Putting up a fight in the age of misinformation

Think the UK has a free press? You’re sadly mistaken, and what’s happening to journalism right now should worry you…

Whilst the threat of litigation is silencing real journalists and publications, an even darker threat, fake news, is putting them clean out of business.

Politicians, climate change deniers, corporations and even countries have been funding fake news to create confusion and division, dilute facts, and pursue agendas. Now they are using ‘fake news’ as their default denial against allegations.

The digital revolution was supposed to put information at our fingertips, but a war is raging between real information and misinformation. In 2016 misinformation won, by a landslide, and now we’re not sure what is true and what isn’t.

Fake News

Fake news not only presents a huge threat to democracy, it also threatens security, social conscious and moral accountability. We now live in a world whereby those with money and resources can water down, discredit and even dictate the news agenda.

fake-news-1Fake news websites deliberately publish hoaxes, propaganda, and disinformation, using social media to drive web traffic and amplify their effect.  The ability to identify whether something is real or fake is becoming increasingly difficult as the misinformation becomes more sophisticated.

Fake news may be the largest threat to our society, yet most people aren’t acutely aware of it, or how to spot it. Just take one look at Facebook and you’ll see divisive ‘news’ stories from dubious sources being shared millions of times over.

Unlike satire, which aims to entertain, fake news websites aim to mislead readers, incite hate, and play on our fear. They seek to destabilize and divide us for financial or political gain.

Fake news empowers extremists, polarizes societies, and can even determine elections. It’s easier to incite fear and divisiveness than promote love and tolerance. Fake news has become the perfect tool for hard-right political movements, corporate entities protecting their profits, or aggressive regimes attempting to destabilize or undermine other countries or political parties.

If you share a fake news article it’s likely you are supporting the agenda of corporate polluters, fascist movements, racist groups, extremists, or even a rogue nation, without having the slightest idea you’re doing it.

The role of the mainstream press

daily-mail-enemies-of-the-peopleBefore the emergence of fake news, our mainstream press found itself in an already dire position. Most of it is now owned by just a handful of billionaires (most don’t live here and have strong political allegiances and motivations). Many have been questioning the independence and neutrality of our press, which seems to have become an increasingly conservative media machine. Even in recent months you may have noticed the right-wing or populist bias has intensified.

As print sales fall and online competition (from fake or otherwise) increases, journalists face a continual squeeze. Day rates paid by newspapers are lower than they were 10 years ago. Investigative journalism simply cannot be financially supported by many publications, so it’s axed in place of online departments working on viral articles (usually top 10 ‘listicles’ written by inexperienced [cheap] writers) to drive traffic.

To compound the squeeze on journalists, the Government is considering triggering Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act. This repressive legislation would pressurise newspapers to avoid anything controversial in case of footing the bill for even failed litigation attempts. Small publishers could face crippling costs in any dispute, threatening investigative journalism or anyone who challenge the powerful, wealthy or established elite.

Even though extreme fake news stories often strengthen their increasingly biased slant, the mainstream press has been surprisingly silent on the fake news epidemic.

They ignore it at their peril.

As trust in the accuracy of the media continues to fall, the power of the free media to serve democracy and hold individuals to account is diminishing. This simply weakens the mainstream press and plays into the hands of the fake news propagators, populists and the far-right who are dominating the information war.

Door Opened for Populism

In the past year, this happened to an astonishing degree with multiple contradictory, opinion led, and divisive headlines in our national press. The mainstream press seemed to take a visible shift to the right.

Even the so called ‘credible’ news outlets give equal weight to, say, a leading climate change scientist and a non-scientific climate change denier. They claim it’s to report a balanced argument, despite the climate change denier presenting no recognisable factual evidence (or considering they work for an obscure climate institute solely funded by ‘corporate donations’).  This has been happening in all fields of news, giving airtime to those holding extreme views.

Leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, poses in the Feathers Pub, Westminster, London, January 08 2016. Nigel Farage has announced he is standing down as leader of the UK Independence Party. Mr Farage said his "political ambition has been achieved" with the UK having voted to leave the EU. He said the party was in a "pretty good place" and said he would not change his mind about quitting as he did after the 2015 general election.

Politicians like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage have been riding the wave, and whilst busy stoking our fears, the biggest scandals of the year, stories like ‘The Panama Papers’, have been neatly swept under the carpet.

In the US election Donald Trump was able to romp to victory whilst alienating all minority groups and making hundreds of false claims without challenge, simply due to the volume of fake news diluting it and the growing gag on real journalists.

Political fact checking website Politifact reports that only 15% of Donald Trumps claims or statements are classed as either ‘True’ or ‘Mostly True’.  How has this become acceptable?

Even in light of serious (but unsubstantiated) allegations against him this week, Trump can simply dismiss the claims as ‘fake news’ as well as discrediting the news agencies that broke the story.

Many politicians know perfectly well that there will be no real recourse to spreading confusion and un-truths. UKIP’s Nigel Farage last week claimed on live radio that the organization Hope Not Hate, who aim to ‘challenge politics of hate and extremism within local communities’, are “extremists” who “masquerade as being lovely and peaceful but actually pursue violent and very undemocratic means”.

File photo of Boris Johnson making his Vote Leave speech in Preston, Lancs., along with Michael Gove and Priti Patel as they bring their Brexit roadshow to the Lancashire city. 1 June 2016. The bus used in the Vote Leave campaign has now been bought by Greenpeace.

We saw during the Brexit campaign false truths knowingly peddled (such as the infamous £350m to the NHS claim), only to be quickly retracted minutes after the result.

