2 Feb 2017

We can’t afford to politicise ‘fake news’ into a meaningless term

Robin Campbell-Burt – Director at Spreckley

The term ‘fake news’ has surfaced over the last couple of years, reaching a peak during the recent election of President Trump in the United States. Millions of American voters have allegedly been misled by news articles that are completely untrue. Stories have included how Hillary Clinton runs a child sex abuse network out of a Washington Pizzeria. While photographs of ballot boxes used in local elections in Birmingham have been used as evidence of ballot box stuffing of thousands of fraudulent Clinton votes. However, there is now a danger that the term is being applied erroneously by political actors towards any media that disagrees with them. President Trump has applied the term liberally on both the New York Times and CNN – both reputable mainstream news sources, albeit with known political biases.

I do not think the danger of this general development can be underestimated. The basis of political debate is to arrange events and what can be done to change them favourably into a political story – a narrative, which describes the world in an understandable format. We have a range of competing worldviews, that the electorate can then explore and decide which to adopt – and vote for come election time. These narratives are not factual in the literal sense, but an attempt to gain greater understanding of the world and how to respond to it. To brand elements of an opposing world view as ‘fake news’ is counterproductive, shuts down debate, and most importantly, muddies the term, creating confusion about an issue that is going to become the most serious of our age.

Let us be clear, there is a complete difference between usual political discourse – on the one hand making subjective claims about something that has happened or developing an obviously biased narrative around a political ideology or worldview – and on the other hand a deliberate and fully constructed forged story that is made up. I’ll give an example: a story about how Hillary Clinton has become a Muslim and wants to initiate Sharia law in the US would be fake news. The White House press secretary trying to spin his way out of the fact that Trump’s inauguration had fewer attendees than Obama’s, is not.

We are only at the start of what is going to become a phenomenon that challenges all of our preconceived ideas of what is true or not and technology is escalating fake news to new heights. As Daniel Finkelstein wrote in The Times recently, technology already exists that can manipulate video footage: “Imagine, then,  the impact of video, which say, Donald Trump announces a nuclear war or Theresa May appears to be having an incriminating conversation with Vladimir Putin. It is already possible to manufacture such footage…”.

The technology to manipulate written text, images, and videos in flawless ways already exists and it is only a matter of time until it becomes readily available at little or no cost to anyone who wishes to use it. Just think about the challenge that this poses for all of us and the power this will have to undermine our sense about the truth of anything.

This is a serious issue that will need to be carefully considered in the years ahead. Personally, I believe that the rise of fake news is the beginning of a necessary re-engagement with the mainstream media after two decades where the internet has been breaking down our sources of information. A return to credible journalism is the only real way forward. However, by using the term fake news in a political way to reject legitimate political debate will only speed up the undermining of our political systems and make it harder to tackle the issue in the years ahead.