[This post was originally posted on the Disqus channel “Not The Daily Telegraph“]
There used to be a phrase you heard a lot, “you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers”. Well nowadays of course we need to update the phrase to say “you can’t believe everything you read on the internet“. Journalism used to be something that only professional journalists could do, because printing newspapers was an expensive business. Now of course anybody can publish words/images/video on the internet, at no cost (once you own a computer and you have an internet connection). Since there are literally a few billion people who are all able to publish on the internet then obviously it makes sense to look at the “information” there, especially from untrustworthy/unknown sources, from a highly skeptical point of view. It may seem to some readers that I am wasting my time stating the obvious here, but it seems we are being expected to believe that this is not obvious.
As I was researching (i.e. reading stuff on the internet) for this blog post, I began to feel a little bit overwhelmed by the sheer volume of “news” and opinion articles that are now being published that are concerned with the subject of “fake news”, at well known news and opinion sites. What the heck is going on, I wondered? Is there really suddenly an epidemic of “fake news” taking place? Have these writers suddenly realized that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet? Neither of these explanations really had the ring of truth to them to my mind, but rather a third explanation seemed to me the most plausible, that this story of an epidemic of “fake news” was in fact itself fake. Furthermore that there was a deliberate purpose behind the pushing of this story that “fake news” was taking over the planet, namely it was a rather transparent and feeble attempt by the established mainstream media (MSM) to discredit the rise of alternative media sites that were challenging and undermining their narrative. In this post I am going to take a closer look at some of the claims being made to see if my theory holds water.
AN EXAMPLE OF “FAKE NEWS” REPORTING – A RIOT IN DORTMUND
Breitbart picked up a story from a German local news site Ruhr Nachrichten about an (alleged?) riot in Dortmund on New Years Eve:
A number of MSM sites then started making claims that Breitbart had “greatly exaggerated” the story. Politico.eu opened their article with a claim that the Dortmund police had described the night as ‘average to quiet.’
Quote 7 Jan 17:
German politicians, press and police officials say news report from the U.S. right-wing news website Breitbart that suggested a “mob” had “chanted ‘Allahu Akhbar’” and set fire to a church in Dortmund have been greatly exaggerated.
Local newspaper Ruhr Nachrichten, which published reports on events that happened on New Year’s Eve, said its online reporting had been distorted to produce “fake news, hate and propaganda.”
The Independent also reported that the German police had “shaken their heads in disbelief” at Breitbart’s reporting (tut, tut):
Quote 7 Jan 17:
However, according to local journalists, there was no mob and the St Reinold Church – which is not Germany’s oldest – did not catch fire.
Breitbart have since admitted the church was not Germany’s oldest, they got that wrong, as for the fire well the Independent describes it:
The brief fire on scaffold netting near the church was reportedly caused accidently by a wayward firework.
This does pretty much match what the Ruhr Nachrichten had reported. Hm, so there was a fire started by a firework then, it was just possibly a little bit exaggerated?
Here is a video of some of the celebrations from Ruhr Nachrichten:
You can see fireworks being set off in a reckless (and illegal) manner near buildings, and riot police and the fire brigade are present. Well, perhaps riot police are present on most “average to quiet” nights in German city centres nowadays, its quite normal these days. Some members of the crowd were waving a flag which looks like a Free Syrian Army flag.
Breitbart hit back and stood by the rest of the story:
A bizarre feature of this story is the reaction of Ruhr Nachrichten to the Breitbart coverage, yet in their own coverage Ruhr Nachrichten had this to say:
Erste Anzeichen für eine unruhige Nacht erhielt die Bundespolizei am Silvesterabend bereits um 18.35 Uhr, als eine Silvesterrakete in eine Gruppe von Obdachlosen geschossen wurde und einen 32-Jährigen schwer verletzte (siehe Eintrag 11.23 Uhr). Um 19 Uhr feuerte eine Gruppe von Männern von der Katharinenstraße aus mehrere Leuchtkörper auf den Hauptbahnhof. Die Männer wurden überprüft, Pyrotechnik sichergestellt. 25 Minuten später bewarfen mehrere Tatverdächtige zur Sicherheit abgestellte Bundespolizisten und beleidigten sie mit den Worten “fuck you” und “scheiß Polizei”. Ähnliche Vorfälle wiederholten sich immer wieder.
