Holding a Senate inquiry into fake news, as floated by Labor’s Sam Dastyari, would be a waste of time, money and good intentions.
It smacks of the me-too-ism of the Finkelstein review into media regulation five years ago. That was inspired by criminal behaviour by tabloid Murdoch hacks in London — with a very different media culture — and the then-Labor government’s need to keep then-Greens leader Bob Brown happy.
It achieved little.
Here is a field guide as to why a Senate inquiry into fake news would be equally so:
- Fake news is not new: lies, distortions and propaganda — the most logical descriptors of fake news before Donald Trump’s election — have been around for centuries. What’s changed? We now have a rapid, efficient and seemingly uncontrollable means of spreading it. It’s called social media or disaggregated publishing.
- OK, let’s get after Facebook, Google and Twitter — they’re to blame, so let’s make them fix it. Well, Facebook and Google are working on ways to flag fake news. They might even be able to put in place workable disincentives for users to spread it. But let’s just be real clear what we are talking about: fake news has mutated to become a slur against journalism by powerful elites. In fact, it’s a symptom of a far bigger malaise: the lack of trust in institutions. This trust deficit is what Trump exploited to win office and Brexiteers to take Britain out of Europe.
- Now, that would be a heck of a Senate inquiry: let’s establish a Standing Committee for Trust and Truth in Public Institutions. Any takers?
- OK, let’s stick with the media. So Trump is using fake news as a catchall slur against the role journalism plays in democratic debate — in particular, in questioning his own presidency. Calling out “FAKE NEWS!” is his way of closing off debate. That’s very different from some bad-arse Moldovian geek exploiting Facebook’s algorithm and making dough from “selling” yarns to people who hate Hilary Clinton. Whoever is denigrating the media just for doing their job here ought to be stopped. Who’s that again? Right, an inquiry into fake news in Australia would really be about politicians. That’s going to end well, then.
- Yet, we live in strange times. Let’s take a leap of faith: if all sides of politics are at it, perhaps they can all agree to stop. We did some investigating. Is everyone at it? Here’s a list of ALP members who have used the term on Twitter in recent months: Julie Owens, Wayne Swan, Dave Feeney, Pat Conroy, Joanne Ryan and Michael Danby. Here’s the alt (right) version: Craig Laundy, George Christensen, Steve Ciobo, Matt Canavan. To that side, add David Leyonhjelm. To the left, add Sarah Hanson-Young. Great, everyone is kinda at it, all the more reason to have an inquiry.
- Trouble is, they’re not really at anything much. Labor pollies are using the term for three reasons: in support of journalism, in attacks on opponents, or in jest. And while the handful of Coalition fake news-users are closer to Trump’s appropriation of the phrase, very few are really going after the media en masse in their tweets. Resources Minister Matthew Canavan, an early adopter of the term, might be appear to be the exception here. But he’s only been nasty about the ABC.
- If there were to be an inquiry into fake news, it would really be all about Pauline Hanson and her sidekick Malcolm Roberts, who has been on an anti-BuzzFeed Twitter rant since the site questioned whether he had actually been invited to attend Trump’s inauguration. There would, of course, be cameo roles for Cory Bernardi and Christensen. Not much of a cast, really; plenty of comedic potential, for sure, but it’s not as if an inquiry would bring down the leader of the free world — or even free Queensland.
- Of course, there’s no denying that everyone is talking about fake news — or the “misinformation ecosystem” as Claire Wardle, from journalism innovators First Draft News, prefers to call it. And that yes, if you look wider than Trump’s preferred means of thought release, there are signs that politicians who should know better are falling into lazy habits. Julie Bishop, for instance, recently used fake news in a TV interview to dismiss a story about Defence Minister Marise Payne moving to New York as consul-general. But we don’t need an inquiry to expose that; the Prime Minister, a former journalist who once called on journos to do more to fact-check MPs, just needs to tell his ministers to engage brain before spraying around such a term.
- Let’s face it, Trump is actually good for journalism. He’s got everyone talking about it; there is a real sense that something many, if not most, people value is under threat. The response? Several leading US publications are reporting increased subscriptions. There is also renewed debate on what needs to happen to bring journalists closer to their audiences, to repair that trust gap. Instead of talking about fake news, we should be looking at ways of making journalism more effective, more transparent and more valued. First up, the media union, backed up by several senior journalists, editors and publishers, is entirely right when it says the federal Parliament should be doing more to protect the rights of journalists to do their job. Greater protections for whistleblowers and ending journalism information warrants would do more for press freedom in this country than faffing on about fake news.
- Finally, and this is my take-out, we need to see fake news in a far broader arch of time and in a much wider debate. There is nothing new about lies and propaganda; there is nothing terribly new about a politician hating and undermining the media. The roles of Google and Facebook are interesting and worthy of debate. But Dastyari stood a far better chance of belittling or critiquing them with his attacks on multinational corporate tax avoidance a couple of years ago than he does using fake news now.
The fact is fake news is part of a far bigger discussion. Blogger and tech researcher Danah Boyd recently called out fake news as a sideshow in the culture and information wars shaping and reshaping Western societies, starting in the United States.
It is hard not to agree — and it is hard to see how a Senate inquiry into fake news would be the right vehicle to talk about trust, truth and why a property developer who once courted the media managed to get elected by seemingly rational voters by denigrating it and its practitioners.
*Peter Fray is professor of journalism practice at University of Technology Sydney, the former editor-in-chief of The Sydney Morning Herald and the founder of fact-checking website PolitiFact Australia.
*Additional research by Samantha Jonscher