Big media and social networks are now openly talking about tackling “fake news” on the internet.
Okay, but let’s just say the line is getting worryingly thin even with formerly respectable publications such as The Economist, especially around election season.
Basically, the problem is real enough, but pot, meet kettle.
Maybe it’s different in your country, but the “serious mainstream” is shit pretty much everywhere I looked. “Fake news” simply translates to smaller, equally partisan media that the big ones want to stop for reasons having more to do with competition and monopoly than a love of truth. Their problem with, say, Breitbart isn’t that it’s particularly inaccurate, but that it threatens their hegemony.
The reason it is happening now is obvious. The established media are in panic mode after they failed to stop Trump despite an unprecedented, literally planetary scale campaign.
But their existential crisis is a majestic own-goal. The twilight of traditional journalism was self-inflicted by vacating the high ground of journalistic integrity and impartiality. The smaller/alternative news phenomenon is at least partly a reaction to the big media’s own dishonesty – and in response, they’re doing more of the bad things that caused their problems to begin with, digging in with yet more manipulative dishonesty instead of reversing course and aiming for the high ground.
Optimistic conclusion: propaganda doesn’t work that well. And personal experience trumps it always.
That’s not to say that “fake news” isn’t a real problem.
Nobody’s accusing RT, Al Jazeera or Infowars of being anything less than gushing wellsprings of unadulterated malicious diarrhoea.
But CNN, FT or NYT are barely better – and HuffPost, Salon and Vox are far worse.
I’ll say it again: CNN is as dishonest as the mouthpieces of rotten oriental kleptocracies. Several popular outlets are worse.
This is not to elevate Putinist and Islamist propaganda cannons to credibility, but to point out much of the mainstream media belongs right down there with them. Different teams, same game.
This is not a false balance – they’re comparably biased. Thing is, now we’re noticing, and that’s what scares them. After decades of near-monopoly on the minds of the people, they’re now freaking out because anyone with a keyboard can outdo them – and routinely does.
I propose a scale of journalistic integrity:
- Dispassionate presentation of facts. Opinions are kept rigorously separate and admitted.
- Balanced presentation of facts with an angle, opinion, interpretation, stated preference.
Here passes the line between good and bad journalism.
- Predominantly angle-based and partisan with a base in facts, but prone to significant distortion, exaggeration or misrepresentation in the service of a political cause. The goal is to install confirmation bias in readers.
- Fabrications and hoaxes with no basis in reality (“Blood sucking lizard-men Clintons”).
Most journalists are tempted to descend the steps the higher the stakes. Virtually all mainstream media passed the line this year. And they’re now outraged it’s being crossed from the other side too, with formerly marginal outlets surging into the mainstream. They have nobody else to blame but themselves.
One of the good things about this year’s presidential election was a lot of dormant worms were drawn out of the woodwork – as I talked about with considerable passion in a recent video (at the 2:35 mark).
Turns out much of the “serious media” were simply sleepers.
There is one shining exception: The Times.
Not The New York Times, which are in many ways the incarnation and apotheosis of the problem, but the most reputable newspaper in the world, The Times. Of London.
Meanwhile across mainstream media, coverage of every major topic in recent history was both obviously partisan and hideously wrong.
Whereas the trolls spreading hoaxes about blood-sucking space lizards are at least aware of being liars, and probably having a hell of a time doing it, the dishonest mainstream journalists actually imagine themselves as redeeming and educating an ignorant, corrupt public.
An attack from the outside is much easier to defend against than an inside job by a cancerous mob of political radicals who consider themselves shepherds of the great herd of unwashed deplorables, who are in reality on average better adjusted, better informed and morally superior to the journalists.
Because the lying, the utter lying and malicious manipulation of the mainstream media hurts people by cocooning them in hysterical hallucinations, to the point of making some of them actually suicidal, as brilliantly described in a very, very important article.
If there were any suicides following the election, that’s on Vox and Salon and HuffPo who convinced some emotionally labile vulnerable folks that the man who proudly presented a rainbow flag on stage and expressly said he wants to protect the LGBT communi(s)ty is going to put them in death camps. They’re not victims of “Trumpism”, but of the left’s Hitler themed ridiculous propaganda.
The problem starts in journalism schools. Ask students and many don’t even know they’re supposed to be objective, that the core of their job will be to relay facts and nothing but the facts.
Sure, there can be opinion columns, but separate from reporting. When you’re being subjective or biased, say it. And know it.
