Fake News And Post-Truth: Welcome To The Upside-Down

We have to demand more of our media, and more of ourselves. We cannot just passively build our world view from entertaining and shocking stories. We must read widely, discuss loudly and hold those that lie to account.
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In the 1960s, my mum would read the news on the BBC World Service. She said there was something incredibly rewarding about helping people to understand more about the world. She told me that it was the word 'service' that had specifically motivated her. I asked her what she meant by this and she simply stated, 'empowering people with knowledge'. To her, telling the news, and sharing information, was a responsibility.

Today, she'll tell you she still likes to share news. However, I have to remind her that her application of this on most days in her retirement is more commonly referred to as 'gossiping'. News of local indiscretions and liaisons can become a topic of hot debate at her Sunday morning swim meet. When I studied ancient history at University I discovered in a Latin text by Virgil that 'Rumour was the swiftest of all the gods'. I told my mum this and she replied 'because I give her her wings'.

Well, we all do and our appetite for sharing news is as ancient as news itself. And today, we share everything instantly with simplicity. On Facebook, we most typically share things that are 'amusing' or 'shocking'; that which has entertained us, or appalled us. Indeed, those two qualities frequently take over the original leading role of 'news', which was for it to report facts.

In the run up to the US election, facts themselves became history. A story with the headline 'Pope surprises world and endorses Trump' was shared more than 800,000 times. Only God (and therefore the Pope?) knows how many people saw it and how Trump might have consequently benefited. As you hopefully know, this Papal patronage was entirely false, but its potential to change people's perspective was huge. We were deep in the world of fake news.

When I was a journalist myself, there would always be an editor checking over my shoulder that I wasn't getting my 'facts' to support my articles from wikipedia. This coincided with a time when a jobbing actor friend's favourite hobby was to insert himself into the wikipedia entries for famous films. Now it is not just parts of stories but whole stories that are made up. The Pope story was just one of thousands of fake stories generated during the election campaign. Remember the good old days when Facebook's flaw was merely to give you a narrow, algorithmically-enhanced view on the world, so you never understood the 'other side'? Ahhh. (See my previous blog on this). Now we also have to deal with wholly fake news, produced for its ability to disrupt.

In this growing culture of uncertainty - and a seeming lack of concern by many for its implications - Oxford Dictionaries last week made its word of 2016 'post-truth'. In our post-truth world, we cannot be sure of what is real. Made up stories work because facts no longer motivate us as much as appeals to our emotions. The Brexit camp recognised this. The remain camp tried to fight post-truth with truth, but with our current media limitations this just bounced off it like paper darts fired at a wall. Now we have seen Trump take this to another level, with his mastery of newspeak, and if we continue along this trajectory, then the potential consequences with the rising voice from the right are truly terrifying.

Breitbart - the alt right media channel with one foot in the White House - actually attacked the Pope earlier this week when he said immigrants and refugees are not 'our enemies'. To its half million Twitter followers, Breitbart said 'Except for the ones that, you know, murder and rape people.' Breitbart is fully embracing confusion and post-truth by now suggesting stories criticizing it are themselves 'fake news'. It's a clever tactic and it's hard to know where to turn. Sometimes it feels we are in the Upside Down, the alternative, darker, parallel universe from the Netflix series, Stranger Things. Like the little boy lost in the show, I just want to go home.

Facebook has just announced it is going to crack down on fake news. It has recognised a responsibility to the truth. (Take this BBC quiz to see if you can spot fake news). But what is that exactly, 'truth'? In the UK, some of our largest newspapers are owned by powerful individuals who drive an agenda and convince us their 'views' are actually 'news'. Even the Prime Minister is too scared to force them to behave responsibly (as we saw after the High Court Judges attacks), fearing they will only attack her as a result. We also have problems when we try and be impartial though - you could have 99 scientists understand the risks of climate change and one who doesn't, and yet they still squeeze one from each side onto a TV news sofa, presenting the greatest threat to humanity as a 50/50 argument.

If we want to really know what is going on, and ensure a fairer society, then all people, from all political persuasions, must be better informed. Only then, can we debate and decide fairly. In writing this blog, I checked that Latin quote about 'Rumour' and discovered the full saying is that this god was the 'fastest evil'. Virgil wrote that she 'had her feet on the ground, and her head in the clouds, making the small seem great and the great seem greater'. Her Latin name is Fame and Virgil describes her as a 'terrible monster, spreading lies'. This isn't swimming pool stories, this is a weapon. And this was the force that propelled Trump. (In a bizarre coincidence - as if sent to taunt me - I discover that an anonymous Breitbart writer has taken the name Virgil.)

To counter Rumour, we have to demand more of our media, and more of ourselves. We cannot just passively build our world view from entertaining and shocking stories. We must be attuned to when we are being appealed to by our emotions alone. And fundamentally, we must read widely, discuss loudly and hold those that lie to account. After all, as my mum taught me from her days on the World Service, you cannot argue with something you can neither see nor understand. We should see finding the truth as our service. Any other ideas for how we can do that will be very much welcome.

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