Fake News: Truth is a relative term, so beware those that seek to define it
A statement is now a fact, which means a question is now a lie
“What if he’s right?”
That was the horrifying possibility that crept into my mind reading the news on Saturday.
“What if Donald Trump is right? What if the mainstream media are lying to us? What if they are spreading ‘fake news’?”
After all, I’ve had more than my fair share of frustrations with the press. I still don’t really know who-started-what in the Ukraine, and UK judges doing their job were recently held up as ‘Enemies of the People’. If I believe these to be examples of mainstream media manipulating ‘truth’, what’s to say they’re not always doing it?
Maybe, then, Donald Trump is completely justified in banning the Guardian, New York Times, Politico, CNN, BuzzFeed, BBC & Daily Mail from an off-camera press briefing if they’re untruthful in making him appear an unstable demagogue. After all, the UK Culture, Media & Sport Committee are investigating the growth of fake news and its effect on us. Maybe I’m a stooge of the liberal press.
Or maybe — just maybe — Donald Trump does not have my interests at heart but is instead trying to dictate ‘truth’ to ensure his own agenda is achieved without opposition. And, in competition with a distrusted media, maybe this is working.
A genuine problem
There is genuinely fake news out there. If you’re on social media then you see it every day. It’s an article that comes from a URL that is almost that of a known news outlet but not quite. It’ll also delivers news that is so earth-shattering you can’t believe you’re hearing it on Facebook first, like the Pope endorsing Donald Trump.
Because it’s completely fabricated; that’s why you’re hearing it on Facebook first. These articles take advantage of your political leanings to make you click on the article in horror/delight and in the process earn the writer/site-owner some money from traffic/advertising, or advance their political/social agenda.
But that’s not the genuinely fake news the American ‘alt-right’ (the anti-mainstream far-right) is concerned with. The alt-right is concerned with the tendency of established media to imply, to spin, and to accuse. It is concerned with the established media’s transmission of opinion and its control of the airwaves.
Everybody’s tired of it
A survey released yesterday by the National Centre for Public Research shows that only 19% of the UK trusts how the media presents statistics. We have become so acutely aware of the agendas being pushed by media outlets that we no longer believe that they can be impartial. During the Brexit referendum different publications all seemed to preach from their entrenched positions, all using ‘facts’ to prove their apparently obvious truths.
This leaves us all with no single source of ‘truth’, no benchmark to judge from. I’m furious that the Daily Mail can print a spurious Islamophobic slur on its front page and then unseeingly apologise for it being exaggerated on page 19 a few issues later. Surely something must be done about this journalistic irresponsibility, this disregard for my right to truth? If Donald Trump is tackling the bias in the media, surely it is something we should all be getting behind?
However, it is not bias per se that the alt-right are railing against, simply the bias aimed against their own.
The alt-right agenda
An article on FrontPageMagazine gives examples of what it considers to be ‘fake news’ on the part of CNN. It says that CNN was wrong to say that Trump was inviting Russia to hack Hilary Clinton (Trump said he hoped Russia finds Clinton’s missing emails). It says that CNN should not have framed the recent ban on visas from 7 Middle Eastern and African states as a ‘Muslim ban’.
Well, no, he didn’t explicitly tell Russia to hack Hilary, and no, technically it wasn’t a ban on Muslims… but they are pretty logical accusations, aren’t they? If your partner said, “I think our relationship isn’t working,” you’d be pretty justified in asking, “Are you suggesting we break up?”
And isn’t the press supposed to challenge authority on what it means rather than just write down what it says? It would be pretty worrying if journalists didn’t at least question whether the motivation behind banning people from a part of the world with a much-maligned religion was — after all — the much-maligned religion of those people.
Critically, the strength of a politician/administration should be in their ability to decisively counter interpretations that are fantastical. Anyone can make a statement, but it’s a statesperson that can argue and support it when interrogated.
Instead, what Trump is doing is skipping the bit where he argues by labelling any analysis or even questions as ‘fake news’. His statements are the facts, and so to challenge them is to lie.
In the UK we were given a first-hand demonstration of this logic. Trump aide Sebastian Gorka spoke to Newsnight and batted off every question by labelling it as a leading question, and therefore invalid. Finally, when asked whether Trump’s anti-media angle could signal future attempts at press control, Gorka makes an outright accusation that the question itself, due to its implication, was ‘fake news’, created right there and then by the BBC.
“Where were you last night?”
“I’m not telling you because I think you’re accusing me of being dishonest.”
An individual that responds to accusation with accusation is either unable to respond or doesn’t want to respond. This wouldn’t get you anywhere in court. And yet this victimisation logic is being used to ensure a subjective statement remains an unchallenged truth.
