Fake(d) News as a political tool: where is the outrage when it fits your narrative?
Ever since the election of Donald Trump news organisations have been going on about fake news. Reportedly this is what caused Trump to be elected. Governments and the EU jumped on this bandwagon as well. Of course, everybody knows what fake news is. They are false statements disguised as fact trying to delude the public sphere for specific purposes, i.e. influencing elections. Now, anyone engaged in these practices would rightfully be deemed a purveyor of fake news, right?
The EU notes:
Media literacy is also a tool empowering citizens (…) helping counter the effects of (…) fake news spreading through digital media.
Similar efforts are employed by the UK Government. Their report released in February 2019 states:
Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation (…) delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day”.
Some governments are less successful, evidenced by France having a government campaign banned from twitter for being fake news. So, while not everybody is as successful, many governments and news outlets now employ fact checkers in order to distinguish between real and fake news. The question is whether this can be done successful.
Lessons for legislation
Two recent cases of flagrant fake news have received some notoriety, yet the outlet producing them have not been reprimanded by Twitter, Facebook, or other outlets. What is the point of legislating fake news when everybody does it? We’re talking about The New Statesman and The Daily Mail who smeared Sir Roger Scruton and Carl Benjamin. Scruton is Britain’s most eminent philosopher. Benjamin is a successful Youtuber/entertainer turned politician. In both cases quotations of the persons were fully made up.
The sacking of Sir Roger Scruton
Scruton was quoted saying:
In reality he said (at he 51.10 mark):
And the regimentation of the ordinary being the thing that, um… We invent robots and they [the Chines Government] are… in a sense, they are creating robots out of their own people, by so constraining what what can be done that each Chinese person is a kind of replica of the next one. (…) And that is a very frightening thing.
This is obviously pointed towards the Communist government who presses people into the mold of an utopian citizen. The same reframing was applied to his comments on islam, black people and jews in Hungary. Read the transcript here.
Scruton was fired from an unpaid government job for it. George Eaton, Joint Deputy Editor of The New Statesman posted on Instagram with a popped champagne bottle to celebrate the sacking. So, not only does one frame a person and causing him to lose a job, although unpaid, one celebrates the treachery of making up remarks with champagne. Would that classify as fake news? You tell us.
The smearing of Carl Benjamin
Benjamin is accused by the Daily Mail of condoning molesting little boys. They are able to do this because the writer of the article stitches together four different quotes, both in year and time within the conversations.
In 2014 a commenter of his livestream noted that the nature of the conversation allowed for Benjamin to be quoted out of context as condoning sex with young boys. Acknowledging this Benjamin says:
I can be quoted as saying you can f*** young boys
In 2017 Benjamin aired a US based livestream in which age of consent laws were part of the conversation as well. Talking about the discussion of a lower age of consent in the US context he said:
It’s not actually as controversial as you think,
In saying so he refers to the many European nations which have a lower age of consent than many of the United States, although his example of the Netherlands is erroneous. After this statement he clarifies his personal position as to not lower the age of consent in his own country, the UK.
The Daily Mail is able to stitch these two separated quotes, and two others, together to make it out as if Benjamin has said:
‘I can be quoted as saying you can f*** young boys. It’s actually not as controversial as you think. Depends on the child, doesn’t it? The ancient Greeks were pederasts. It was considered to be normal. It was mentoring.’
The full breakdown can be found here. So, if one has to go these lenghts in order to portray a political candidate in a bad light, at what point is this considered fake news? Would fabricating quotes classify as fake news? You tell us.
The problem of legislating Fake news
The air of infallibility of the old media is rightly removed by these forrays into fake news. There are many other examples. So, if we are fear sketchy websites flooding our social media outlets with fake news, how do we act when the so-called old media outlets do the same as those Russian bots? Will The New Statesman and Daily Mail be accompanied by a warning from now on?
Measures taken by the EU and the UK government to fight fake news will not result in removing fake news from the public sphere. These two recent examples show the nature of fake news. It is politics. How do we know? Eaton celebrating his win over Scruton, only to retract his post on Instagram once it became apparent people were not having it. He regarded his misquotations normal in order to get a political result.
So, if fake news is political, how do we fight fake news? We don’t. Because that is meddling in politics and that is not government business. Plus, everybody engages in it. Thus, legislating fake news ultimately means silencing one side of the political and public sphere.
The decision is yours
These examples show the importance of trust through experience. Trust takes time to build and is demolished in a whim. This means in the end media outlets engaging in these practices only hurt themselves and the narratives they are spreading.
A lack of public trust is reason for people to move to alternatives, sketchy or not. This is exactly the reason we always link to the source of our quotes. We might get it wrong sometime in the future, but we’ll always let sourced quotes speak for themselves. We are not arbiters of truth. We can and will fight fake news by not producing it ourselves. If only old-media would do the same. The decision is ultimately yours, not your politicians.