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There’s Nothing New About Fake News

Dismissing something as fake news has become a universal way to shut down conversation that doesn’t fit your world view or political agenda. This device has become so prevalent that the words ‘fake news’ were recently voted term of the year.

But what if fake news is nothing new. What if throughout history every ruling class has manipulated information to maintain control of people’s minds. Is what is omitted, unsaid and unreported also “fake news”? And more personally does calling something ‘fake news’ actually give us an insight into our own and other people’s underlying assumptions.

Associate researcher at the Organization for Propaganda Studies and author of ‘Real Fake News’, Dr. Tim Coles and the senior lecturer at Birbeck University of London, Justin Schlosberg, joined with Renegade Inc. to discuss the fake news epidemic

Fake News

Tim Coles began the discussion by outlining the dual nature of fake news and information as a source of power against the general public:

“There are really two kinds of information”, argues Coles. “There’s the information that those in power project and give to the public to try and tell them how to think and what to think about and what not to think about. There’s also the information that’s gathered about the public – hence the surveillance state… We’re seeing the use of both of these kinds of information to gather information about what you think from surveillance and then to target information to you.”

Revisiting Babylonia

Coles argues that the selective use of ‘top down’ information as a means of social control is rooted in Babylonian times:

“Historically information was pretty one directional….The elites of ancient Babylon would pretend on stone tablets that they were descended from gods and things like that in order to try and frighten the public into obeying laws.”

The platonic notion that the public need to be lied to from above for their own benefit, first appeared in Egypt and Greece. That the elites intrinsically believe the public are in need of a ‘superior force’ to make decisions on their behalf because they are incapable of making their own, is the basis of the ‘noble lie’, says Coles:

The notion the public have autonomy in the sharing and gathering of information undermines the powerful. But as Coles attests, there is more to it than that:

“The elites tend to think of the public as being like children, they have to be kept in fantasies and fairy stories. And this idea of top down fake news, you can find traces of it throughout history, it’s absolutely nothing new, despite what we’re told. What is new is the fact that so much information is now so readily available. The advent of the printing press was revolutionary and the Internet in some ways is comparable to that.”

Dr. Tim Coles

The Gutenberg moment

The emergence of the printed press meant that the level of control the elites were able to exert over the masses was lessened. The arrival of the internet provided another Gutenberg moment in as much as it provides the public with potential new sources of information free from the grip of the powerful. As the public’s ability to cross check information becomes more readily available so correspondingly does the production by the powerful of fake stories to counteract them.

“There are massive efforts to guide people into certain directions with the Internet”, says Coles, who illustrates his argument by pointing to the use of algorithms on search engines. These have been “directing people away from very well sourced legitimate alternative sources”, he says. Consequently, these sources have, in the last few years, according to Coles, “seen a massive decline in internet traffic. This is because there are algorithms being used to divert people away and to base everything on popularity rather than on specific key phrases that you might be looking for.”  

Justin Schlosberg broadly agrees with Coles analysis but takes issue with the notion algorithms play such a significant role in the production of fake news:

“It’s very rare that a wholly fabricated news story permeates the mainstream news agenda in a way that reaches critical mass audiences”, claims Schlosberg.

The Birkbeck University lecturer adds:

“Very often they have viral spread but virus spread usually amongst people who are already pretty much persuaded in terms of their political attitude and vantage point. I think the news that we really need to be worried about – which I think Tim suggested in his book – is that the news on the likes of the BBC, on the CNN’s, precisely because they have this profound reach across fragmented audiences. “

Systematic & pervasive propaganda

The level of this reach presents “a different kind of problem”, says Schlosberg, that has less to do with fake news but more to do with what he refers to as “the systematic distortions and inaccuracies that privilege a particular ideological or partisan worldview.”

Schlosberg cites last years coverage of anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party in a report he produced for the Media Reform Coalition, as an example of the media’s “systematic distortions”. The report, said, Schlosberg, “documents consistent mis-quotations, absence of right of reply [and] assertions of blatant unambiguous falsehoods that are not challenged or corrected by correspondents, presenters or journalists, but rather, in fact sometimes uttered by those journalists themselves.”  

Schlosberg adds:

“So that’s the kind of thing that I think is really deeply problematic. It’s more subtle. It’s less obvious than what we might call fake news but potentially more pervasive.” 

Justin Schlosberg

Clarifying his position by pointing to the genuine concerns the Labour Party (and elsewhere) has with anti-Semitism, Schlosberg’s focus is on the ideological nature of the story:

“I think it’s…. very safe to say that there are people who have been from the outset of Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour party intent on throwing whatever mud at him that they can find….. And so …you have potentially very influential sources within the Labour Party that are continually briefing the news media and making statements that are simply factually incorrect.”

Schlosberg points to the demonstrably false claim that virtually every country in the world adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of anti-Semitism, as an example of media disinformation being peddled, “not just on the margins of news discourse, but on the very shows and on the very platforms that flagship bulletins….reach….critical mass audiences.”

