The rapid spread of fake news can influence millions of people, impacting elections and financial markets. A study on the impact of fake news on the 2016 US presidential election, for instance, has found that fake news stories about Hillary Clinton was “very strongly linked” to the defection of voters who supported Barack Obama in the previous election.
To stem the rising influence of fake news, some countries have made the creation and distribution of deliberately false information a crime.
Singapore is the latest country to have passed a law against fake news, joining others like Germany, Malaysia, France and Russia.
But using the law to fight the wave of fake news may not be the best approach. Human rights activists, legal experts and others fear these laws have the potential to be misused to stifle free speech, or unintentionally block legitimate online posts and websites.
Legislating free speech
Singapore’s new law gives government ministers significant powers to determine what is fake news, and the authority to order online platforms to remove content if it’s deemed to be against the public interest.
What is considered to be of public interest is quite broad, but includes threats to security, the integrity of elections, and the public perception of the government. This could be open to abuse. It means any content that could be interpreted as embarrassing or damaging to the government is now open to being labelled fake news.
And free speech and human rights groups are concerned that legally banning fake news could be used as a way to restrict free speech and target whistleblowers.
Similar problems have arisen in Malaysia and Russia. Both nations have been accused of using their respective laws against fake news to further censor free speech, especially criticism of the government.
Malaysia’s previous government outlawed fake news last year, making it a crime punishable by a fine up to 500,000 Malaysian (A$171,000) ringgit or six years’ imprisonment, or both. The new government has vowed to repeal the law, but so far has yet to do so.
Russia banned fake news – which it labels as any information that shows “blatant disrespect” for the state – in April. Noncompliance can carry a jail sentence of 15 days.
Discriminating between legitimate and illegitimate content
Even countries like Germany are facing difficulties enforcing their laws in a way that doesn’t unintentionally also target legitimate content.
Germany’s law came into effect on January 1, 2018. It targets social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and requires them to remove posts featuring hate speech or fake information within 24 hours. A platform that fails to adhere to this law may face fines up to 50 million euros.
But the government is now reviewing the law because too much information is being blocked that shouldn’t be.
The Association of German Journalists has complained that social media companies are being too cautious and refusing to publish anything that could be wrongly interpreted under the law. This could lead to increasing self-censorship, possibly of information in the public interest.
In Australia, fake news is also a significant problem, with more and more people unable to distinguish fake news from legitimate reports.
But there has been no serious talk of passing a law banning fake news here. Instead, Australian politicians from all sides have been pressuring the biggest social media platforms to be more vigilant and remove fake news before it becomes a problem.
Are there any alternatives to government regulation?
Unlike attempts to limit or ban content in pre-internet days, simply passing a law against fake news may not be the best way to deal with the problem.
The European Union, which is experiencing a rise in support for extreme right-wing political parties, introduced a voluntary code of practice against online disinformation in 2018. Facebook and other social media giants have since signed up.
But there are already concerns the code was “softened” to minimise the amount of content that would need to be removed or edited.
Whenever governments get involved in policing the media – even for the best-intended reasons – there is always the possibility of corruption and a reduction in genuine free speech.
Industry self-regulation is also problematic, as social media companies often struggle to objectively police themselves. Compelling these companies to take responsibility for the content on their sites through fines and other punitive measures, however, could be effective.
Another alternative is for media industry groups to get involved.
Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders, for instance, has launched the Journalism Trust Initiative, which could lead to a future certification system that would act as a “guarantee” of quality and accuracy for readers. The agreed standards are still being discussed, but will include issues such as company ownership, sources of revenue, independence and ethical compliance.
We’re only days into the federal election campaign and already the first instances of “fake news” have surfaced online.
Over the weekend, Labor demanded that Facebook remove posts it says are “fake news” about the party’s plans to introduce a “death tax” on inheritances. Labor also called on the Coalition to publicly disavow the misinformation campaign.
An inauthentic tweet purportedly sent from the account of Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus also made the rounds, claiming that she, too, supported a “death tax”. It was retweeted many times – including by Sky News commentator and former Liberal MP Gary Hardgrave – before McManus put out a statement saying the tweet had been fabricated.