If you want to advocate, influence and persuade, start a blog.
I know, it’s impossible for humans to be perfectly objective, but at least try and do your best – an imperfect result is still better than never even trying. People are inherently biased, but perhaps a good selection and training process for journalists would be built precisely around mitigating that.
A journalist who purposefully dabbles in influence has failed the first commandment, the prime directive, the equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath of her profession.
Narrative or truth, pick one.
Anglo-saxon journalism schools in particular are bootcamps for foot soldiers in the culture wars – deliberately churning out political radicals of one stripe or another who believe “agenda setting” and “advocacy” are what they should be doing, rather than the exact things they mustn’t.
But such partisan journalism is like surgeons being taught to harm patients, farmers to prefer badgers to crops, or mechanics to ruin cars.
The pastoral urge in response to other people’s “scary” autonomy must be resisted. (My politics in one sentence)
I agree we are in a sensitive transitional place where the old media are done for and a better way of doing things has yet to materialise, and people’s critical thinking and information processing skills are not yet adjusted to the deluge of contradictory lies, the omni-directional tsunami of bullshit that defines life in the social media age, in which any third-world shithole with a basement full of adolescent trolls can significantly influence public discourse in America, but letting one tribe of liars get a monopoly is not a solution.
It would be a shortcut to the bad outcome.
At the same time, the influence of hoaxes and state-sponsored information warfare should not be overestimated. And it mustn’t be used as alibi by a deeply flawed establishment desperately trying to avoid self-reflection and having to start actually serving the citizens. “Oh we didn’t fuck up, the people are just dumb and fell for lies”. With characteristic lack of self-awareness, that’s doing more of exactly their main mistake.
Trump didn’t win because he got retweeted by a few acne-riddled neonazi pathological onanists in a Russian troll farm somewhere.
Trump won because the American people got fed up with getting exploited and shamed, injured as well as insulted, by a crony socialist establishment that’s been trying to impose an ideological hegemony cum palace economy in the US for the last thirty years.
Ditto for Brexit and the inevitable outcomes of German and French elections next year.
Yes, there are psychological and information warfare operations against the West. Giant, yuuuuge ones. Foreign autocrats rejoice at and try to amplify the fragmentation and deepening tribalism within the west, but the problems are fundamentally of our own self-serving, out-of-touch “elites’” making.
Bad guys are trying to undermine trust in western media and institutions. But let’s be honest, these institutions are giving our enemies a lot to work with. We can’t blame our adversaries for taking advantage. But maybe we can stop giving them quite so much material.
Like raindrops, effective lies need a nucleus of solid material to condense around.
Effective mass propaganda works not by making things up, but by twisting, amplifying and adding to things that are really there – so our best defence is to ensure there is as little as possible for it to latch onto.
That leaves our enemies with outright lies. But that’s the less dangerous sort of propaganda, because few people are credulous enough to fall for it. Sure, some people will believe anything, including the reptilian alien thing and Trump being a racist and other hallucinatory bullshit, but it can be a marginal phenomenon limited to 5-person subreddits and the bottoms of comments sections, not a detectable flavouring of the entire public discourse.
It’s always going to be easier to push information warfare than to counter it. The costs of creating vs. countering hoaxes, of offence vs. defence are so disproportionate that trying to dodge or catch the bullets is a losing game. The only thing that works is being bulletproof.
In a game of shit-flinging, the only winning strategy is a teflon jacket.
In practice, this means fundamental robustness of our societies – we must be irreproachable, to have such good governance, transparent politics and actually honest media that any malicious lies and smears look automatically ridiculous.
Note it’s not enough to “cultivate an image” of being honest and well run. It has to be actually true. When an intelligence agency’s entire archive can fit comfortably in an average anus, nothing important stays hidden for long.
Our winning strategy is to do better. When we occupy the moral and epistemological high ground, it makes all the biased trolls to our sides look ridiculous by default.
Either the “mainstream media” up their game and revive the outdated bourgeoise ideals of objectivity, impartiality and factuality, or they’re fucked, and will be replaced by someone else who will.
Crucially, we must differentiate between hostile propaganda and hoaxes on one side, and citizen journalism and free exchange of information on social media on the other. Baby and bathwater, guys.
I present to you that in the information age, the ability to work with, filter and process information is the chief Darwinian selector. Better get it right.
TLDR: Journalism is an unreformed 19th century industry ripe for information-age disruption.