“I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors.”
So spoke the forefather of American government, George Washington. Worlds away on a talk show sofa, when asked if he has lied to the American people, Sean Spicer responds, “I don’t know”. Apparently, he is also unconscious of intentional error.
Washington and Spicer, President and Press Secretary, truth and lies. Of course, as any patriotic American will tell you, Washington’s statement is one of modesty and humility, an admission of the limits imposed on all of us by human frailty. In contrast, Spicer’s comment is a linguistic contortion, an “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” move, intended to use language to wriggle out of constraints. But as far apart as these men are, I wonder: how alien would Sean Spicer be to Washington? Would the term ‘fake news’ shock presidents, reporters, and editors of the past, or would it instead simply be putting a name to a face they know well?
The Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, post truth – denoting “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” – implies that there was a time before our current degenerate era, a golden age, where truth was king. However, despite the current zeitgeist that news has only recently become untrustworthy, news has a long and frequently sordid history of misleading its subscribers.
In 1695, the Licensing Act, which had previously restricted freedom of the press in Britain, expired. One of the new freedoms of the English press was their ability to print transcripts of parliamentary speeches. The gates to the government were to be thrown open, and for the first time the British people had the freedom to read and analyse the political decision-making process.
However, when we look at transcripts and opinions from the time we can see that newspapers, politicians’ own diaries and popular elite opinion are littered with complaints about inaccuracies. In 1780 the famous politician William Pitt the Younger wrote that the printed version of fellow politician Edmund Burke’s speech had been altered and was, in his opinion, “much the worse for revision.”
The Morning Chronicle scathingly noted of the transcript of a speech by Lord Mahon that “not twenty words of the rhapsody which has appeared in the papers” were said. Fake news is not as new as we might have believed. Lies and misrepresentation existed when we turned pages instead of scrolling down news feeds, and they will exist long after the creations of Zuckerberg have become obsolete.
If anything, the media moguls of today tell us that news has been democratised, offering greater freedom that ever before. In the past what counted as news was determined by a small cabal of elite editors. Groups that threatened the status quo had little hope of a fair hearing in mainstream media, and frequently had to start their own internal newspapers at great cost. For example, The Black Panther newspaper, published in 1969, included summaries of discriminatory trials, progress in the black liberation struggle, and records of visits to the UN. These were stories dismissed by conventional newspapers.
Today, the narrative is no longer monopolised by the elite. It is no longer the case that news must conform to the sensibilities of a few editors to be heard. The rise of the internet has meant that the average citizen has the freedom to read information from different sources, and even write it themselves, democratising information.
Or at least that’s what we’re told. But the new pathways the internet has provided can only democratise news if the average citizen uses them and has power within them. In the modern media industry, attention is currency. As a recent report by CNN highlighted, this new currency, much like the old, is finite. The survey, carried out by Ipsos OTX MediaCT on behalf of CNN, studied 2,300 individuals and their online news consumption over a two-month period. The survey reveals that the market on attention has been cornered by a minority of highly active individual users. Far from being democratised, 27 per cent of sharers are responsible for 87 per cent of news content shared on social media. The source of power may have shifted, but the information we receive is still shaped by a minority.
Furthermore, the ability to draw attention frequently rests on brand recognition, so old strongholds of media power are likely to be part of this narrative moulding minority. The survey further reveals that users are more likely to engage with “recommended” news and embedded advertising. Online attention can be bought by the highest bidder and as a result, news is frequently controlled by the same elites that have monopolised information since 1695. Google and Facebook attract one-fifth of overall global advertising spending, nearly double what it brought in in 2012. Admittedly, much of this advertising is for products not news stories, but it does reveal that the price tag on buying attention continues to rise. We should therefore be weary of blindly believing that the internet has allowed us to access a wider variety of news. We are just as affected by a narrow elite as we always were, we’re just less aware of it.
But if nothing has really changed and news is as imperfect as it always was, then why does it feel like everything is shifting under our feet? Why do people feel that the news apocalypse is happening now? Certainly some ‘fake news’ claims have become more outlandish, with stories such as “Pope Francis Shakes World, Endorses Trump” getting 960,000 engagements on Facebook in the final months of the 2016 presidential election. Similarly, the ability for anyone to write news and be heard, if they have the resources to garner attention, has further weakened trust in news.
