Fake news…? When was the news ‘Real’?
In the wake of political decisions defying mainstream media consensus and pollsters predictions, there has been a widespread outcry denouncing the malign emergence of “fake news” in popular discourse. ‘The pedlars of fake news are corroding democracy’, laments Andrew Smith in the Guardian. ‘Post-truth’ has been named the word of the year for 2016. The current theory is, because we were all cooped up in our social-media bubbles, those pernicious lies spread by supporters of Donald Trump and Brexit went unchallenged.
But there are huge problems with this analysis, beyond the bleeding-obvious fact that it ignores pressing economic concerns acting upon voters after 8 years of recession and government austerity. Namely, it privileges traditional media outlets as bastions of truth and objectivity, when this is highly debatable, if not itself plainly ‘post-truthful’.
All news is created through a process of selection and omission; to believe that because you watch BBC News and read the Guardian or Telegraph every day you have an unmitigated experience of reality is deluded. Each story will have been consciously selected, filmed or written and placed within a newspaper, broadcast or website for a host of particular reasons. Some are obvious; on the 14th November 2015, the front pages were plastered with images of the atrocities committed in Paris on Friday 13th, with accompanying reports and opinion pieces. Naturally, such unusual, violent events are hugely interesting, provide desirable information and have the added advantage that they will sell papers and generate clicks.
On the other hand, a lot of the reasons are disturbingly banal. All news is created to deadlines, meaning that if someone does the work for you, it is more likely to be published or broadcast. This is why political actors and organisations dedicate massive resources to press releases, televised speeches and stage managed media events. Although journalists are meant to hold politicians to account, often the relationship is mutually beneficial; a politician desires media exposure, whereas journalists and editors need content to fill 24 hours of screen time.
We saw this during the EU referendum campaign, with Conservative politicians racking up 29.3% of TV news appearances on the subject of the referendum. For comparison, Labour received 10%, while Trade Unions received 0.5% of coverage, an astonishingly low figure considering the EU’s regulation of employment laws. This illustrates the dominance of news media coverage by politicians in positions of authority, whose opinions and actions are regarded as more newsworthy than others’, and who themselves generally seek publicity.
It’s also cheaper to produce news this way. Increasingly online, ‘reputable’ news sources publish verbatim press agency reports instead of dedicating their own resources to coverage of foreign affairs. Newspapers in particular are in dire financial straits and cannot afford the luxury of news coverage that would have a negative impact on their bottom line. As a result, the single motivating factor in all news released by private companies will be to make money; sell papers, prompt clicks, reach a saleable audience, sell advertising space. The cold economic logic of this system is brutal; the affluent audiences of the Telegraph or the Guardian are infinitely more valuable to advertisers than generally poorer readers of the Sun or the Mirror.
As physical circulation of many papers has declined the dependence on advertising income has increased, with price hikes failing to make any significant difference in terms of revenue — whilst possibly diminishing circulation further. The inevitable consequence of this is that much print media is moving online, as with the Independent becoming digital only in March this year. While lowering operating costs, this will leave papers even more reliant on advertising revenues to generate profits.
The danger herein should be obvious — if a paper is entirely reliant on advertising revenue, we could agree that at least a degree of self-censorship is inevitable — so as not to alienate potential advertisers. Potentially divisive stories based on investigative journalism have become almost non-existent in the corporate press, instead replaced by sensationalist headlines, repetitive op-eds, gossip and never-ending football rumours.
While the BBC’s model means it is thankfully free from the influence of advertising, it is vulnerable to political pressure exerted from the government of the day; anyone who disputes this — again, is deluded. Labour pressured the BBC over its coverage of Iraq, and since 2010 the Conservatives have in particular put the squeeze on the BBC by threatening the license fee, restructuring its governance and forcing the corporation to bear the costs for over-75s. We would laugh at the idea that state-funded news outlets such as RT are free of Russian influence; why do we think the BBC is objective?
In terms of their content, it is not objective to present two diametrically opposed viewpoints on a subject and claim you’ve covered all possible nuances of opinion. For the BBC — its logo, black boxes stamped with white text, surely represents the BBC’s guarantee of unfussy, even-handed coverage and its promise adhere to concrete facts. The bombastic, hi-tech introduction to BBC news sets the tone for the channel’s projection of immaculate professionalism. To quote the folks over at Media Lens, “the pulsing theme tune sets the tone: the world is a serious place and we, the BBC, are here to give it to you straight.” At least RT has the courtesy to put its Russian editorial stance in plain sight, whilst the BBC insists on a veneer of ‘objectivity’.
This can be antithetical to popular notions of an informed, skeptical public, as the BBC’s insistence on its ‘honesty’ and widespread reputability means its version of events is often accepted uncritically. Institutional objectivity is largely impossible, if only because of the mundane realities of actually creating news, and the BBC’s claim to be ‘fair and balanced’ does not hold up to scrutiny.
Much news coverage has become detached from our daily experience of the reality we each inhabit individually. Is it any surprise that people seek news outside of the mainstream? There is a danger of recent concerns about “fake news” being conflated with non-corporate sources of information — which in many cases can provide alternative viewpoints, or propose radical solutions whose mere existence is uniformly ignored across the corporate press. Recently, a laughable list of 200 news sources that ‘echo Russian propaganda’ was compiled by Prop or Not, with absolutely zero evidence. ‘Fake news’ is being conflated with alternative, anti-corporate or anti-imperialist media in an attempt to brand anything critical of Anglo-American foreign policy as either fabricated, or part of a sinister communist plot to undermine our perfect Western democracies.
Facebook’s news-selecting algorithms are a definite cause for concern, but remember that only a few short years ago social media was being hailed throughout the liberal media as enabling the emergence of democracy through the Arab Spring. The idea that a money generating corporate media platform such as Facebook ever had any lasting emancipatory potential seems fanciful. We generate Facebook’s profits with our own labour, generating content and making ourselves available to advertisers. The proliferation of “fake news” across corporate social media is an inevitable consequence of the market-driven imperative to create individually tailored experiences and make money. These practices have been encouraged uniformly across the political spectrum.
Whilst it is important to remain skeptical of any media we consume, don’t let corporate news creators tell you that the answer to fake news is renewed faith in their narrow version of reality. That too, is false.