What the government and tech companies are doing
In the wake of the cyber-attacks on the 2016 US presidential election, the Australian government began taking seriously the threat that “fake news” and online misinformation campaigns could be used to try to disrupt our elections.
Last year, a taskforce was set up to try to protect the upcoming federal election from foreign interference, bringing together teams from Home Affairs, the Department of Finance, the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
The AEC also created a framework with Twitter and Facebook to remove content deemed to be in violation of Australian election laws. It also launched an aggressive campaign to encourage voters to “stop and consider” the sources of information they consume online.
For their part, Facebook and Twitter rolled out new features aimed specifically at safeguarding the Australian election. Facebook announced it would ban foreign advertising in the run-up to the election and launch a fact-checking partnership to vet the accuracy of information being spread on the platform. However, Facebook will not be implementing requirements that users wishing to post ads verify their locations until after the election.
Twitter also implemented new rules requiring that all political ads be labelled to show who sponsored them and those sending the tweets to prove they are located in Australia.
While these moves are all a good start, they are unlikely to be successful in stemming the flow of manipulative content as election day grows closer.
Holes in the system
First, a foreign entity intent on manipulating the election can get around address verification rules by partnering with domestic actors to promote paid advertising on Facebook and Twitter. Furthermore, Russia’s intervention in the US election showed that “troll” or “sockpuppet” accounts, as well as botnets, can easily spread fake news content and hyperlinks in the absence of a paid promotion strategy.
Facebook has also implemented measures that actually reduce transparency in its advertising. To examine how political advertising works on the platform, ProPublica built a browser plugin last year to collect Facebook ads and show which demographic groups they were targeting. Facebook responded by blocking the plugin. The platform’s own ad library, while expansive, also does not include any of the targeting data that ProPublica had made public.
A second limitation faced by the AEC, social media companies, and government agencies is timing. The framework set up last year by the AEC to address content in possible violation of electoral rules has proven too slow to be effective. First, the AEC needs to be alerted to questionable content. Then, it will try to contact whoever posted it, and if it can’t, the matter is escalated to Facebook. This means that days can pass before the material is addressed.
Last year, for instance, when the AEC contacted Facebook about sponsored posts attacking left-wing parties from a group called Hands Off Our Democracy, it took Facebook more than a month to respond. By then, the group’s Facebook page had disappeared.
The length of time required to take down illegal content is critical because research on campaigning shows that the window of opportunity to shift a political discussion on social media is often quite narrow. For this reason, an illegal ad likely will have achieved its purpose by the time it is flagged and measures are taken to remove it.
Indeed, from 2015 to 2017, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, identified by US authorities as the main “troll farm” behind Russia’s foreign political interference, ran over 3,500 ads on Facebook with a median duration of just one day.
Even if content is flagged to the tech companies and accounts are blocked, this measure itself is unlikely to deter a serious misinformation campaign.
The Russian Internet Research Agency spent millions of dollars and conducted research over a period of years to inform their strategies. With this kind of investment, a determined actor will have gamed out changes to platforms, anticipated legal actions by governments and adapted its strategies accordingly.
What constitutes ‘fake news’ in the first place?
Finally, there is the problem of what counts as “fake news” and what counts as legitimate political discussion. The AEC and other government agencies are not well positioned to police truth in politics. There are two aspects to this problem.
The first is the majority of manipulative content directed at democratic societies is not obviously or demonstrably false. In fact, a recent study of Russian propaganda efforts in the United States found the majority of this content “is not, strictly speaking, ‘fake news’.”
Instead, it is a mixture of half-truths and selected truths, often filtered through a deeply cynical and conspiratorial worldview.
There’s a different issue with the Chinese platform WeChat, where there is a systematic distortion of news shared on public or “official accounts”. Research shows these accounts are often subject to considerable censorship – including self-censorship – so they do not infringe on the Chinese government’s official narrative. If they do, the accounts risk suspension or their posts can be deleted.. Evidence shows that official WeChat accounts in Australia often change their content and tone in response to changes in Beijing’s media regulations.
For this reason, suggestions that platforms like WeChat be considered “an authentic, integral part of a genuinely multicultural, multilingual mainstream media landscape” are dangerously misguided, as official accounts play a role in promoting Beijing’s strategic interests rather than providing factual information.
