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Why fake news is bad news

I recently fell victim to a piece of fake news on Facebook, that prompted an instant reaction that I angrily reposted. The next day a friend, who works in conflict resolution at Oxfam, pointed out that the image was unrelated to the story and I’d been fooled. 

I deleted the post. As one of your social media co-ordinators this is at the least embarrassing, but it made me realise that it was important to start a discussion about what fake news is and why we should be wary of it.

It’s important to establish what fake news isn’t. It’s not reputable news sources, inconvenient polls or the written word that Donald Trump happens to disagree with. It’s not climate-change data that NASA and the National Parks are no longer allowed to share through official channels, and it’s not embarrassing photographs of the size of a crowd on a rainy January day.

For political expediency, “fake news” has passed almost immediately into the lexicon of misused jargon, but at its inception it was an apolitical attempt to ape mainstream media, to garner eyeballs and clicks, and to make money from advertising.

A group active in Macedonia, and alleged to have had an impact on the US election, was recreating websites designed to be mistaken for established sources to monetise advertising collateral. The fact that they did this by using copy and headlines that played on existing prejudices during an already divisive election is arguably bad timing, but it’s likely that this phenomenon has been with us for a while. It could also be argued that the economic model of the media – ever hungry for our fleeting digital attention as its revenue dwindles – and which created the disposable content so easily counterfeited – has also to take some responsibility for where we are; but where are we?

Fake media plays to existing prejudices and muddies the water of objective verifiable fact, and beyond the black economy of its commercial model is increasingly being used by dubious groups with dubious motives – and it works. By playing to gut emotions and a misplaced sense of injustice, a group of teenagers was able to make money by publishing articles about Obama’s secret Islamic agenda, and Britain First is able to grow its audience by sharing images of abused animals. The effects are the same. 

What is true is reduced to a tyranny of Facebook likes and the function of an effective media becomes all but impossible.

If we want to speak truth to power, and we should, we have to be champions of truth. I understand the temptation to reject objectivity in order to play to the gallery and draw a crowd, but we should be mindful that this strategy plays into the hands of those we should oppose. Vladislav Surkov, described as Putin’s “Grey Cardinal” and the architect of the concept of sovereign democracy, has used state media to project multiple – and often contradictory – versions of the truth. This is nothing less than “gaslighting” on an industrial scale and its chief aims to undermine what is objectively and verifiably real so that the Russian people are less equipped to question the authority of the regime.

The left as a political project is about trying to shift consensus to support what we rationalise as materially and ethically true, and for the greatest human good; any route to establishing that cannot accept strategy that rejects these values. We have to be watchful and mindful lest we slip into a morass of conflicting and unverifiable news speak.

There will come a point at which there is a counter reaction to this and appropriate curators of content will emerge. We will do ourselves untold damage if we do not immunise ourselves against this new form of propaganda. 

But – the emotion, the visceral feeling that fake news taps into is often legitimate. The advantage we have is that our ideology can give that feeling a constructive voice and direction. We must be champions of truth so, if you see something you “like”, think after you feel and before you click “share”. Who wrote this? What are their sources? What are their motives? And if you see a friend, including me, post something that is fake news, say something – there’s no shame in falling victim to this stuff.

Oh, and the piece I reposted was of a child in handcuffs, in US police custody. It wasn’t the child separated from his mother as part of Trump’s irrational, immoral, illegal and impractical Muslim ban, but it was presented as such. I wouldn't want to play a part in delegitimising the anger we should all feel at that injustice.


Matt Nathan, Barnsbury ward

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