REFLECTING on the ‘Fake News’ hype and how the mainstream media’s use of the phrase has been used to shape society.
“’Fake news’ is information that has been deliberately fabricated and disseminated with the intention to deceive and mislead others into believing falsehoods or doubting verifiable facts” (McGonagle 2017).
The term ‘Fake news’ certainly made an impact on the world in 2017. Indeed, the phrase was used so often in the media with such importance, that it was announced as the word of the year for 2017 (Collins Dictionary 2018). However the use of the word in the media has been vastly overblown. A democratic society undoubtedly needs an unrestricted informed public, and unbiased true reportage is therefore the only way to achieve a complete democracy (Zollmann 2017). Fake news reporting is therefore certainly a cause for concern in any democratic society. However the over use of the phrase, and the hysteria by the mainstream media has led to much suspicion, especially amongst the alternative media. Websites such as The Mind Unleashed (Murphy 2018) have called into question the movement. They speculate the war against fake news to be propaganda, aimed at de-legitimizing alternative news sources, which have steadily been wrestling away the monopoly from the mainstream media. What gives credence to these arguments, is the Orwellian reaction by the new guards of information – Social Media and Google. They have set up plans and organisations to decide what is and is not fake news, affectively deciding what is true in the world. It is preposterous that corporate giants can self-govern the truth of information, this is rife for corruption. As Christopher Hitchens once remarked: “To whom do you award the right to decide which speech is harmful or who is the harmful speaker? Or determine in advance what are the harmful consequences going to be, that we know enough about in advance to prevent? To whom would you give this job? To whom are you going to award the job of being the censor? Isn’t it a famous old story that the man who has to read all the pornography, in order to decide what’s fit to be passed and what’s fit not to be, is the man most likely to be debauched?” (Skeptical Libertarian).
This paper will briefly give a scope of how fake news has been reported in 2017. It will then go on to show how the phrase is being used to shape society. Specifically this will look at agenda setting, propaganda and moral panic.
As has been established ‘Fake News’ was the word of the year for 2017. So how did the phrase become so popular? Undoubtedly falsified news has been around for generations. As the Guardian states, Charles the second issued a proclamation to stop the spread of fake news in the year 1672 (Malik 2018). Also during the cold war a propaganda campaign by the CIA saw the mainstream news, churning out anti-Russian falsified news stories (Bernstein 1977) and pro-American pieces. In more modern times, during the election campaign of Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton, Clintons campaign chairman John Podesta had his emails leaked onto Wikileaks. The leaks exposed close links between the Clintons and Qatar. The Qatar government suspiciously wanted to send Bill Clinton one million dollars to the Clinton foundation for his birthday (Sherlock 2016). In the very same batch of emails it was shown that Qatar along with Americas other ally Saudi Arabia, were financing Isis and that the US had influence over them. As Hillary Clinton wrote: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isil and other radical Sunni groups in the region” (Samuels 2016). This triangulation of links to the Clinton family, Qatari funding and Isis is very suspicious and reeks of corruption. This among other scandals of the Clinton family were extremely newsworthy stories which were highly within the public interest. However, among these legitimate concerns among the Podesta email leaks rose the Pizza-gate conspiracy theory. Citizen journalists and amateur investigators used flimsy links to claim that Hilary Clinton and John Podesta were involved in a child exploitation ring at Comet Ping pong pizzeria (Griffin 2016). Supposed similarities between such mundane things as the restaurants logo and the FBI’s list of logos for identifying paedophiles (Wikileaks) drove this conspiracy. This along with other unfounded links such as cheese pizza being a code for child porn (AppleBaum 2016) eventually lead to a believer entering the pizzeria with a gun and firing it, whilst investigating the fact less theory.
This is essentially how the mass hysteria about ‘Fake news’ was born. People were afraid of the real world implications of falsified conspiracies, and how this false finger pointing can escalate into violence to the public. The Clinton supporting liberal media used this as a propaganda opportunity to deflect away from the previously mentioned scandals. As will be explored further, using a system of moral panic, the mainstream media used the publics fear to create mistrust against the alternative media. This along with a majority anti Trump media, was used as a political means to set the agenda of society. This paper will now go on to dissect these points further.