The development of the scientific method (i.e. evidence through experiment and process) in the seventeenth century meant that a) information became more reliable, due to a stronger demand for proof and how to procure it, and b) that the grip of authority (i.e. government and its structures) on truth was weakened, as one could now effectively challenge authority’s assertions.
Right now, the US authority is attempting to determine what challenges to its ‘truth’ are allowed.
Let’s pay particular attention to BreitBart. This is an alt-right news site allowed to attend the Trump press briefings where others cannot. It is apparently one of the publications that is not guilty of fake news (and whose former exec. chair is now Trump’s assistant and chief strategist).
And yet Breitbart does exactly what Trump decries about the ‘mainstream media’, the only difference being it praises Trump and his agenda. Breitbart dramatically fabricated New Year events in Dortmund, Germany, to the point where it claimed a church was set alight by Muslim migrants — this did not happen. There is a very recent Breitbart article about UK’s Max Hill concern about Islamic activists returning from Syria. It sensationally says we’ve been ‘warned’ about ‘indiscriminate attacks’ and uses quotes out of context to reinforce conventional fears of Islamic radicalisation.
A provocative slant to an extremely valid piece of news. Is this different to how the ‘alt-left’ media handled accusations of Trump’s collusions with Russia? No, but it supports government truth rather than challenges it; so it is ‘truth’.
And the wheel of history creaks again
Donald Trump is not solving the problem of biased reporting that confuses us all but rather is trying to discredit unwanted interpretations of government activity. Why should this concern us? Because control of truth is the priority of any totalitarian regime — left or right. The USSR had state-controlled media that celebrated the successes and hid the criticisms of the regime, even as perestroika and glasnost were rolled out.
Outside of direct control, the control of fact through the discrediting of unfavourable free press also has a recent historical precedent: that’s right, Nazi Germany.
The Nazis vocally denounced the Lügenpresse, the ‘lying press’. Goebbels’ propaganda machine made the term synonymous with the Weimar Republic democrats & Semitic capitalists that the Nazis’ rhetoric opposed. According to them the Lügenpresse had supported Versailles, the harsh treaty Germany signed after the First World War. According to them the Lügenpresse wanted to undermine the Volksgemeinshaft, the German society, by pandering to the interests of non-Germans.
Consider Hitler’s battle with the Munich Post. Yes, the Munich Post was a hardline socialist publication that indulged in character attacks, but it was also, in the 1920s, warning what Hitler had planned for the Jews and German democracy and embarked on a decade-long campaign against him.
Most significantly, Hitler made that paper an embodiment of the forces that opposed him. Rest assured, when he took power the publication was banned. Truth was in the hands of those that dictated it, not those that investigated it.
All sounds a bit familiar doesn’t it? Especially when Trump supporters are even using Lügenpresse. I would argue the Trump administration has characterised certain established media outlets as the same embodiments of opposition, and why it has taken the unprecedented step of deselecting them from its briefings.
Where are we now?
In the summer, a petition to the UK government to pass legislation that would force any newspaper apology article to cover the same space on a page as the original offending article was met with the following response:
‘The Government is committed to independent press self-regulation and does not interfere with decisions taken by press regulators.’
If the position of the UK government remains as such, all I fear and predict of the Trump regime is restricted to his side of the pond. But as ‘fake news’ and Donald Trump’s interpretation of it continues to circulate our social media I sense that our government could start to adopt his language without so much as a bump in the road.
In fact it happened. Amber Rudd accused the UK press of fake news for criticising the government for only taking in 350 refugee children under the meant-to-be-3000-children Dubs scheme. No, it’s not fake news. They have limited numbers under the Dubs scheme. Amber should have had the strength to state, “We have revised down the Dubs scheme due to thousands of children being taken in elsewhere,” and readied herself for the discussion that followed. But no. Instead she is trying to end the discussion with an accusation of ‘fake news’. Is this not an attempt to control ‘truth’?
As the Brexit negotiations are set to intensify, how will Theresa May handle the Guardian’s criticism of trade deals with the US? How will she paint the opposition MPs that wish to slow the process to clarify details? Nigel Farage has already started to complain of the press demonising UKIP.
The media needs to claw back our trust, else they will surrender truth to those who use it for their own ends. The independent press self-regulation the government mentioned in the summer needs to make a show of how effective it is else it may fall victim to its most unruly wards.
Trump’s battle is not against inaccurate information (he cares little for accuracy). It’s against news that dares to challenge, even if that challenge is sometimes unprofessionally inflammatory. It’s against free speech, it’s against democracy, and it’s against our right to investigate truth.
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