Targeting the ‘kingmakers’

Schlosberg’s reasoning as to why this is a significant problem stems from the fact that these are the audiences that comprise swing voters – what he describes as “the real kingmakers of democracy”. He adds: “They may be less relatively engaged, may even have less prior knowledge of a particular issue, but when they’re being fed this kind of disinformation, this could potentially have, I think, a more profound impact on political elections, for example, than anything that someone like Cambridge Analytica can claim to achieve.”  

Tim Coles interjected by making reference to the broad spectrum definition of ‘fake news’:

“On the one end you’ve got obvious things that not many people take seriously like clickbait. But then as we move across the spectrum it becomes a little more subtle so the intelligence agencies, for example, have the three modes of propaganda – black white and grey – where white propaganda is simply the state making its case. They might be lying but at least you know who’s making it and why. With grey propaganda, the lines get a bit more blurred, doubt is seeded and black propaganda is simply putting words in an enemies mouth that they didn’t say.”

Censorship by omission

Crucially, Coles points to the pervasive role censorship by omission (what is not said) plays in the production of fake news:

“If you’re given facts and information you can counter it. But if you’re not told key information and analysis you can’t even think about certain things, for example with the yellow vest protesters in France, that all of the context of French neoliberalism and the slow effort to privatize and stagnating wages and so on. All of that’s omitted so when the protests finally kick off we’re given this picture that it’s some bunch of extremists who didn’t want to pay more for fuel.”  

Coles explains why this happens: 

“I think it goes back to the issue of wanting to alienate the public from their own interests. If people in the UK were given the background, the context, the information about why people who support the so-called far left and the so-called far right in France are actually coming together against what Tariq Ali calls the extreme center – the centrist institutions – it might inspire the public to form their own yellow vest protest – which they’re now doing in the UK.”

Unfortunately, the UK version of the yellow vest movement was initially co-opted by right-wing forces. However, the emergence of some left wing elements into the movement are helping shift the ideological discourse. According to Coles, this coming together of opposing political forces, is a frightening prospect for the ruling class:

“Whenever people in power tell you that fake news is undermining democracy, they really mean that alternative sources of information are challenging their grip on power”, he says.  

A fractured elite playing a different game?

While mindful and sensitive to the complexities of “elitism” in society, Schlosberg nevertheless agrees fundamentally with the thesis that elites have more in common than that which divides them. “But we also have to acknowledge that we are living in a world where there are some pretty fundamental fractures within elite ranks”, posits Coles. Here, the researcher and author points to the fractures that have surfaced as a result of Brexit and the election of Trump. Coles emphasizes the significant role the state has in fighting ‘information wars’ as part of its top down propaganda offensive.

“But there are also other aspects of elites – of elite society – that are not playing that game”, says Coles. “It’s a different game they are playing – one that they are not necessarily aware of. Coles highlights, for example, the role played by corporate journalists: “In their minds they do not see themselves as part of any kind of…overarching neo liberal imperialist agenda”, he says, adding: “Journalists even within news organizations like RT and Rossiya believe – in some ways quite legitimately – that they are providing a credible independent news service… But what we have to be sensitive to are the particular ways in which the practice of journalism becomes compromised – sometimes at the margins, sometimes fundamentally.”

Coles continues:

“The reality is, the BBC, The Guardian, CNN – ever so often – do good journalism. So does RT, even Rossiya 1… But we have to understand the different ways in which they are all compromised…Until we do that we are never really going to overcome this problem of fake news, disinformation or whatever else we call it.” 

Essentially, the function of elite journalism is the protection of elite power. Corporate journalists who frequently make false accusations against independent journalists that challenge power do so in order to ensure the status quo is maintained. This often involves either corporate journalists’ character assassination of opponents or the projection of their own frailties on to them. Independent journalist and former UK ambassador, Craig Murray, has been on the receiving end of both. The latter was outlined in a tweet cited by Renegade Inc:

“The realization has only really just struck me hard”, said Murray, “that the people who have been most vocal in making totally false claims that I am in any way paid by Russia, were themselves being secretly paid to make those claims by my former employer, the FCO – that’s the Foreign Commonwealth Office – via the Integrity Initiative.”  

That there is a fundamental lack or absence of any kind of sanction or accountability against journalists who defame and lie, is the most shocking aspect to all this. The censoring by The Guardian of the story that U.S prosecutors interrogated a dozen Ecuador London diplomats over the papers front page fabricated assertion that Assange had secret meetings with Manafort, is proof positive that if the lies happen to correspond with the protection of powerful interests, an establishment media are able to publish them with impunity. 

As Coles infers, the clear agenda of a corporate media in hock to power, is to augment the official state line and demonize official enemies for the purpose of ensuring the public are kept ‘on-side’:

“Anything to make people afraid of scary Russia. Anything that can link politicians or whistleblowers or journalists or academics to the Kremlin has to be played up”, says Coles. adding: “[The Manafort/Assange example]….is a case where we can see the media really following a particular line and setting a very clear agenda.”  