As the propaganda model of Herman and Chomsky (1998, 2008) indicates, among other things corporate control, advertising funding, and ownership have influence over what information is produced: “As a consequence of these institutional constraints, the PM proposes that news media content is generally aligned with state-corporate elite interests” (Zollmann 2017). It has been speculated that Hillary Clinton is a shill for the corporate elite. $21,667,000 in fees for speeches to the corporate elite in 2013 – 2015 alone (Walsh 2016) and a $100,000 a head fundraiser by the Rothschild family, and leaked private emails to Lynn Forester de Rothschild (MacMillan 2016) certainly highlight this. Moreover even although Clinton is backed and supports the corporate elite, she is supported by the liberal media. Often termed the ‘new power elite’ it is suggested that the large majority of mainstream media in America is liberal leaning (McCullagh – book). This sets the foundations for a pro Clinton media, which certainly has been reflected in 2017. Given this, the propensity and push to highlight more and more ridiculous ‘Fake news’ stories, shows an attempt to deflect away from the Clinton scandals. Furthermore evidence that the mainstream media support Hillary, came again from the John Podesta emails. It was found that CNN employee Donna Brazile had sent Hillary Clinton emails, giving prior knowledge to questions for a debate against Bernie Sanders. Also as has been shown in articles from sources such as the Guardian (Ruddick 2017) and ABC (Barry 2017) the mainstream media are accusing the alternative media of being the source of ‘Fake news’. There is also the false conflation with alternative news sources and hoax/conspiracy theory outlets. Paradoxically articles from sources such as RT (MacDonald 2016) and Counter Punch (Sonnenblume 2017) are calling ‘Fake news’ a weaponised terminology used to censor alternative news sources. These sources often target the elite corporations of the world. Considering that six corporations own 90% of the media in America (Lutz 2012) it is easy to see why the mainstream media would want to quell dissenting voices. This corporate monopoly also makes the attempts by business giants such as Facebook, and Google to tackle ‘Fake news’ laughably suspicious. This weaponised propaganda tool known as ‘Fake news’ is an excuse to set the agenda towards a more convenient environment for the corporate elite, including the mainstream media. This paper will now go on to explain in further detail the agenda setting role of the media in regards to fake news.
“Agenda setting asserts that the frequency in which news media mention and cover objects (e.g. issues and public figures) largely dictates what objects audiences think are important to society” (Vargo et al 2017). As previously discussed ‘Fake news’ as a threat was given an obscene amount of coverage in 2017. Given that trust in the traditional media is at an all-time low (Nicolaou and Giles 2017), it seems the response by the mainstream media, has been to create a mistrust about their competitors. In this growing mistrust of the mainstream media, the alternative media have flourished, making them a real threat to the corporate news monopoly.
(Vargo et al 2017) use a NAS model which asserts that when topics are used repetitively in conjuncture with each other, the agenda by the media is being set, to make audiences believe the topics are connected. This can be analysed in articles from the Guardian (Connolly et al 2016) and CNN (Dougherty 2016). These articles play off of Western anti-Russian paranoia, claiming that Russia is influencing political elections rather than the work of online trolls, from places such as 4chan, and opportunists trying to earn advertisement money. For example many users of 4chan, including the ‘Kekistani’s’ who’s whole purpose is to ‘shitpost’ for the joy of satire, mockery and irony. They are not the sophisticated election meddling machine as claimed. These claims of Russian meddling are especially effective as a propaganda tool, in the wake of growing conflict with the country in Syria. Furthermore much of these articles about ‘Fake news’ carry a pro Clinton anti Trump sentiment. Highlighting extreme examples of ‘Fake news’ such as Pizzagate, much of the mainstream media claim ‘Fake news’ influenced the 2016 American election in favour of Donald Trump. However the agenda setting biases are blatantly obvious, in that they do not mention the fact that the Clinton’s had masses of scandal surrounding them at that time. The above articles also fail to mention that Trump himself, had ‘Fake news’ articles published about him which are just as damaging. The ‘Pee tape’ for example which was published in 2017 by such ‘news’ sources as Buzzfeed (Tacopino 2017). Interestingly, Trump has fought back against ‘Fake news’ stories which have been levied at him, by suing Buzzfeed, and using the mainstream medias own terminology against them. Laughably the mainstream media have blamed the president for the strength of the word, after they themselves had been pushing it as their agenda for tackling alternative media. It seems the agenda has backfired, as one of the most powerful men in the world, has held up a mirror to the hypocrisy of the traditional media. Instead of putting more scrutiny on the alternative media, the public now check more vigorously the validity of news sources such as CNN. As this paper will go on to explain, much of the moral panic created about the term talks about how Donald Trump using it, is a threat to democracy (Tharoor 2018) which is again ironic. This document will now go on to explain the agenda setting of fact checkers now being employed by search engines, news outlets and social media.
Due to unconscious bias, there is no such thing as true impartiality. As Psychology Today states: “The truth is that no human–Supreme Court justice or otherwise–is impartial” (Alter 2010). This makes the supposedly impartial introduction of ‘fact checkers’ asinine. It begs the question, who fact checks the fact checkers? And who fact checks the fact checkers of fact checkers? There is a continuous arc of fact checking which highlights that no one is qualified to decide what the truth is. In fact according to The Weekly Standard: “fact checkers don’t come close to producing ratings that would be acceptable by the standards of academic social science” (Hemingway 2017). Furthermore claims have been made by the Daily Mail that one of the founders of Snopes (one of the premiere fact checking sites used by Facebook) is untrustworthy. Claims have been made by his ex-wife, claiming he embezzled $98,000 from Bardav Bank (Goodman, 2016). Similarly Politifact showed their left wing bias and lack of impartiality by stating: “it’s not accurate to say that transgender women are men” (Lucas 2017). This is an unquantifiable unsettled political and scientific claim. So considering that fact checkers and the people that run them cannot be trusted fully, what is the real agenda?
