Like an elderly relative forwarding a joke long after it has already done the rounds, far-right LNP senator Matt Canavan has discovered “fake news”. Yesterday the Queensland minister, best known for his support for anti-abortion picketers, accused the ABC of reporting “fake news” that Adani, the Indian company behind the beleaguered Carmichael, was the subject of corruption investigations by the Indian government.
Adani has a well-established history of involvement in bribery and other scandals. Bizarrely, the company actually confirmed the investigation claimed by Canavan to be “fake” in its rejection of the allegations against it.
But the far left have also been in on the “fake news” action. Sydney University’s Tim Anderson is a dogged supporter of the Assad regime (as well as the Castro regime in Cuba), and tweets a steady stream of pro-regime propaganda about the civil war in Syria. Recently he began labelling media reports about the dictatorship’s atrocities in Aleppo as “fake news” as well. (The University of Sydney, by the way, told Crikey it supported Anderson’s right to “contribute to public comment in [his] area of expertise under terms outlined in the University’s Public Comment policy.” That requires staff to “exercise good and ethical judgement in any public comment.”)
Plainly “fake news” has become any factual information that someone finds inconvenient or inconsistent with the narrative they want to push. That’s a somewhat ironic outcome: the far more narrow idea of fake news — fictional stories circulated online and designed to appeal to the existing biases of consumers — was originally about spotting ways in which the credibility of the media was being deliberately undermined, but is now itself being used to undermine serious reporting that threatens to contradict propaganda.
As any number of commentators have observed, “fake news” is hardly new and by no means an internet phenomenon. Humans have always circulated urban myths, racist claims and specious, ill-sourced or plain fictional stories that confirm their prejudices by whatever mechanisms are available. The only thing genuinely new is that the internet creates the ability to invent a fictitious lineage to a story — circulate a story on non-news sites widely enough and it increases the chances it will be treated as valid in some way, especially when major platforms like Facebook and Google fail to distinguish between news sites with a record of accuracy and propaganda sites.
The broader problem with the idea of fake news is that it suggests some binary process whereby the information you take in from the media (however you want to define it) is either correct or not. Merely to state it in those terms is immediately to demonstrate the problem with the idea. Fake news is only at one end of a spectrum, one that mainstream media rarely occupies, although our esteemed journals of record are not above printing and broadcasting blatant falsehoods. Media outlets are more likely to offer fake analysis than fake news, particularly on politics — analysis that serves the agenda of the outlet, or simply reflects the biases of the analyst or commentator.
Then there is fake news that an outlet is an unwitting or semi-witting party to — PR masquerading as news, bullshit “independent modelling” or dodgy polling produced to influence public debate, sources with an agenda — all forms of fake news that the media increasingly lacks the resources to handle effectively and sceptically. And then there is the problem of news selection, which can be every bit as fake as outright lies: you can be given 100% accurate information but if it’s only one side of a story then you’ll have a seriously flawed understanding of an issue. And news selection can be deliberate or quite unconscious and reflective of the audience — there’s a reason why 500 dead Indians in a ferry disaster equals 10 dead Europeans in a train accident equals one “shaken Aussie tourist” who was nearby at the time.
In terms of distorting public perceptions and policy debate, fake analysis and news selection are far more socially damaging than any number of fake news stories, because they are delivered via trusted, or semi-trusted, media outlets, not circulated on email or appear in your Facebook feed — and that means they still have far wider currency than social media. Television, in particular, still accumulates mass audiences and therefore remains profoundly influential in a way that no bullshit story circulating on Facebook can be. “Fake news” is a distraction from the challenge for good journalists, editors and producers in established media outlets — whether mainstream or independent — to maintain standards when their business model is under attack like never before.