The public’s role in stamping out the problem
If the AEC is not in a position to police truth online and combat manipulative speech, who is?
Research suggests that in a democracy, the political elites play a strong role in shaping opinions and amplifying the effects of foreign influence misinformation campaigns.
For example, when Republican John McCain was running for the US presidency against Barack Obama in 2008, he faced a question at a rally about whether Obama was “an Arab” – a lie that had been spread repeatedly online. Instead of breathing more life into the story, McCain provided a swift rebuttal.
After the Labor “death tax” Facebook posts appeared here last week, some politicians and right-wing groups shared the post on their own accounts. (It should be noted, however, that Hardgrave apologised for retweeting the fake tweet by McManus.)
Beyond that, the responsibility for combating manipulative speech during elections falls to all citizens. It’s absolutely critical in today’s world of global digital networks for the public to recognise they “are combatants in cyberspace”.
The only sure defence against manipulative campaigns – whether from foreign or domestic sources – is for citizens to take seriously their responsibilities to critically reflect on the information they receive and separate fact from fiction and manipulation.
The Liberal leadership spill and Malcolm Turnbull’s downfall is but the latest instalment in a game of musical chairs that has dominated Australian politics for the best part of a decade.
For many, it has been enough to portray Tony Abbott as the villain of the story. Others have pointed to Peter Dutton and his allies as willing, though not-so-clever, accomplices. There’s also been a highlighting of the herd instinct: once self-serving mutiny gathers steam, others will want to follow.
But this barely scratches the surface. And the trend is not confined to Australia.
We need only think of Donald Trump’s America, Britain’s Brexit saga or the rise of far-right populist movements in Europe. Politics in the West seem uneasily suspended between farce and tragedy, as deception, accusations of “fake news” and infighting have become commonplace.
In Australia, the revolving prime ministerial door has had much to do with deep tensions surrounding climate change and energy policy more generally.
In Britain, a longstanding ambivalence towards European integration has deeply divided mainstream parties and plunged the country into “Brexit chaos”, a protracted crisis greatly exacerbated by government incompetence and political expediency.
In Italy, the steady erosion of support for the establishment parties has paved the way for a governing coalition that includes a far-right party committed to cracking down on “illegal”, specifically Muslim, immigration.
Yet, beyond these differences are certain common, cross-cultural threads which help explain the present Western malaise.
Simply put, we now have a glaring and widening gap between the enormity of the challenges facing Western societies and the capacity of their political institutions to address them.
Neoliberalism at work
The political class in Australia, as in Europe and North America, is operating within an institutional framework that is compromised by two powerful forces: the dominance of the neoliberal order and relentless globalisation.
The interplay of these two forces goes a long way towards explaining the failure of political elites. They offer neither a compelling national narrative nor a coherent program for the future. Instead, the public is treated to a series of sideshows and constant rivalries over the spoils of office.
How does the neoliberal creed underpin the state of current political discourse and practice? The shorthand answer is by setting economic growth as the overriding national objective . Such growth, we are told, requires the public sector to be squeezed and the private sector to be given free reign.
And when economic performance falls short of the mark, pressing social and environmental needs are unmet, or a global financial crisis exposes large-scale financial crimes and shoddy lending practices, these are simply dismissed as inconvenient truths.
Compounding the impact of this highly restrictive economic agenda is globalisation or, to be more accurate, the phenomenal growth of cross-border flows of goods and services, capital, money, carbon emissions, technical know-how, arms, information, images and people. The sheer scale, speed and intensity of these flows make them impervious to national control.
But governments and political parties want to maintain the pretence they can stem the tide. To admit they cannot is to run the risk of appearing incompetent or irrelevant. Importantly, they risk losing the financial or political support of powerful interests that benefit from globalisation, such as the coal lobby.
And so, deception and self-deception become the only viable option. So it is that several US presidents, including Trump, and large segments of the US Congress have flagrantly contradicted climate science or downplayed its implications.
Much the same can be said of Australia. When confronted with climate sceptics in the Liberal ranks, the Turnbull government chose to prioritise lowering electricity prices while minimising its commitment to carbon emission reductions.
The erosion of truth and trust
In the face of such evasion and disinformation, large segments of the population, especially those who are experiencing hard times or feel alienated, provide fertile ground for populist slogans and the personalities willing to mouth them.
