Varieties of Fake News and Misrepresentation
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 27 May 2019
When are deception, pretence and cover-up acceptable?
27 May 2019 – Produced in the light of concern regarding dissemination of “fake news” undermining elections to the European Parliament, of claims regarding the “fake news” purveyed by those seeking election, and in anticipation of an imminent false flag justification for war.
Widespread concern is currently expressed about “fake news” as it may be variously understood in relation to dissemination of false and misleading information. This extends to concerns about hate speech and its role in exacerbating intolerance, discrimination and terrorism. The concern has called into question the major role of the social media in society and most obviously the manner in which Facebook has enabled fake news in the recent past.
This has led to unprecedented interrogation of its founder (30 Questions that Facebook has yet to Answer: gaps in the testimony of Mark Zuckerberg at a US Senate hearing? 2018). Beyond the recently implemented processes to detect and remove fake news from social media, the debate continues with a view to formulating appropriate responses in different legislations, notably within the European Union.
The focus in what follows is on how fake news may come to be defined in practice by legislative and other measures. More specifically the preoccupation is the extent to which the resulting definition will be carefully crafted to include those forms of information with which authorities formulating the definition disagree — and to exclude those forms of information which they favour or with which they feel obliged to be complicit.
Constraining the definition? Paradoxically, will the definition of fake news then confirm the acceptability of some forms of communication which might otherwise be termed “fake news”? Will what is to be defined as fake news come to be perceived by the public as the “tip of the iceberg” of false and misleading information — with the remainder then to be treated as acceptable by authorities rather than fake?
Will any legislative measures against “fake news” then be themselves “fake” in some respect (about which little can be carefully said)? Will the response to fake news as a whole then be essentially fake — a token response? How indeed to understand what is not fake news in some manner? Paradoxically the denial that any news constitutes fake news may well be fake news in its own right.
The concern can be understood otherwise in that suppression of vital news or information effectively renders fake what is disseminated — through deliberately depriving it of context enabling valuable questions to be asked. Such concerns have long been highlighted in the light of the deprecated Big Lie propaganda technique of the Nazi regime and the critical commentary on newspeak by George Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949). Crafting communication under constraints of political correctness may also limit appreciation of context.
Necessary context? The importance of context becomes only too evident through the actions of whistleblowers and the embarrassment they evoke through dissemination of information that partially undermines a preferred narrative of authorities. This is obvious in the case of multinational corporations (Volkswagen emissions scandal, Cancer lawsuits mount for Monsanto over glyphosate), the Catholic Church (sexual abuse by clergy), and governments (leak of US diplomatic cables). The situation is far more subtle when reporting by such authorities is carefully crafted to be positive and upbeat — skillfully omitting problematic news which may be troublesome to some and raise unwelcome questions. At what point does this become dangerously dysfunctional?
The issue is all the more evident in the case of indications of dangers or threats of any kind. Many examples have been noted of warnings that are carefully ignored by authorities. These have included institutional failures (as with abuse in hospices), structural failures (buildings, bridges, dams, railway infrastructure), and coordination failures (emergency response and security facilities). Most striking have been the warnings ignored regarding the subprime mortgage crisis.
Obvious efforts have been made to frame evidence of disaster as effectively fake news, most notably with respect to health and safety issues (Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: how a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming, 2010). Some media may either avoid coverage of such warnings, question their validity or relevance, or discredit those reporting such information — effectively by framing it as fake news. Multiple instances have been evident in the case of climate change, pollution and extinction of species.
What information do authorities consider it appropriate to conceal or ignore — with the purported justification of needing to avoid “public panic”? Conspiracy theorists cite many examples. The difficulty is that such concealment reinforces any perception that the dominant public narrative is fundamentally tainted, namely substantively based on fake news to an unknown degree. There is considerable irony to the preoccupation with fake news in that it is accompanied at this time by the further indictment of the founder of Wikileaks (WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange Charged in 18-Count Superseding Indictment, US Department of Justice, 23 May 2019). His actions notably resulted in unprecedented public access to information indicative by implication of the varieties of fake news informing public debate.
False flags and Father Xmas? It is in this context that the world is now faced with the possibility, if not the probability, of false flag operations to enable armed response with respect to Iran (Robert Bridge, US-Iran Showdown Is One False-Flag Attack Away From Global Calamity, Strategic Culture Foundation, 18 May 2019; Tyler Durden, Iran Warns False Flag “Accident” Could “Lure” Trump Into War, ZeroHedge, 25 April 2019; Whitney Webb, History’s Dire Warning: Beware False-Flag Trigger for Long-Sought War with Iran, Mint Press News, 14 May 2019; Jeff Stein, America’s Next Phony War: Will Iran Be Trump’s Iraq? Newsweek, 11 February 2019).
Such covert operations are a form of fake news par excellence. An obvious precedent is the evidence, deliberately crafted for the benefit of the UN Security Council, of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Earlier examples have included the notorious Gulf of Tonkin incident and that envisaged as Operation Northwoods. Reframing the adage of Carl von Clausewitz, is fake news then simply the “continuation of politics by other means”?
Whilst the nature of fake news may be called into question in this way, it is also ironically the case that there are many features of public discourse which depend on an artful form of cultivated deception — readily lending themselves to criticism as fake news. The extreme example is perhaps Father Christmas, and the many fairy tales by which children are enthralled — exemplified by the high fantasy of The Lord of the Rings and the magic of the Harry Potter series. When is such fake news appropriate? Should it be systematically withdrawn and suppressed when detected?
Overconfidence in growth and equality as fake news? Critics of the perceived necessity of unrestricted permanent growth would readily frame cultivation of that belief as a form of fake news — given the crises thereby engendered (Richard Douthwaite, The Growth Illusion: how economic growth has enriched the few, impoverished the many, and endangered the planet, 1992; Gordon T. Long, The Illusion of Growth, GoldSilver, 31 October 2017; David Stockman, The Illusion of Growth, Daily Reckoning, 21 November 2017; World Economic Forum, Davos 2016 – The Growth Illusion, YouTube, 20 January 2016).
This raises the question of how cultivation of fake news is insidiously related to sustaining collective confidence in what might otherwise be recognized as an illusion (Varieties of Confidence Essential to Sustainability: surrogates and tokens obscuring the existential “gold standard”, 2009; (Credibility Crunch engendered by Hope-mongering: “Credit crunch” focus as symptom of a dangerous mindset, 2008).
Growth is claimed to be the golden route to universal equality. Is this too to be explored as an illusion (Cultivating the Myth of Human Equality Ignoring complicity in the contradictions thereby engendered, 2016)?
Progressive clarification: Many of the manifestations of what may be considered fake news can be variously clustered. In the following exercise, instances considered under earlier headings may also be otherwise considered under later headings. The framework invites extension and amendment — together with more specific examples of the controversy implied.
Tags: Fake News, Journalism, Media
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