Alarming though the prospects for democracy and civil society are under the threat of online fake news disseminated through Google and Facebook, it is important to take a historical long view of the problem. In the past month since the election of Donald Trump, the influence of fake news disseminated by right wing media outlets in America, assisted it would appear by Russia, have caused alarm at the highest level.
This ignores the fact that whilst the impact of fake news in this instance has been globally game changing, it is a phenomenon that has been with us for decades courtesy of the print media and American right wing TV 'news'.
Entirely made up news stories like the Sun's libel of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough and retraction fifteen years later or the more recent persecution of Christopher Jefferies, falsely accused and tried in public of a murder he was utterly innocent of are just two high profile examples of Britain's own fake news industry which has mass produced fabrications for years. The conviction of Mazher Mahmood for conspiring to pervert the course of justice in his attempt to see the singer Tulisa Constavalos jailed for supplying drugs also suggests that when 'news' is in short supply, it can be manufactured through the entrapment of the unwary.
The difference between these examples and the slew of racist conspiracy theories that appear to have influenced the US elections might at first seem stark. After all, whilst dishonest and malicious, was the Hillsborough front page designed to influence the outcome anything at all?
Well the answer to that question is yes, it was. Tabloid newspapers, the tools of power hungry billionaire proprietors have both short term news priorities and long term agendas. They can be surprisingly patient in their ability to gradually drip feed ideas, shape the attitudes they claim to reflect, narrow discourses and ignore marginal ideas. The Hillsborough reportage was simply a tile in a larger ideological mosaic and the target, working class Liverpool football fans, was ideal at the end of the 1980s (an era where terms like Toxteth and Militant came to define the city in the lexicon of tabloid reporting). A city like Liverpool, renown for collectivist sentiment was as alien to the Sun and its values as the miners or any other reviled demographic.
Fake news in the pre internet era created the mood music that enabled Thatcher, Major and then Blair governments to win and then maintain power. Now fake news of the Breitbart variety is noticeable because of its immediate, shrill power using social media to amplify itself. However, it was the tabloid press across the western world over the last thirty years that taught the current post truth media every trick in the book.