Fake news – a user’s guide
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.