Each country has its distinctive history and political culture. But everywhere we see the same refusal to face up to harsh realities. Some will deny the science of climate change. Others will want to roll back the unprecedented movements of people seeking refuge from war, discrimination or abject poverty.
Others still will pretend the state can regulate the accelerating use of information technology, even though the technology is already being used to threaten people’s privacy and reduce control over personal data. Both the state and corporate sector are subjecting citizens to unprecedented levels of surveillance.
Lies, “fake news” and cover-ups are not, of course, the preserve of politicians. They have become commonplace in so many of our institutions.
The extraordinary revelations from the Banking Royal Commission make clear that Australia’s largest banks and other financial enterprises have massively defrauded customers, given short shrift to both the law and regulators and consistently disregarded the truth.
And now, as a result of another Royal Commission, we have a belated appreciation of the rampant sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church, which has been consistently covered up by religious officials.
These various public and private arenas, where truth is regularly concealed, denied or obscured, have had a profoundly corrosive effect on the fabric of society, and inevitably on the public sphere. They have severely diminished the social trust on which the viability of democratic processes vitally depends.
There is no simple remedy to the current political disarray. The powerful forces driving financial flows and production and communication technologies are reshaping culture, the global economy and policy-making processes in deeply troubling ways.
Truth and trust are now in short supply. Yet, they are indispensable to democratic processes and institutions.
A sustained national and international conversation on ways to redeem truth and trust has become one of the defining imperatives of our time.
Joseph Camilleri will speak more on this topic in three interactive public lectures entitled Brave New World at St Michael’s on Collins in Melbourne on Sept. 11, 18 and 25.
The term “fake news” has gained prominence in recent years thanks to US President Donald Trump’s attacks against the media during the 2016 US election. In 2017, it was one of Collins Dictionary’s 2017 words of the year.
Unsurprisingly, politicians use the fake news label to discredit media stories that portray them in a negative light. And it’s back in the headlines after the largest television company in the US – Sinclair Broadcasting Group – issued a coordinated campaign of scripted warnings about fake news in terms that echo Trump’s sentiments:
The sharing of biased and false news has become all too common on social media … Some members of the media use their platforms to push their own personal bias … This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.
Trump tweeted in support of Sinclair’s message, slamming the mainstream media in the process.
Meanwhile, a new study suggests that actual fake news may have helped Trump to secure the election. Ohio State University researchers found a high statistical association between belief in fake news items and voting in 2016.
Whatever the impact of fake news on election outcomes, some governments are introducing legislation to control the problem. But these laws are more likely to limit free speech, chill the real news, and create unintended consequences.
Public trust in media is low
Trump and other politicians’ attacks mirror widely held suspicions about the media. A recent poll by Monmouth University showed that more than 77% of Americans believed that mainstream media reports fake news. One in three believed this happened regularly, whereas 46% thought it only happened occasionally.
Fake news was defined broadly: 25% thought it referred to wrong facts, whereas 65% believed it also covered editorial decisions and news coverage. 87% of Americans thought interest groups plant fake news on platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Of concern, 42% believed media reported fake news to push an agenda, and 35% trusted Trump more than CNN.
Australians also have low confidence in the media. According to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, just 32% trust the media – the second lowest score out of the 28 countries surveyed.
New laws take aim at fake news
The congruence of public distrust and politicians’ self-interest has reached an obvious denouement: legislation.
The most egregious of these laws was just passed by the Malaysian Parliament’s Lower House. The Anti-Fake News Act 2018, which imposes jail terms of up to six years, will become an Act after Senate approval. The law defines fake news broadly to include:
…any news, information, data and reports, which is or are wholly or partly false, whether in the form of features, visuals or audio recordings or in any other form capable of suggesting words or ideas.
The law is particularly dangerous because it has extra-territorial application – foreigners can be dealt with “as if the offence was committed” within Malaysia. In other words, it is not just Malaysian journalists who could be locked up – foreign media can also be locked up if Malaysian law enforcement can reach them.
Malaysia is not an isolated instance. The Philippines is considering a similar law. The Irish Parliament is also considering a bill to criminalise the use of bots on social media platforms to promote fake news – such as those thought to have been used by Russia to influence the US election.
