Siobhan Tolland: Dear mainstream media, let's be honest about 'fake news', shall we?

CommonSpace columnist Siobhan Tolland says there is deep hypocrisy within the ranks of traditional media warning against 'fake news' when the public have been battling bad journalism for years

JUST AS Wikipedia announced plans to drop the Daily Mail as a reliable source earlier this month, Theresa May announced that the Daily Mail’s political editor was set to become her official spokesperson. Theresa May is now represented by a former editor of 'fake news'. I am going to let that sink in.

Fake news is a tricky thing, though, isn’t it? It feels like the whole world has suddenly become destabilised and we just can’t get a grasp of anything tangible or real. It feels like trying to have a conversation about Descartes with a group of stoners. Just when you think you’ve grasped a truth, it evaporates into thin air.

It is big news, but I do wonder if the sensationalism of it all is preventing us from looking at the issue of media and truth in more depth. Evgeney Morozov makes the point that the concept of fake news is fake in itself. It is a shallow explanation of a complex, systemic problem.

Fake news is often presented as an internet phenomena, despite the Sunday Sport doing it for years.

A Westminster Conservative-led parliamentary inquiry is set to look into the issue because it is a "threat to democracy", as are many countries now. But it is the inquiry’s focus on social media and the internet which concerns me.

Fake news is often presented as an internet phenomena, despite the Sunday Sport doing it for years: "Freddie Starr ate my hamster," for example. 

The distraction here, I think, is that the sensationalism positions fakery as something that hovers above all other institutions and media when it really is a product of a wider fundamental destabilisation of truth that seems to exist in our society.

The Brexit campaign gave us the term 'post-truth', with both campaigns being accused of outright lying. The Donald Trump administration apparently makes everything up as it goes along and journalists are just trying to keep up. The 'Bowling Green Massacre' claim was a particularly insidious one - repeated not once, not twice but three times.

I just don’t know where the line is between this kind of fake news and all the other news.

The distraction here, I think, is that the sensationalism positions fakery as something that hovers above all other institutions and media when it really is a product of a wider fundamental destabilisation of truth that seems to exist in our society.

Actually, I do. There is no line. It is a continuum of degrees. Sure, 'the Pope supports Trump’ is particularly extreme fake news, but I find that the focus on these types of internet sensations disguises the real relationship between media and 'truth'.

But who decides what fake news is?

Here in Scotland we have witnessed blatant falsehoods peddled through mainstream media, so much so that our trust of institutions like the BBC has been fundamentally shaken. A recent poll suggested that one third of us don’t believe the BBC, with another third being unsure whether it can be trusted or not.

Those who have seen the recent documentary, London Calling, on BBC bias during the independence referendum, might be shocked at the level of fakery it stooped to. Its coverage of the so-called grassroots 'No Borders' campaign being a jaw-dropping example. This organisation was given significant air-time on BBC News 24, looped every half hour for a full 24 hours.

The term which best describes the No Borders organisation is 'astroturf': a fake organisation made to look grassroots. It was clearly the case: there were no members and it was headed up by the head of a UK PR company that promoted the image of governments in various countries, including Israel.

It is a continuum of degrees. Sure, 'the Pope supports Trump’ is particularly extreme fake news, but I find that the focus on these types of internet sensations disguises the real relationship between media and 'truth'.

The BBC was either guilty of either the most appalling incompetence, or direct collusion. Craig Murray’s outlining of this on his blog and in the London Calling documentary noted that a basic Google search showed the falsity of the organisation. So what else can we view this as other than fake news?

Another example is the Telegraph’s fake 'expose' which claimed Nicola Sturgeon secretly wanted the Conservatives to win the 2015 General Election. We know it was fake - Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael was taken to court because of it.

All the subsequent publicity around Carmichael clouded the media’s core responsibility here, and Wings Over Scotland summed this up: The Telegraph published fourth-hand information from a leaked government memo; it basically published what Jim told Susie who told Kev who told Maggie, who wrote it down, and said that it didn’t seem quite right.

Government memo or not, this was the promotion of rumour, pure and simple. Sturgeon wasn’t asked for clarification before the Telegraph published its claims - which is a basic step in the news reporting process - and within hours the story had swept through the country and been repeated in practically every single news source.

What would have happened if the media took Trump aide Kellyanne Conway’s assertion of the Bowling Green Massacre as true? What if they just accepted it without checking for verification, like the Telegraph did with the memo?

If Facebook is being urged to take responsibility for ensuring the truth of the information passed around its pages, then surely the mainstream media needs to do the same?

If Facebook is being urged to take responsibility for ensuring the truth of the information passed around its pages, then surely the mainstream media needs to do the same?

As part of the independence movement, we need to find a multi-level approach to this. We need to understand the power of fake news. Fifty-one percent of Trump voters believed the Bowling green Massacre claim, so consider how powerful this problem is. 

We need to ensure we don’t fall for it – and we have all done it.

But we need to have no discerning hierarchy of where falsehoods lie and what they look like. False news can be glaringly obvious or incredibly subtle. It can come from fake internet sites or respected media institutions.

And as campaigners, we need to embrace evidence.

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