Knowledge Bridge

Global Intelligence for the Digital Transition

//Jeremy Wagstaff /November 26 / 2018

Fighting fake news is not just a journalist’s battle

How do you fight fake news? It’s a question I’m often asked, and as a journalist in the business for 35 years, I find it a frustrating one, because it’s often presented as if it’s a new question, and one that technology can answer. It’s not new, but yes, technology can help — a little.

Fake news is as old as news itself, but at least in the West it was most clearly defined during World War I, when “the art of Propaganda was little more than born,” in the words of Charles Montague, formerly a leader writer and theatre critic of The Manchester Guardian and latterly an intelligence captain in the trenches of France. Montague saw up close the early probing efforts to plant what were then called ‘camouflage stories’ in the local press in the hope of misleading the enemy; one in an obscure science journal which recklessly overstated the Allies’ ability to eavesdrop on German telephone calls in the field.

Montague, as his intelligence bosses, saw the huge potential fake news offered for deception — which, after all, was the business he was in. “If we really went the whole serpent,” he wrote later, “the first day of any new war would see a wide, opaque veil of false news drawn over the whole face of our country.” (Rankin, Nicholas: A Genius for Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars)

This didn’t happen but there was enough censorship and enough force-fed propaganda of the British and American press for there to be a backlash in the wake of the war, as told in the March 2018 edition of Science Magazine (‘The science of fake news’). The norms of objectivity and balance that most of us abide by or aspire to today are those century-old ones wrought of that conflict.

So it’s worth remembering that the serpent we’re fighting isn’t some newly created hydra born out of social media: it’s age-old the servant of governments, movements, forces who understand well how minds work. But that’s only part of the story.

One of the first problems that media face is that while we stood on our plinths of noble principles those plinths were for decades — nearly a century — built on powerful commercial interests. As the authors of the Science Magazine article put it: “Local and national oligopolies created by the dominant 20th century technologies of information distribution (print and broadcast) sustained these norms. The internet has reduced many of those constraints on news dissemination.”

It has, and very effectively. Not only that, it has helped change the language, format and tone, something we’ve been slow to pick up on. An academic study in 2012 by Regina Marchi of Rutgers University, based on interviews with 61 high school students, found “that teens gravitate toward fake news, ‘snarky’ talk radio, and opinionated current events shows more than official news, and do so not because they are disinterested in news, but because these kinds of sites often offer more substantive discussions of the news and its implications.” She quotes a 2005 study that such formats are “marked by a highly skeptical, alienated attitude to established politics and its representation that is actually the reverse of disinterest”.

Take note the ‘fake news’ reference predates the Trump era by a good three years. But the style, the content, the contempt for fact and sourcing was a trend already visible a decade before Trump and others rode its coat-tails to power.

Article by Jeremy Wagstaff

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