The concern now is that under Trump for example, exposure of corruption and violations of the US Constitution are likely to be dismissed as “fake news” by the conservative media machine.  At the same time, any small publisher wanting to hold perpetrators to account can be put out of business at the very threat of legal action.

Our thirst for sensational and instant news, regardless of truth, is fuelling a culture under which investigative journalism is no longer valued, and liberties are being stripped from under our noses. The free press is silently diminished.

Michael Gove’s frightening statement during the Brexit campaign that the ‘the people’ were ‘tired of experts’ underlined the fact we are now living in a post-truth society.  Exit real news and facts, enter fake news and lies.

Cyber warfare

Fake news is by no means a new phenomenon, but the use of social media to spread sensational false news has taken the problem to an unprecedented level. Fake news sites have recently promoted political falsehoods in the UK, Germany, Sweden, China, and the United States.

FILE PICTURE - American presidential candidate Donald Trump at his golf course Trump Turnberry, Ayrshire, Scotland, July 30, 2015. See Centre Press story CPTRUMP; Donald Trump wants a Director of Revenue for his Trump Turnberry resort - in a rambling jargon-strewn advert blasted by plain English campaigners.

Many sites originate from Russia, Macedonia, Romania, and even within the U.S. They are popping up everywhere (sites like Britain First have been spreading false hate-propaganda in the UK for a number of years).

Whilst rumours have surrounded Trump’s close ties with certain questionable media companies for years, Russia is being blamed for spreading fake news on a monumental scale. Several officials within the U.S. Intelligence Community said that Russia was engaged in spreading fake news during the US election, whilst security company FireEye concluded Russia used social media as cyber warfare.

Scarier still is that using our own news against us appears to be a planned Russian strategy. Most people in the UK haven’t heard of Vladislav Surkov who is one of President Putin’s senior advisers. But it’s worth learning a little about how he has helped Putin maintain power for 15 years.

Surkov reportedly brought ideas from the conceptual art world to the heart of politics. His aim is to undermine peoples’ perceptions of the world, so they never know what is really happening. The aim is to make us unsure of what is true, and what is not true.

Surkov created a bewildering, constantly shifting political landscape by sponsoring all kinds of groups, from neo-Nazi skinheads to liberal human rights groups. He even backed parties that were opposed to President Putin. The bizarre genius is that Surkov told everyone what he was doing, resulting in a landscape where nobody’s sure what’s real or fake. It is a strategy of power that incites fear and confusion and keeps everyone powerless, including any potential opposition.

The power of fake news

The Surkov strategy has now spilled out into the wider world. The European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in 2016 warned that the Russian government was using “pseudo-news agencies” and Internet trolls to create disinformation propaganda to weaken confidence in democratic values.

In 2015, the Swedish Security Service concluded that Russia was using fake news to inflame “splits in society” through the proliferation of propaganda.

Fraudulent articles spread through social media during the 2016 U.S. presidential election are thought to have had a huge effect on the outcome of the election, especially since social media has become the biggest referrer of ‘news’ articles.

Facebook has taken over from Google as the top online referrer of news. Sites that publish fake or hyperpartisan news are almost completely reliant on Facebook for their readership. Whilst Mark Zuckerberg, has rejected the idea that fake news on his social network influenced the election, it has since been widely reported that fake news out performed real news at the end of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) Alex Younger called fake news propaganda online ‘dangerous for democratic nations’. You only need to look at the growing disunity in Europe coupled with the surprise election of pro-Russian Donald Trump, to start questioning how much of an effect this has had on our society.

Whilst Europe has been weakened by infighting borne out of the Syrian crisis and the flood of fear-mongering migration material, the USA, formerly Europe’s strongest ally against Russian aggression, looks set to distance itself under the Trump administration.

Fake news and the weakening of the free press represents the biggest threat to our society in decades.  It threatens our environment, the ability to hold individuals and corporations to account, and it threatens our security.

How you can help fight fake news

Journalists face diminishing income and increasing legal threats – something the fake news sites don’t need to worry about. Whilst income is explicitly linked to traffic or ‘hits’, true investigative journalism cannot be financially supported by most publications. We are seeing investigative journalism teams being slashed in place of inexpensive teams with no journalism qualifications writing articles only designed to trend on social media.

If you want to help eradicate fake news or you’re tired of reading lists of the ‘Top 20 Celebrity Eyebrows of 2017’, here’s what you can do to SUPPORT REAL JOURNALISM &  STOP FAKE NEWS:

  1. Check your sources before you share anything. If the source looks dubious and the article is divisive or agenda driven, it’s probably fake or highly biased. Check the facts before you share.
  2. Challenge sensationalist, highly biased, and divisive views. We are weaker, less secure and less tolerant as a society when inaccurate and hateful rhetoric is shared and consumed. Challenging views of all perspectives is vital for a functioning democracy.
  3. Support real journalists and support the free media. If you come across informative, factual, well-written journalism, support it. Most journalists and newspapers are struggling to fund themselves in this digital age. Their work is often lost in the deluge of misinformation, so give them a voice. Even regularly reading and sharing their articles can be the difference. [If you would like to support journalists at TheLondonEconomic.com, click here].

2 Responses

  1. R O'Donnell

    Fake news or distorted news,?
    Independent headlines, “as only 37% voted for Brexit, any move to leave is illegal by the UK Government.

    This government was elected for 5 years with less than 37% of the vote, is this an illegal undemocratic government.

    Distorted headlines or only 50% twisted to suit the Owner/Editors political points.

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