India proposed a law that would suspend the accreditation of journalists for fake news, but retracted the order within a day due to a backlash.
Problems with regulating speech
It is unclear if the Malaysian law – and other national variants – is masquerading as an attempt to promote real news when it is actually an attempt at censorship by stealth. Regardless, even assuming good intentions, anti fake news laws are incapable of tackling the menace.
Fake news is a slippery concept. Who decides what is fake? And how do we manage the distinction between facts and opinion? There is no bright-line definition that would provide clarity, and each item has to be assessed on its own. Moreover, not all fake news is harmful – a precondition for regulation.
Regulation would turn judges into fact-checkers for potentially millions of news items or social media posts – an impossible task even without crowded dockets. Replacing judges with bureaucrats might improve efficiency marginally, but would generate a censorship state.
Buttressed with criminal penalties, these laws will chill free speech and substantially diminish the marketplace for ideas. Media outlets will be overly cautious with negative consequences for transparency and accountability. In addition, the laws are unlikely to advance the cause of real news – they have no connection to the incentives for providing truthful information.
The current system is sufficient
Countries committed to free speech should not adopt anti fake news laws. The current legal regime represents a pragmatic compromise. Our system of free speech tolerates the risk of inaccurate news for several reasons.
Firstly, it is difficult to establish intention to fabricate falsehoods and harm, and the causal link between the two. And giving the state tools to police speech is dangerous, with fear alone generating self-censorship. Also, judges and bureaucrats are not experts at separating fake from real news – public debate in the marketplace of ideas is more efficient. Finally, modern news does not stop at geographic boundaries, and national law cannot solve a transnational problem.
This does not mean that social media platforms should be free to spread falsehoods and compromise elections. Some options for preventing the proliferation of fake news that could crowd out real news include accreditation to distinguish legitimate news outlets, liability for search engines and distributors where actual harm and intent to fabricate can be established in private litigation, and accessible remedies for defamation. However, such regulation goes well beyond the scope of current anti fake news laws.
Cyber security played a prominent role in international affairs in 2017, with impacts on peace and security.
Increased international collaboration and new laws that capture the complexity of communications technology could be among solutions to cyber security issues in 2018.
The US election hack and the end of cyber scepticism
The big story of the past year has been the subversion of the US election process and the ongoing controversies surrounding the Trump administration. The investigations into the scandal are unresolved, but it is important to recognise that the US election hack has dispelled any lingering scepticism about the impact of cyber attacks on national and international security.
From the self-confessed “mistake” Secretary Clinton made in setting up a private email server, to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s servers and the leaking of Democratic campaign chair John Podesta’s emails to WikiLeaks, the 2016 presidential election was in many ways defined by cyber security issues.
Many analysts had been debating the likelihood of a “digital Pearl Harbour”, an attack producing devastating economic disruption or physical effects. But they missed the more subtle and covert political scope of cyber attacks to coerce changes in political behaviour and subvert systems of governance. Enhancing the security and integrity of democratic systems and electoral processes will surely be on the agenda in 2018 in the Asia Pacific and elsewhere.
The growing impact of social media and the connection with cyber security has been another big story in 2017. Social media was meant to be a great liberator, to democratise, and to bring new transparency to politics and societies. In 2017, it has become a platform for fake news, misinformation and propaganda.
Social media sites clearly played a role in displacing authoritarian governments during the Arab Spring uprisings. Few expected they would be used by authoritarian governments in an incredibly effective way to sow and exploit divisions in democratic countries. The debate we need to have in 2018 is how we can deter the manipulation of social media, prevent the spread of fake news and encourage the likes of Facebook and Twitter to monitor and police their own networks.
If we don’t trust what we see on these sites, they won’t be commercially successful, and they won’t serve as platforms to enhance international peace and security. Social media sites must not become co-opted or corrupted. Facebook should not be allowed to become Fakebook.
Holding data to ransom
The spread of the Wannacry virus was the third big cyber security story of 2017. Wannacry locked down computers and demanded a ransom (in bitcoin) for the electronic key that would release the data. The virus spread in a truly global attack to an estimated 300,000 computers in 150 countries. It led to losses in the region of four billion dollars – a small fraction of the global cyber crime market, which is projected to grow to $6 trillion by 2021. In the Asia Pacific region, cyber crime is growing by 45% each year.
