Fake News, Mainstream Misinformation And Sloppy Journalism – And Why Government Control Of Social Media Won’t Improve Things

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Journalists like to see themselves as heroic seekers of the truth, the people who will hold the rich and powerful to account by exposing corruption and hypocrisy. The seem to picture themselves as Woodward and Bernstein from All The President’s Men – flawed characters, but ultimately brave and principled characters who will put themselves at great risk to expose secrets and hold the elites to account.

There are, of course, journalists like that, but they are few and far between in countries like Britain and America, where a collective cynicism and laziness has been the industry norm for years. Long before the News of the World was forced out of business over phone hacking, it’s hacks would routinely expose minor level illegality or entirely legal but unconventional sexual behaviour for the titillation of its readers, destroying marriages, ruining careers and leading in some cases to suicide. Daily Mirror journalists hid like craven cowards from investigating the nefarious activities of their corrupt owner Robert Maxwell – indeed, they actively defended him (and let’s not forget that the Mirror was actually a bigger culprit in phone hacking than any of Murdoch’s paper, but managed to get away with it relatively unscathed). Journalists routinely write articles that fit with the biases and political leanings of newspaper proprietors, regardless of what they personally believe and how true the story might be. They do so because they want to keep their jobs, which is understandable, but not exactly noble.

Today, journalists are even lazier. Once upon a time, they at least had to get off their arses to find stories. Now, it increasingly seems that all you need to be a journalist is a wi-fi connection and a Twitter account. Almost every newspaper and new media publication will pepper stories with Twitter posts from nobodies who just happen to agree with / be outraged by a story, which more often than not has been generated on social media in the first place, as if the opinions of BigBob776 or whoever else has randomly bashed out a Pavlovian tweet have some relevance to whether or not we should have a second Brexit vote or allow ISIS sympathisers back into the country. An extension of the always pointless VoxPops, where members of the public are asked to share instant opinions on subjects they have no knowledge of, it’s a lazy filler technique that has now become the norm. And because the reliance on Twitter to find stories is now so prevalent, we get a constant stream of outrage that makes its way, unchecked and unquestioned, into the press, with a new generation of hacks increasingly less interested in even pretending to investigate – an immediate reaction, furious and morally upright, is more important than considered thought and actual investigation, especially if the story seems heaven-sent for social justice fury – newspapers are very keen to secure a foothold in the fickle Millennial market and so will pander to what it believes their concerns are (again, their idea of ‘public opinion’ is wildly skewed by a belief that Twitter is somehow representative of the world as a whole). Worse still, journalists who do dig deeper into a story are more often than not dismissed as being politically motivated (which they sometimes are) and their evidence condemned as ‘propaganda’. It’s a topsy-turvy world for sure.

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Admittedly, the legacy press is a positive hotbed of thorough investigation compared to the likes of Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post, which are frankly closer to genuine propaganda sheets than actual news sources, selectively reporting skewed stories, using inflammatory headlines because they know that’s all a lot of people will ever read and rarely bothering to run corrections when their moral outrage proves to be displaced (see the Covington case last month for a prime example of how the lie was widely spread and the truth either ignored or dismissed as irrelevant, with the more devoted hacks actually doubling down on the story even after it had been roundly demolished). News sources have increasingly become less about information and more about confirmation.

As I write this, it emerges that a widely reported study into how women in tech – stating that is resumés were submitted blind, 54% were offered interviews, but if they had a female name attached, only 5% were – is a non-existent study invented by a now-defunct tech recruitment firm as a publicity gimmick. It’s the very definition of ‘fake news’ – entirely made-up for reasons of publicity (how often do we see spurious ‘opinion polls’ turned into news stories that just happen to namecheck the company that carried them out?), but has reported by the likes of the New York Times as fact, without even the slightest effort made to check the source. Twitter user Kelsey Piper managed to investigate the source of the spurious study, but experienced journalists apparently couldn’t be bothered to. Perhaps they were too keen to report a story that fitted an existing belief about women in tech being discriminated against, or perhaps they were just lazy. But the lie has now spread across social media, and will become established as a ‘fact’ for many people while the facts go barely noticed. It goes without saying that there has been no retraction of the story. that

And there’s more – the same newspaper also reports that “studies suggest people see women as less credible than men when reporting symptoms of pain”, according to a new Yale study. But those running the study have pointed out that the study was with female participants only (not “people” with its suggestion of genders across the spectrum) and did not look at issues of credibility, but rather levels of pain experienced by boys and girls. It might seem a minor difference, but it’s actually significant – saying that “women are seen as less credible” is a loaded statement that goes beyond the actual study. Subtle word changes that radically alter our interpretation of a headline is a classic technique of misdirection.

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How much this is down to incompetence and simply not being very smart, how much   due to laziness and how much due to deliberate manipulation of the facts is hard to tell. It’s likely that a combination of factors is at work at on any one story. But the idea that established news sources are somehow wielding the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of British fair play (to quote another liar) rather than simply manipulating and pandering to the basest needs of their readers is rather laughable.

It’s bearing this sort of thing in mind that makes the announcement that the UK government is planning new rules regarding ‘fake news’ for companies like Facebook so eyebrow-raising. A committee of MPs has, after a year-long investigation, condemned Facebook in particular for spreading ‘disinformation’, and demanded a new compulsory code of ethics for tech firms, overseen by an independent regulator with powers to take legal action if the rules are breached. Which sounds fine in theory, because fake news spreads like wildfire across social media, but it does beg the question of what actually qualifies as ‘fake’ – and how much that leaks into opinion and personal belief. It also suggests that the newspapers, who have been cock-a-hoop over the announcement (the Telegraph had been running a campaign to bring social media to heel) are somehow above printing lies and misinformation, rather than past masters in it. In fact, the same newspapers that have demanded state control over social media (and every other type of media) suddenly become very concerned about free speech and journalistic integrity when it comes to their own regulation – at present, all British newspapers have refused to join a new regulator set up in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, even though it has no statutory powers and no teeth. It seems like they want one rule for their industry, and another for everyone else – and why wouldn’t they? The spread of news across social media has bitten into the legacy media’s profits and stranglehold, and so of course they want to regain their monopoly. And if anyone is going to interfere with elections by spreading misinformation and naked propaganda, it’s going to be the established British press, dammit – after all, they have decades of form in doing so.

Of course, none of us want Russian disinformation and manipulation of elections, or blatantly false scare stories or other forms of fake news. Wading through misinformed crap on social media is often like wrestling in treacle. But the mainstream press has long been at the very heart of these problems, and there is every possibility that a clampdown on fake news will end up benefitting liars, as false claims become set in stone by ‘proper’ news sources as ‘the truth’ and attempts to undermine and expose the lies are seen as ‘fake’. That’s the problem with ‘fake news’ – it’s often in the eye of the beholder and rather difficult to directly pin down, and once you set up a government body to do so, you are heading towards joining those countries where the only news is that officially approved by the authorities. I would say that is too high a price to pay.

DAVID FLINT