I pasted this into Google translate, which turned it into this:
First signs of a restless night the federal police on New Year’s Eve already at 18.35 clock, when a New Year’s Eve rocket was shot in a group of homeless people and a 32-year-old seriously injured (see entry 11.23 clock). At 7 pm, a group of men fired a number of lanterns from the Katharinenstrasse to the main station. The men were checked, pyrotechnics ensured. 25 minutes later, several suspects protested against federal police officers and offended them with the words “fuck you” and “shit police”. Similar incidents were repeated over and over again.
My impression from all this is that Breitbart did exaggerate the story slightly in at least one respect, particularly the phrase “set fire to a historic church” suggested the actual church was on fire, when only some netting on the scaffold caught alight. However in general I don’t think they greatly miss-represented what Ruhr Nachrichten had reported. That footage looks pretty riotous to me, I would not have wanted to hang about in the square with fireworks going off in all directions like that. If the fire brigade had not responded as quickly as they did, then the blaze could possibly have spread to the roof and burnt the whole church down I would guess!! Hats off to the fire brigade then..
Quite a lot of evidence that illegal firework displays are now quite normal in Germany can be found on Youtube, for example:
Nothing to see here, its quite normal, move along, move along…. Just an average, quiet little riot then on the whole….
You may also recall there was a similar firework display during the NYE celebrations in Cologne 2015/16, that the MSM chose not to report on at all until the news was already well and truly going viral on alternative and social media. Once again, these stories are the kind of stories that the MSM doesn’t want to publicize, for fear of seeming “politically incorrect”. Could it be that by attacking Breitbart in this way the MSM are trying to cover up the fact that they didn’t report the story AT ALL? This is an example of what I think we should call “lying by omission” (aka propaganda by omission), a subject I will be returning to look at in detail in a coming post. This omission should be seen as a far more significant case of misleading the public, than the slight exaggeration that Breitbart appear to be guilty of. Of course the significance of this “celebration” and others like it is that the German people have welcomed these migrants believing them to be needing help. Now these migrants are ignoring Germany’s laws and creating an intimidating atmosphere in German cities, and insulting their police, its scarcely a show of gratitude.
CLAIMS THAT “FAKE NEWS” IS SWAYING ELECTION RESULTS
Probably the most serious allegation about the “fake news” “epidemic” is that it is influencing the results of political elections in the US and in Europe. Consider this article in the Forbes site:
Here the claim is made that fake news had influenced several recent election results including the US presidential election and Brexit:
In critical elections in 2016, fake news played a critical role in the stunning and unexpected outcomes.
This is obviously not verifiable one way or the other since we don’t state our reasons for voting on the ballot paper. Forbes must have truly spooky and stupendous mind-reading abilities to reach this conclusion. This is at best an attempt to present mere conjecture as fact.
The article goes on to paint a picture of a dumb US electorate having its strings pulled by teenage pranksters and Russia, the latter impression seemingly backed up by a report published jointly by the CIA, FBI, NSA:
The article also refers to the by now famous group of teenagers in a town called Veles in Macedonia who propagated fake news during the US presidential election. Also quoted is a by now famous fake headline:
Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Releases Statement
If you read my earlier post on the “post-truth” phenomenon, you will remember that the BBC also made a big thing about this very same silly prank fake news headline. This is yet another case of “saturation” in use (a technique also used to propagate politically correct ideas). If you repeat the same daft thing over and over again eventually people start to take it more seriously. In this case they are promoting the daft notion that this prank headline about Pope Francis might have somehow influenced the US election.
Some of the fake news was published by “newspapers” that you’ve never heard of before, such as the “Denver Guardian”. According to the “Denver Post”, there is no such thing as the “Denver Guardian”:
A spokesperson for the Denver Guardian was unavailable for comment (and their website link doesn’t appear to be working either). Something fishy going on there. On a more serious note, readers will probably be wondering why a supposedly reputable site like Forbes is making a big thing about these teenage internet pranksters in Macedonia. I’ll tell you why, its because they don’t like Donald Trump and they think the EU is really great, and they are clutching at straws to make their point.
Here is some “statistical analysis” of the fake news impact on the US presidential election from Buzzfeed:
During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
They then contrast this with what they imply is comparable data about Facebook content about real news stories:
Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
Now if taken at face value these numbers might seem a little disturbing. FAKE NEWS STORIES ARE BEING READ MORE THAN REAL NEWS, we might be inclined to think!
However I see a number of problems with concluding very much at all from this data:
1. We don’t know if the people reading these fake stories actually believed them, or whether they just thought “ha, some funny fake news LOL!”.