Wannacry was an important event because it pointed not only to the growth in cyber crime but also the dangers inherent in the development and proliferation of offensive cyber security capabilities. The exploit to windows XP systems that was used to spread the virus had been stockpiled by the US National Security Agency (NSA). It ended up being released on the internet and then used to generate revenue.
A fundamental challenge in 2018 is to constrain the use of offensive cyber capabilities and to reign in the growth of the cyber-crime market through enhanced cooperation. This will be no small task, but there have been some positive developments.
According to US network security firm FireEye, the recent US-China agreement on commercial cyber espionage has led to an estimated 90% reduction in data breaches in the US emanating from China. Cyber cooperation is possible and can lead to bilateral and global goods.
Death of cyber norms?
The final big development, or rather lack of development, has been at the UN. The Government Group of Experts (GGE) process, established in 2004 to strengthen the security of global information and telecommunications systems, failed to reach a consensus on its latest report on the status of international laws and norms in cyberspace. The main problem has been that there is no definite agreement on the applicability of existing international law to cyber security. This includes issues such as when states might be held responsible for cyber attacks emanating from their territory, or their right to the use of countermeasures in cyber self-defence.
Some analysts have proclaimed this to be “the end of cyber norms”. This betrays a pessimism about UN level governance of the internet that is deeply steeped in overly state-centric views of security and a reluctance to cede any sovereignty to international organisations.
It is true that norms won’t be built from the top down. But the UN does and should have an important role to play in cyber security as we move into 2018, not least because of its universality and global reach.
The NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) in Tallinn, Estonia recently launched the Tallinn Manual 2.0, which examines the applicability of international law to cyber attacks that fall below the use of force and occur outside of armed conflict.
These commendable efforts could move forward hand in hand with efforts to build consensus on new laws that more accurately capture the complexity of new information and communications technology. In February 2017, Brad Smith, the head of Microsoft, proposed a digital Geneva Convention that would outlaw cyber attacks on civilian infrastructure.
In all this we must recognise that cyber security is not a binary process. It is not about “ones and zeros”, but rather about a complex spectrum of activity that needs multi-level, multi-stakeholder responses that include international organisations. This is a cyber reality that we should all bear in mind when we try to find solutions to cyber security issues in 2018.
With Zelig-like serendipity I was in Stockholm when #lastnightinsweden went viral. While echoing the melancholic majesty of a classic ABBA song title, the hashtag #lastnightinsweden actually referred to yet another Donald Trump dump of alleged “fake news” on an increasingly exhausted world.
At his first rally as US president, Trump declared:
We’ve got to keep our country safe. You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden. Sweden? Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.
Trump, it appeared to most observers, was alleging that an act of Islamist terrorism had just occurred in that far-off Nordic land – one that was illustrative of the existential threat faced by the American people and from which only he and his immigration clampdown could save them.
It hadn’t, of course. No atrocity had occurred in Sweden that weekend, Islamist or otherwise. It’s true, there was a minor riot the evening after Trump’s speech in the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby when two cars were burnt out and a policeman was yelled at by a man who was possibly Muslim, but it’s more likely that Trump’s remarks caused that ruckus than that he was reacting to it. Even Trump’s most-dedicated admirers don’t believe he can foretell the future.
The hashtag #lastnightinsweden became a global media story – a paradigm case of fake news, as it has come to be called, first by Trump and his advisers and then by the rest of us, ad nauseam.
Since his election in November fake news has become a powerful, ubiquitous meme, replicating and evolving with every iteration of the news cycle until one can’t open a newspaper or download an edition of Breitbart without being greeted by the words “fake” and “news” in some combination or other.
Barack Obama wiretapped the Trump campaign? Fake news!
The Australian accused senator Nick Xenophon of planning to increase taxes? Fake news!
Mike Flynn, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner and who knows how many other Trump advisers are in cahoots with the Russians? Fake news!
Everyone is familiar with the term by now, indeed over-familiar. Far too many people use it when they shouldn’t, and a lot of people are confused as to what it means. When a word or phrase can be applied to anything, it means nothing.