Returning to Babylonia (again)

Some political establishment figures – for example, Hilary Clinton – have been honest in their assessment of how the function of news media is to propagandize for state power. This form of political and media establishment collusion is, as Schlosberg attests, “true of all states.” It’s a form of state-media totalitarianism that the strong perceive is in the interests of the weak. In that sense, it’s a return to Babylonia:

“I think we kind of need to be mindful of the ways in which this plays out in different geopolitical contexts”, argues Schlosberg, adding: “Al Jazeera does some very good news… [but] doesn’t in any way cover the Qatari Royal establishment with any kind of critical scrutiny. The BBC does some good news [but] it’s been absolutely appalling in covering the proxy war that the UK has been fighting for a number of years in Yemen, for example. The same thing can be said of CNN. The same thing can be said of RT – in respect of some of the Kremlin’s activities.”

Crucially, Schlosberg adds:

“What is interesting is that, traditionally, it’s been much less apparent how propaganda works in the Western media and arguably more effective because of that…It’s been much more subtle; it’s been less instructive, less what we call – in boring academic terms – the work of agency rather than structure.”  

Does the cognitive map of public indoctrination originate from a lack of critical thinking fomented in schools?  

Coles is unambiguous on this point:

“[It was] Winston Churchill [who] said that school has less to do with education and more to do with inculcating values. I think that’s pretty accurate. And the values of course depend on the state in question. And also the class. So the kind of education that’s given to the upper classes is going to be different to the education that’s given to the lower classes.”

In echoing Chomsky and Herman’s ‘Propaganda Model’, Coles points to the relations between propaganda, class structure and media output:

“If we look at the structure of the media [and its interface] with social mobility studies, we see that editors tend to come from [the] upper classes and so they’re shaping the interests of their own class. Although journalists obviously do great work, they’re rather constrained by editorial policy in many cases, so the indoctrination goes a long way. It’s another form of psychological warfare against the public. Education, information, the economy [and law] can be a form of warfare [in terms] of what you are allowed to do or not do. So these things play a myriad – a three or four pronged assault – where different elements are coming at you from the top down.” 

What can be done? 

 Schlosberg is pessimistic in terms of there being anything fundamental that can be done to change the current state of affairs:

“A lot of the discourse around fake news and disinformation is itself tantamount to fake news and disinformation”, he argues. “I think, for example, the way….disinformation is articulated – on opinion pages…. [the accepted wisdom] is ‘respectable’ news outlets like The Guardian and the BBC, are supposedly in a position to offer the antidote. The [assumption is] that fake news is restricted to the kind of toxic interaction between Breitbart, Facebook algorithms and Kremlin controlled bots. So I think…that, bizarrely, the real problem we’re facing at the moment is the way in which disinformation has really permeated the very discussion of disinformation. And I think the only way we can get through that is by encouraging people to think critically about all of the news and information that they consume.”  

In order to successfully counteract the notion that many people appear to be knowledge hungry but time poor, Schlosberg says he always tries to tell his students to develop what he calls a “healthy skepticism”.

“We shouldn’t operate on the assumption that [what we read and view] is gospel. We need to be sensitive and critical to the different agendas that are at play, particularly in the kinds of political controversies that are pervasive now… all over the world but especially within Western liberal democracies”, he says.

He adds:

“We’ve reached this…post-consensus age where the kind of ideological glue that used to tie things together – in terms of news agendas – has disintegrated. And so that presents many problems (in terms of the opportunities for disinformation to surface in mainstream news agendas), as it does opportunities. This is because people are, I think, increasingly being exposed to ideas… that were previously emitted from these kinds of platforms.  

Coles interjects:

“The mainstream are in some ways trying to absorb the alternative so we now see guest’s on what’s mislabeled the far left like The Canary or Novara Media being invited as pundits on Newsnight, the BBC or on Sky. So instead of just ignoring it, they’re now trying to absorb them into a sort of competition, as it were.”  

The fact this is happening, is according to Coles, “partly to do with ratings. There’s been a decline in trust in mainstream media – a steady decline. People are looking to alternative sources. But it’s also to do with making sure that particular [multiple] class agendas…are well served. So if you were to go onto some of these alternative websites you could get their perspective, but if you’re encountering them on a mainstream program, they’re speaking within the framework of mainstream debate.”

Consequently:

“They [independent journalists] are shouted down [and] the kind of questions and agenda….already set before they come on the show. So they’re not allowed to speak freely. One of the main problems, therefore, is how the mainstream are structured. These are private institutions and state institutions – or sometimes a mix of both. If we compare British media to European media it’s very right wing according to studies that have looked into this.”

Given the historical context outlined, how can a disillusioned public protect themselves or make the right decisions when it comes to either voting or policy decisions? 

For Schlosberg, the first and most important thing is for people to challenge their own assumptions: “If you have particular assumptions about what the other side thinks, what the other side does, then more than likely those assumptions have been reinforced by some kind of narrative [people] have consumed somewhere in the media”, he says.

Schlosberg emphasizes the importance of introspection in challenging assumptions:

“I think that’s the only way we can get through any of these kinds of debates”, he says, adding that this extends beyond the issue of fake news and disinformation into the related problem of deep polarization within our society.” Crucially, Schlosberg makes the point that “until we are willing to look inward and be self reflexive and self-critical about it or question our own positions, then there’s no hope for the kind of public sphere discourse that democracies really need.”  

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