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The Fake Newness of Fake News

World faked out by phenomenon known oh so well in Eastern Europe!

by Peter Gross 3 May 2017

The sudden discovery last year that fake news was circulating as freely and ubiquitously as air currents should have “shocked, shocked” us as much as the sudden “revelation” that Police Captain Louis Renault (played by Claude Rains) had in the 1942 film, Casablanca, that gambling was going on in Rick’s Café, as he was handed his roulette table winnings.


Hoaxes, more easily identifiable by their outrageous fictitiousness – such as the Russian “news” on a RT news program on 4 January 2017 that NATO was “massively” reinforcing its eastern flank with 3,600 U.S. tanks, when a mere 87 were deployed – are only a small fraction of fake news. On the other hand, propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation are far more common and at their apogee today thanks to new technologies that amplify their reach light years beyond the capabilities of ancient Chinese and Roman posters, town criers, newspapers, and even radio and television.


The injections of inaccurate or partially accurate, selectively hyped, and thinly or anonymously sourced facts are techniques older than Methuselah. The same goes for the guesses, rumors, predictions, opinions, and all other misreporting and misrepresentations stewed in the poisonous juices of ideologies, religious and other certainties, and cultural arrogance.


The Deficiencies of “Real” News


Beliefs breed smaller and greater biases, malodorous or not, and require proselytizing and reinforcing, which demands narratives containing just the right selection of facts, organized and presented to fit a “perspective.” Fact-based news is simply not as useful as the more malleable opinion-based news.


The internet and social media multiplies journalism’s numerous definitions, practices, and ethics, now outdoing the Amazonian forest’s diversity of fauna and flora. In cahoots with politicians, religious groups, and others – and certain in their superiority, righteousness, and intentions, journalists create a significant body of Lilliputian and Godzilla-sized fake news. Everyone is quick to deny culpability, pointing accusatory fingers at each other in endless demonstrations of La Rochefoucauld’s diagnosis that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.”  


In past and present authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and theocracies, the reality of post-truth living demands constant repetition of lies, half-truths, fact-free “news,” and “analysis.” In the former Soviet bloc, that has created a toxic unreality. Political ambitions and intrigues in post-1989 East-Central Europe and the dismantled Soviet Union, together with newborn oligarchs and others with vested interests in disseminating the “right” news and information, have led to the peddling of fake news like cheap Chinese knock-offs of Armani and Gucci. Audiences are largely kept in the post-factual era.


Western Media Models No More 


Western European media vividly, unabashedly reflect political partisanship and polarization, a tradition of opinion-based and perspective-based journalism that is fertile ground for disinformation, misinformation, and propaganda. Yet, it was only during the 2016 election that Italy’s perennially post-factual journalism worried then-Prime Minister Mateo Renzi. Angela Merkel, too, is concerned about fake news possibly affecting Germany’s 2017 elections, apparently unaware of the Deutsche Welle story in 2015 about the 40-50 percent of Germans who consider their Lügenpresse (lying press) to offer embellished and inaccurate news. "The borders between lies, concealment, and self-censorship are fluid," Roland Tichy, a former journalist and now CEO of the Bonn-based Ludwig Erhard Foundation, concluded at the time.


Differences between Western European and American journalism were substantial before the latter moved from a (nearly) objective journalism to a post-objective one by the 1990s. When MIT’s Noam Chomsky and the Wharton School’s Edward S. Herman argued in 1988 that America’s “propaganda” journalism “manufactures” consent, they were substantially off target. Not today, however, after liberal and conservative politics were co-opted by an acidic left-right polarization thriving on highly relativized accuracy, completeness, fairness, balance, context, and non-partisanship.


Fake news is skillfully camouflaged, denied, and explained in absurd and contradictory ways. In 2002, ABC’s former star anchor, Tom Brokaw, rejected the existence of liberal bias, then explained its existence: “journalism will always be spending more time on issues that seem to be liberal to some people …” Fox News engages in similar hocus-pocus, claiming to offer “Journalism – Fair and Balanced” as a “conservative” counter-force to the liberal media. In his 2003 book, What Liberal Media? The Truth About BIAS and the News, Eric Alterman admitted the media focus on certain “liberal” issues but did not “find this bias as overwhelming as some conservative critics do.” His fake news: If it’s not “overwhelming,” it’s not biased, therefore, not fake news.


Assiduously alimented by both major political parties, there was plentiful fake news during the 2016 presidential election. A study by economists Matthew Gentzkow (Stanford University) and Hunt Allcott (New York University)  – Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election –  shows fake news favoring Donald Trump exceeding that favoring Hillary Clinton. But they found such ideology-informed “reporting” apparently had no noteworthy influence on the election’s outcome. There may be a reason.


Since the 1980s, Americans increasingly perceive the media to be biased and untrustworthy, according to Pew Research Center surveys. Most social media, blogs, and other internet-based outlets with their say-whatever-comes-to-mind, rumor, and opinion-based information are making things worse. Luckily, they are not the principal source of news and information, according to Gentzkow and Allcott.


Often guilty of creating and spreading fake news, the media suddenly donned their shining armor to fight it. Google will combat it. Facebook is installing tools to unearth it in the upcoming German elections. Some other European and American media that regularly or not disseminate fake news – like the BBC, which in 2016 admitted to deliberately undermining Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn – promise campaigns against it.  Even governments are getting into the act. Germany, for instance, is considering a law calling for fines of up to 500,000 euros ($546,000) to be imposed on Facebook if it disseminates fake news. By whom and from which “perspectives” will fake news be judged? Its elimination would be truly shocking. The best strategy is to teach audiences to recognize it and for the responsible media to minimize it.

Peter Gross, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.

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