and more information literated, then we will start to understand the signs of what is news and what is fake. We will drift towards that which has truth and away from the twaddle. We can support that which is researched, supported by demonstrable evidence. That which is transparent and driven by the need to explain rather than by the need to prop up a kleptocracy.

Because if we do that, and actually read and click on what we say we want to read and click on, then the advertising will follow. And the business model will support honest reporting. If that happens, then that can strangle the fake news industry and we'll all be a little saner. Aside from Trump, of course. It would drive him crackers. Which is the very best reason to do it.

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