You’ll have to decide whether this post is peddling ‘fake news’, or not.
It’s all the rage, apparently. The population of the developed world is now being duped, to a greater or lesser extent, by fake news, or so we’re told. Hence – some people argue – the majority of those who voted in the referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union fell victim to fake news – and we got the wrong result: Brexit.
Over the pond, we’re being led to believe much the same happened in the United States presidential election. There, fake news ruled the day and, OMG, look who’s now in the White House. However, let’s not forget that The Donald is not averse to crying ‘fake news!’ when it suits him.
According to The Guardian newspaper (and I’m not sure from where they got this news), fake news is defined as being ‘completely made up and designed to deceive readers in order to maximise traffic and profit’. On the other hand, according to Webopedia, which purports to keep us all ‘up to date with the latest developments in internet terminology’, fake news is defined as ‘false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. Fake news websites and channels push their fake news content in an attempt to mislead consumers of the content and spread misinformation via social networks and word-of-mouth’.
So, one of those definitions declares fake news to be peddled primarily for commercial advantage; the other definition implies that fake news is deliberate propaganda – lying for a purpose. Which of those definitions you prefer, you decide. There’s a third category of fake news, of course: the piss-takers, or satire as it’s more politely known. I’m talking about the likes of The Daily Mash, NewsThump, The Onion and their ilk. Private Eye has been doing fake news for more than 50 years.
It seems to me that the fake news debate is not really about fake news, per se; it’s actually about the gullibility of the human race. During the EU Referendum campaign a Facebook friend of mine expressed outrage when I shared a Daily Mash post, he believing that The Daily Mash was a bona fide purveyor of news – until I pointed out that The Daily Mash was in fact a spoof news website. He’d have figured it out for himself, I’m sure, but the point remains: we’re all gullible to some extent, even if that gullibility is short-lived.
The fake news debate has a subtler hue also. It’s about whether in democracies one vote should carry more weight than another. Recently, the BBC made a big deal of pointing out that from a survey of one-in-nine voting wards (is that a valid survey?), people who voted for the UK to Leave the European Union had fewer educational qualifications than those who voted Remain.
The sly, subliminal BBC message was that somehow the Leave majority was flawed. After all, surely the votes of the more educationally qualified members of the voting public were more valid than the votes cast by the relatively thick members of society? The BBC was inviting us to conclude tacitly that, ergo, Brexit was the wrong result. I listened to the BBC reporting on this survey until I started to feel queasy, and so switched off the wireless. As far as I was concerned, the BBC was peddling fake news.
And that’s the point. If one accepts for a moment that fake news is indeed a problem; that fake news is skewing political discourse in free societies (by the way, this subject is utterly irrelevant to more than half the global population who are denied free speech), then who’s going to set themselves up as the Global Thought Police? Who’s to say that the BBC is any more trustworthy than The Daily Mash, or Russia Today, or WTOE 5 News who, you’ll recall, reported that the Pope had endorsed the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. I exaggerate slightly for effect; however, my point is that it is not axiomatic that because it’s broadcast by the BBC or some other supposedly worthy news institution, it’s true.
In the UK for the past half-generation or so we’ve lived with fake news without making too much of a song and dance about it. I’m referring, of course, to the fake news invented by the Labour Party parading itself as ‘New Labour’ and developing and mastering the art of ‘spin’. Eamonn Butler is Director of the Adam Smith Institute, an apolitical institution which is consistently ranked in international surveys as the leading think-tank on matters of economics and freedom. In his book, ‘The Rotten State of Britain’, Dr Butler observes that New Labour’s ‘slick presentation was key to their electoral landslide in 1997. But this same obsession with presentation, and the seeming willingness to sacrifice truth for its sake, has come to make the public question whether they can actually trust a word that politicians say.’
In this context, sacrificing truth for presentation is spin; spin is lying; lying is fake news. The political class has been spinning for a quarter-century (if not forever), so it’s a bit rich for politicians and others with vested interests to now start ranting and raving about the supposedly new phenomenon of fake news – however outrageous the fakery.
Let’s get back to fake news, Brexit and Donald Trump for a moment. The UK’s EU Referendum campaign and the US presidential election campaign were each marked by a defining theme: immigration. More specifically, there was a view in quarters of each of the British and American electorates that immigration was out of control and that the unfettered movement of Muslims in particular was posing an existential threat to those societies. To the Left/Liberal end of the political spectrum this was shocking prejudice. Indeed, the mighty Left/Liberal institutions of the UK and the US swung into action and fought hammer and tongs to swing the debate, to persuade the uneducated bigots that immigration was, by and large, a societal good.
Part of the Left/Liberal argument was that fake news was corrupting the debate and deceiving what would otherwise be a minority of voters into becoming a majority of ill-informed voters. Notwithstanding, come the day – 23 June 2016 in the UK and 8 November 2016 in the USA – the majority of voters in the UK and in the USA (under the electoral college system) did indeed shun the righteous indignation of the liberal classes and chose the contrary options: Brexit and Donald Trump respectively.
One wonders, therefore, was the immigration issue founded upon real or fake news? Prior to President Trump issuing his infamous Executive Order temporarily suspending immigration to the US from 7 named countries (suspect countries identified by President Obama as it happens), Chatham House, aka The Royal Institute of International Affairs, conducted a survey ‘What do Europeans Think About Muslim Immigration?’ The survey comprised responses from over 10,000 people in 10 European countries – a little more credible than the survey which attracted the BBC, to which I referred earlier. According to Chatham House, the results of their survey were ‘striking and sobering’.
Respondents were given the following statement: ‘All further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped’. They were then asked to what extent did they agree or disagree with this statement. Overall, across all 10 of the European countries an average of 55% agreed that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped, 25% neither agreed nor disagreed and 20% disagreed. Majorities in all but 2 of the 10 states agreed, ranging from 71% in Poland, 65% in Austria, 53% in Germany and 51% in Italy to 47% in the United Kingdom and 41% in Spain. In no country did the percentage that disagreed exceed 32%.
Now, what should one take from these results in the great fake news debate?
Well, the people of those 10 European states could have been, and presumably are continuing to be spectacularly deceived by fake news, such fake news whipping up unfounded concerns about migration from mainly Muslim countries and showing just how gullible people can be. This would be the Left/Liberal interpretation – hence them taking to the streets waving placards telling us how overwhelmingly in favour of immigration they are, and how nasty, fascist and Islamophobic it is even to question immigration.
On the other hand, it could be that the citizens of those 10 European states – of whom, remember, no more than 32% disagreed that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped – are not gullible at all. It could be that, when all’s said and done, most people aren’t taken in by fake news, or at least that fake news isn’t the game-changing influence on public opinion that some people think it is. Maybe the Brexit and Trump outcomes were genuine reflections of rationally founded public opinion (shock! horror!). If you don’t concur with that last sentence, you can only really be of the view that the mass migration of people of the Islamic faith towards Europe is some sort of hoax, or of little consequence.
Doubtless a proportion of society falls for fake news hook, line and sinker. But some of us have greater faith in our fellow human beings than others (those others being the ‘liberal’, placard-waving street protesters perhaps). The next time you see a report in the mainstream media alleging that fake news is contaminating the workings of free speech, check out who’s making the allegation and look for the underlying political agenda.
Meantime, forget the Global Thought Police. Let’s keep it with us the voters to decide what is news and how we assimilate it. If the news is fake, then let’s see the profession of journalism stepping up to the plate and engaging in the disinterested pursuit of truth and the discipline of verification. Now that would be something, eh BBC?