Brian, they ask me: as a professor of journalism, what is fake news, exactly? So, let me offer a brief user’s guide both to what fake news is, and what it is not.
First, though, let’s remind ourselves that fake news isn’t news. By which I mean not that it isn’t news, which it is at present (stick with me here); but that it isn’t new. On the contrary, fabrication, fakery and falsehood have been part of journalism since the first journalists put quill to parchment.
Award-winning journalists such as Janet Cooke have been exposed as cheats. Her Pulitzer Prize was snatched back La La Land-style when it turned out that her heart-rending story of an eight-year-old heroin addict, little “Jimmy” from the ‘hood, was entirely invented.
In the late 1990s Stephen Glass of the New Republic was found to have fabricated dozens of major feature articles for one of the US’ most-prestigious journalistic publications – also known, at least until Trump took over, as in-flight reading for Air Force One.
In 2002 Jayson Blair of the New York Times became a major news story for plagiarising other journalists’ content, and then making up some more lies all on his own.
In 1997, a Channel 4 documentary production team were caught out faking a story about male prostitutes in Glasgow, and the company was fined. Around the same time Channel 4 also broadcast a fake documentary about Colombian cocaine smugglers.
A few years later the venerable UK Guardian printed a front-page story about Chinese police brutality that turned out to be entirely made up.
So, the idea that journalism is sometimes fabricated, and news sometimes faked, is hardly controversial. Even the term isn’t original.
Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was often referred to as part of the fake news genre which emerged in the 1990s – in his and Stephen Colbert’s case it meant savagely sarcastic commentaries on, and satirical parodies and pastiches of, “real” news as produced by the US networks.
They, and more recent comedians such as John Oliver, had and have great fun with the absurdities and pretensions of Fox News in particular, although they are deeply serious in their underlying purpose: to blow the whistle on bullshit of the type that Fox pours out daily.
They and publications such as the UK’s Private Eye, The Onion and Daily Currant have succeeded by providing a form of “fake” news that is obviously untrue and functions as commentary on the mainstream news media, but is just close enough to the real thing in style and form to be genuinely funny as satire.
These “fakers” are not journalists, as Oliver stressed in an interview with the Sunday Times this week, although they can be at least as influential as the most po-faced of pundits.
So, fake news is not in itself news. What is particular about our era, however, is that the term has become a widely used political tool, to denounce journalistic content with which one disagrees on the one hand, and to attack free and independent media on the other.
Because of its use by Trump and his supporters, the concept has become a core political issue, now impacting on the freedom of the media in the US and elsewhere. Questions around the veracity and authenticity of journalism have become central to concerns about the health of journalism and the Fourth Estate more broadly.
These debates are not merely academic, but essential to the evolution (and perhaps survival) of liberal-democratic societies in the 21st century.
The capacity of the digitised, globalised, networked media space to disseminate news and information of all kinds, including unsubstantiated rumour, malicious gossip and content which is fake or in some other way problematic, has coincided with a particular political moment where journalistic objectivity and professionalism are under challenge from state and non-state political actors as never before.
Some call it a “crisis” of objective journalism – and it is. But I hate crisis narratives so I won’t.
Remember that the critique of objectivity goes back to Einstein, and was then reinforced by postmodernism and cultural relativism. The left, exemplified by the likes of Noam Chomsky, never believed in objectivity anyway, while the right didn’t care about the truth of anything as long as it made money. Fox News is a Murdoch company, and Murdoch claims to believe in objective journalism.
What is new, though, is the politicisation of this struggle over truth.
Globally, Vladimir Putin has since 2010 or so deliberately cultivated disinformation, propaganda and myth as part of his hybrid warfare campaign against liberal democracy and unmanly things like gay rights and Pussy Riot.
His people didn’t shoot down MH17, oh no. That was the Ukrainian neo-fascists, or the CIA, or the EU.
He didn’t order the killing of Boris Nemtsov, or Alexander Litvinenko, or Anna Politovskaya, oh no. That was the Islamists (whom he hates just as much as Trump).
The Trump campaign studied the Putin playbook carefully, and has brought it into the Oval Office. Flood the global public sphere, it instructs them, with lies and conspiracy theories for long enough – birther movement, anyone? Pizzagate? – and some sucker, somewhere, will buy it.