In an age were technology is developing rapidly, the way in which people receive their information is changing. The mainstream media and corporate elites have been steadily losing their monopoly, to an often anti-establishment alternative media. The abundance of information sharing platforms like Social media, and Youtube, allows alternative opinions from the mainstream narrative to thrive. “In the present media environment, however, there are far more media sources, allowing for the tailoring of media consumption to suit individual audience members’ interests, and thus threatening the long-held ability of the mass media to shape the public agenda” (Feezell, 2017). The agenda is twofold. Firstly to keep the control of information in the hands of a few corporate mega companies, such as Google, News Corp, Disney and Facebook. Secondly there is much left wing bias by the mainstream media, social media, and fact checkers, which aims to create a more liberal leaning society. Google have been shown to be liberally biased by pushing pro Hillary Clinton publications (Guaman, 2017). This is also reflected in the censorship of right-wing ideas, such as Tommy Robinson being removed from Twitter (BBC, 2018), Youtube demonetizing conservative videos (Mainwaring, 2017) and Facebook banning Britain First (Hern & Rawlinson, 2018). The fact checking agenda is just another shade of this, a way to control what the public believe to be truth in favour of left wing ideology. Fact checkers are also another way to create an ‘us versus them’ attitude. This gives supposed scientific value to the earlier discussed propaganda, framing opinion that alternative news cannot be trusted by deciding they are false. It is also fairly obvious they would favour their corporate backers such as Facebook and Google. After all much like 1984 Ministry of Truth, whoever controls the information and language controls the minds of the populace: “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? (George Orwell)
“‘Moral panic’ is a sociological concept that seeks to explain a particular type of overreaction to a perceived social problem” (Rohloff, 2010). ‘Fake news’ was undoubtedly a moral panic for 2017 and beyond. The scope of coverage and hysteria surrounding the problem, is a clear indicator of ‘Moral panic’. There are five stages of ‘Moral panic’ outlined by Stanley Cohen in ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ (Revision World):
- A person or thing is identified as a threat to society’s values or interests. This can been seen by presenters such as Jon Snow calling ‘Fake news’ a threat against democracy: “Facebook has a ‘dark, cancerous side’ that presents ‘a vast threat to democracy’” (Dumitriu, 2018).
- The threat is shown in an easy to recognise form in the media. Much of the media have directly called ‘Fake news’ a threat to democracy including an article from Sky news (Cheshire).
- Public concern intensifies rapidly. The escalation of the public’s knowledge and concern over the phrase can be shown no better by its acquisition of the title ‘word of the year’ (previously mentioned).
- A response is made by opinion makers or authorities. As previously mentioned the American President has used the term vigorously as has Angela Merkel (Cockburn 2016). Even the Pope condemned ‘Fake news’ (BBC 2018) comparing it to the snake in the story of the garden of Eden, a ‘Fake news’ story in itself.
- Societal changes are made or the fear recedes. Although the social panic is yet to recede as the topic is still very much in the media, changes have been made. As has been outlined above, fact checkers are being used to decide what is true in the world.
This shows that ‘Fake news’ meets all the requirements of a moral panic and is being used as a scapegoat by the majority liberal media for unpopular ‘in their eyes’ election results. Issues such as, campaign strategy, disenchantment of voters and candidate choice have all been swamped by a tsunami of ‘Fake news’ stories.
‘Fake news’ was in 2017 and continues to be today a huge topic in public and media discussion. As has been established, true, unbiased reporting is crucial to a democratic free society. However, truth and impartiality has been shown to have its limits. The people most concerned about ‘Fake news’ – the mainstream media, have been shown to have their own unconscious biases, as all of humanity have. This makes the Orwellian inclusion of fact checkers a terrifying new reality, especially as they have been shown to have liberal biases. What has also been pointed out by much of the alternative media, is that there is a propaganda campaign against them, using extreme examples of ‘Fake news’ as a weaponised term. There has been a targeted conflation of alternative news with hoaxer’s, conspiracy theorists, and trolls. This is amongst growing distrust for the mainstream media, and their attempts to claw back support, and media monopoly. It was also shown that the propaganda campaign had largely backfired, as it was used against the mainstream media by Donald Trump. He called many news sources ‘Fake news’ which highlighted the mainstream media’s own agendas and biases. A moral panic was unearthed, using Russian paranoia to drive a panic that ‘Fake news’ was a threat to democracy and that the Russians were behind it. Furthermore this paper showed that ‘Fake news’ met all of Stanley Cohens stages of ‘Moral panic’. Ultimately ‘Fake news’ is a serious problem in the world but the mistrusted mainstream media are not the moral authority to fight it. A serious issue has been taken to absurd levels of un-believability as a propaganda tool against the alternative media. The issue has been further complicated by Trump, among others calling the mainstream media themselves ‘Fake news’. Judging by stories thus far in 2018, ‘Fake news’ stories are set to continue, for good or for worse.
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