Chris Taylor

That old story about fake news


PEOPLE TALK ABOUT post-truth, about fake news, as if something has changed. Arguably, nothing has—except our possession of the resources to detect it and discuss it.

Here, to take a random example based on a quick Google search, is a 2009 Guardian story, on celebrity gossip news being fed to British tabloid news editors, allegedly to show up the lack of fact-checking in newspapers:

“Over a two-week period earlier this year, Amy Winehouse’s hair was said to have caught fire, the enthusiasm of a member of pop group Girls Aloud for quantum physics was uncovered, and Pixie Geldof, the socialite and daughter of … Bob Geldof, was found padding out her bra with sweets.”

That’s celebrity gossip, that’s the British tabloid media, you might argue; but, as historian Robert G Parkinson recently noted in the Washington Post, frontier United States was no less awash with fake news than the world is today.

In perhaps the most illuminating example, Parkinson writes of Benjamin Franklin “taking time out from his duties as American ambassador to France … [and concocting] an entirely fake issue of a real Boston newspaper, the Independent Chronicle.” The purpose: to swing the American Revolution against the British.

Few—if anyone—believe that Franklin’s fake newspaper had an effect on the outcome, but its stories were widely reported in publications worldwide.  

For fake news actually making an impact on history, head to Britain 1924, when the Daily Mail’s publication of the so-called Zinoviev Letter indirectly led to a Conservative electoral landslide.

Published by the Mail four days before general elections, the Zinoviev Letter purported to welcome a Labour government because the resumption of diplomatic relations with Moscow would radicalize the British working class and presumably hasten the collapse of capitalism. It was widely thought to be genuine at the time, but later debunked as fake news by historians.

To return to the British tabloid press of the modern era, in 2013, the Mail Online responded to the lifting of restrictions on Romanians and Bulgarians working in Britain with a sensationalist distortion of fact: “Sold Out! Flights and Buses Full as Romanians and Bulgarians Head to the UK”.

As it turned out, the story was wildly incorrect and the Mail did indeed publish a milquetoast retraction (see this Guardian story for the details), but the original story remains unabashedly online.

Meanwhile, just as deliberately misleading news may sometimes be named and shamed, satirical news can go gullibly mainstream, which has been the case repeatedly over the 28-year history of The Onion. It most famously fooled Chinese media when it reported in 2012 that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had been named Sexiest Man Alive, with China’s People’s Daily Online putting up a 55-image slideshow to honor the accolade. But the New York Times is among others that have been taken in by Onion stories and propagated them as real news.

So, when a serious publication such as The Economist argues: “Post-truth has … been abetted by the evolution of the media … The fragmentation of news sources has created an atomised world in which lies, rumour and gossip spread with alarming speed,” it is difficult not to wonder whether the difference between fake news today and traditional fake news is the speed with which it gains currency.

After all, when Fox television decided to air “lost footage” of the 1947 autopsy of an alien at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1995—effectively pre-internet—it was such a hit, Fox broadcast it again. Twice. And each time to higher ratings.

Writing in The Guardian, Luciano Floridi, professor of philosophy and ethics of information at the University of Oxford and faculty fellow of the Alan Turing Institute, points out: “The appetite for shallow gossip, pleasant lies and reassuring falsehoods has always been significant. The difference is that the internet allows that appetite to be fed a bottomless supply of semantic junk.

“In that way,” Floridi adds, “we have always been ‘post-truth’.”

At least today we can turn to Google and do our own sleuthing for the facts—or simply head over to Snopes, which bills itself—it could be argued, justifiably—as “the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, and misinformation.”

The truth is that, while we live in a world flooded with apocryphal reporting, never before have we had the resources to individually and collectively debunk it in real time.





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