Alas for America and the world, Putin was right. Just enough of those useful American idiots bought into the Trump mythology to give us Melania as First Lady, Ivanka as counsellor-in-chief and alt-right white supremacist Steve Bannon as the One-To-Rule-Them-All.
But we are where we are.
Fake news is not journalism you dislike or disagree with, for whatever reason. That’s just journalism, dude, as practised in the democratic world for four centuries and more. Get used to it.
Fake news is not stuff that other people say that you don’t like or agree with. If Pauline Hanson says she thinks Australians would like Vladimir Putin as leader – which she did on ABC’s Insiders the other day – that’s not fake news.
Fake news is not the unintentional misleading of audiences by journalists and news organisations, if they are sincerely applying the conventions of objectivity but producing erroneous content because of human error or organisational dysfunction. Mistakes happen.
And fake news is not the unintentional misleading by media of their audiences, when it is rooted in intentional deception and misleading by dishonest sources. When The Guardian led with that story about Chinese brutality, that wasn’t fake news.
All of the above are part of journalism’s history, and we must be vigilant in calling out errors and sloppiness in the news production process. But they are not fake news as the term is currently being used.
Fake news, in the contemporary context, is simply this: intentional disinformation (invention or falsification of known facts) for political and/or professional purposes, such as the fabrications of Stephen Glass or the activities of paid-for Kremlin trolls trying to prove that Russian troops are not in Ukraine and that Russia didn’t annex Crimea.
Fake news is when Michael Flynn Jr., the son of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn Sr. (he who lied about meeting the Russian ambassador to reassure him that once that uppity Obama was out of the way, sanctions would be lifted), disseminated the Pizzagate story before the US election (the story that leading Democrats were involved in a paedophile ring centred on a Washington burger joint).
Fake news is when organisations like Fox News and Breitbart report these stories as credible, knowing them to be fairytales.
So, what about #lastnightinsweden? Was that fake news, or just Trump being Trump?
I was in Stockholm when the story broke, as I mentioned before, and here is what I learnt from the journalism students I was teaching that week.
Trump, as was made clear by his own “alternative facts” people in the following days, was referring not to an actual thing that happened “last night in Sweden”, but a Fox News item he’d watched “last night”, in which an alleged documentary-maker by the name of Ami Horowitz had described some of the integration challenges faced by the Swedes after they took in nearly 200,000 migrants from the messy and out-of-control war George W Bush started back in 2003.
The young journalism students in my class confirmed that, yes, there were issues around the integration of so many foreigners into such a small and relatively homogeneous country in such a short time. But nothing “last night”, and nothing that one wouldn’t find in every country which had taken in migrants over the decades and centuries (not least the US, with its long history of migration from all over the world).
One student pointed out that Horowitz’s documentary had been condemned by one of the policemen quoted in it. The Swedish cop’s words had been edited out of all context, and this student named Horowitz as a “far-right activist” not to be trusted as an honest reporter of anything to do with Sweden.
On the way to the airport when leaving Stockholm, my Uber driver told me that he was an Iraqi Jew, a refugee from Saddam decades before, who had found a home and a life free from persecution in Sweden. He spoke five languages, he told me with pride, and had children in Australia as well as Sweden (we discussed the weather down under with some longing).
He told me that he, as a Jew, had been subject to anti-Semitic abuse by other taxi drivers, young Muslims in particular, and suggested Trump was quite right in his attitudes to Islamism.
Was #lastnightinsweden fake news or not, then? I’d say not.
What it was was a famously lazy populist latching onto a poorly researched piece of journalism that reflected his worldview (Horowitz’s documentary), which he had come across while watching the “fair and balanced” Fox News – his preferred news source when not reading the National Enquirer.
Fox News was only doing what it always does, as was Trump. Calling #lastnightinsweden fake news elevates it to a level of calculation and conspiracy that probably wasn’t justified (it’s always possible that Bannon or some other nutjob in the inner circle planned it as a diversionary tactic).
In the end, it was just crap journalism, endorsed by a wannabee despot who knows that stirring up ethnic hatred is what his followers respond to best.
As for what to do about fake news? I’ll come back to that. For now, remember the revolutionary power of laughter, and watch the Daily Show for the real news.