2. We don’t know if the people reading these fake stories were in any way influenced by them, let alone if they would have voted differently if they had been duped by them. If people are going to believe any silly story they see on the internet, then there’s probably not much hope that they are going to vote sensibly anyway.
3. We don’t know how many of the reactions/comments were skeptical.
4. The number of people eligible to vote in the US is 231,556,622 apparently. The same people might have reacted/shared/commented on the stories multiple times so 8+ million shares/reactions/comments might equate to significantly fewer people, maybe even less than 1% of the electorate.
The originator of the “Pope backs Trump” story is alleged to be this website (its also been alleged the originator was another website):
They are now reporting: “Seafront is on lockdown after Somali pirates take over Southend Pier”:
A spokesperson for Southend Pier has denied the presence of Somali pirates on the pier but confirm they have posted lookouts to reassure the public.
GROWING CALLS TO CENSOR “FAKE NEWS”
Returning to the same Forbes article, we read of a truly alarming proposal by Italy’s “antitrust authority Chairman”:
In an interview late last week with the Financial Times, Giovanni Pitruzzella proposed that European Union member countries create an institutional framework modeled on their current antitrust agencies and centrally coordinated out of E.U. Brussels headquarters, to identify fake news stories, pull them offline and fine their creators and propagators.
Note the phrase “pull them offline” – meaning no doubt to censor first and ask questions later. Do we have even the tiniest hope that this “agency” that would be “centrally coordinated out of E.U. Brussels headquarters” could be relied on to act impartially? I think not, please note that apparently Signor Pitruzzella also had this to say:
“Post-truth in politics is one of the drivers of populism and it is one of the threats to our democracies,” Pitruzzella argued.
,further confirming that Signor Pitruzzella has a heavy bias against what he calls “populism”. Once again we hear the ominous Orwellian phrase “post-truth”. Of course we can be sure such an agency will be missing a sense of humour, so anybody foolish enough to publish satirical content will run a risk of legal actions from the EU. Much business for lawyers will be generated and hilarious scenes will unfold in courtrooms all across the EU, if this agency gets the go-ahead.
Germany of course is leading the charge to censor “fake news”:
However the UK parliament seems to be thinking seriously about jumping on the bandwagon as well:
ACADEMIA JUMPS ON THE BANDWAGON
Some academics are adding their voices to the growing chorus of voices claiming there is an epidemic of “fake news”.
Fortune reports that a Professor Jonathan Albright has produced an astonishingly scientifically accurate map of the “Fake-News Ecosystem”:
In the diagram you can see Breitbart and the Daily Mail represented as big red circles, whereas the proper news sites (e.g. the BBC, the Independent) are shown as grey-green circles. Seriously though the old phrase “garbage in – garbage out” does spring to my mind as I look at this map. I identified at least one case of the Independent publishing fake news and some probable fake news from the BBC in a previous post:
Could it be this diagram really just shows us which right-leaning websites have been classified as biased by left-leaning websites which are themselves biased?
Apparently a list of fake and misleading websites has “gone viral”:
Melissa Zimdars, an assistant professor of communications at Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, published the list Monday that’s currently being shared across social media by students, non-students and journalists alike.
She accuses the websites of preying on people’s “confirmation bias”. Readers will be relieved to know that newsbiscuit and theonion are correctly listed as “satire”.
A seismic shift is taking place. Thanks in very large part I believe to the emergence of alternative media and social media on the internet, ordinary people are beginning to wake up to the fact that they have been misled by the MSM since the very dawn of time. Ever since the printing press was first invented and mass media became a feature of life, those who controlled the publication of news and opinions have been shaping our view of the wider world. Far from presenting an unbiased view of what is going on in the world, the MSM have been presenting to us a distorted version of events, and telling us what we should think about it. Now we can all “fact check” news stories, and share our information and opinions with each other and with the whole world. In a desperate attempt to retain control of the “narrative”, the MSM are trying to falsely smear news outlets that challenge that narrative. With each such attempt they further undermine their own credibility.
The really alarming thing about this battle is that governments seem increasingly willing to act on these slanderous accusations, and consider enacting legislation against so-called “fake news”. Of course the current elected politicians are almost exclusively members of political parties that were elected with the support of one or more existing news outlets. Consequently the established political parties have much to lose when the narrative of those news outlets is challenged and successfully undermined. I don’t think its particularly fanciful to even suggest that some of the policies of those political parties were to some degree shaped by the bias of those news outlets.
So, the next time you read a story about “fake news”, remember – you can’t believe everything you read on the internet!
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB (SEE IF YOU CAN SPOT THE FAKE NEWS):