Trust in journalists isn’t just blind faith in authority figures. Journalists are both known and paid, unlike their citizen counterparts. Being employed means they can be held to account, and, if found guilty of lying, have something to lose. During the Brexit referendum a domain called YourBrexit.co.uk falsely claimed that Corbyn had confirmed that the Labour Party would pay £92bn in a Brexit bill. The article was written by “Walter White”, the pseudonym of an anonymous student in Southend. Much like his namesake, Walter’s anonymity and lack of association to a reputable source insulated him from being held to account.
Furthermore, journalists can be relied upon to comply with standards of journalistic practice. It is no coincidence that despite the rise of clickbait internet journalism, big investigative stories such as the Panama Papers, the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and now the Paradise Papers, have all been broken by established journalists in some form or another. This is partly because journalists have the time and capital to go out looking for stories, instead of just reporting what they see.
But, it is more than that. Sources choose to go to professional journalists, because they believe they will protect their anonymity and will know what to do with the information they provide. This second consideration is increasingly important, given that we now live in a world where data is so easy to send that leaks frequently include amounts of data so vast that they are inaccessible to the majority of the population.
The Panama Papers, the leak of 11.5 million files from the law firm Mossack Fonesca, included so much data it was almost unusable. It included 2.1 million PDFs, 3 million database files and 4.8 million emails, some of which were useless and some of which contained the biggest story in the last ten years. So how did journalists find the story amongst all the red herrings? Suddeutsche Zeitung, the first paper to receive this data, called in help from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, who sorted through the data and created a search engine for it. Unsurprisingly, we relied on professional journalists to search through the data and turn it into a format accessible for everyone. When it comes to the big stories, one where the safety of sources lies in the hands of the press, journalists are still the ones we turn to.
I think there’s another problem though, more significant than the lack of accountability in the current world of news. We have stopped being outraged at lies, and we have stopped treating truth as salient political currency. But more than that, we have stopped believing that truth exists at all. We are constantly presented with a choice. We must either choose partisan press, which intentionally interpret all facts one way no matter what they imply. Or we can choose ‘neutral news’ which presents all opinions as equal even if one is clearly not borne out by facts. Press neutrality has been conflated with presenting both sides of the argument, irrespective of their factual support. This in and of itself distorts news.
Yes, people are entitled to their opinion. They are not, however, entitled to have everyone act as if their opinion is equal to all others purely because they believe it to be so. We can acknowledge that there are scientific opinions that deny the existence of climate change, whilst also acknowledging that these scientists are outweighed both in number and prestige by the scientists whose research suggest that climate change is a problem. Neutrality is not the same as equal weighting, and presenting it as such distorts debate. Furthermore, calling something a lie has become an act of partisanship and therefore truth is informed by opinion as opposed to vice versa. As Obama stated in his farewell address, “we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions.” Fake news is not new. What is new is that we no longer believe news exists and as such, we are no longer outraged by lies.
But why did we stop believing in truth in the first place? Part of it is undoubtedly the sheer number of different ‘facts’ modern-day news consumers have to wade through. But I would argue it has also been a result of politicians making claims to ‘facts’ which don’t reflect the experiences of constituents. For those who have lost out from globalisation, the repeated claims of politicians that free market trade deals are economically beneficial for everyone destroys trust, not just in politicians but in facts themselves. Unlike claims to principles, facts rely on their ability to be proven to be actually true. Disjuncture between what we claim to be ‘universal facts’ and what people experience, disintegrates the power of ‘fact’. Therefore, as more and more politicians use ‘facts’ purely as rhetorical devices, ‘truth’ becomes an increasingly empty concept.
Is there any future then for news as we know it? Certainly, news has attempted to change its game to keep up with the changing face of news consumption. Vast amounts of capital are being invested in new journalism projects, funded by a variety of backers, including Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of Ebay and Jimmy Wales, the co- founder of Wikipedia. For example, Wikitribune, Wales’ project, seeks to pair journalists with a community of volunteers who edit, and fact-check articles. This is an attempt to combine the wisdom of crowds with journalists who can be held accountable for content.
It’s not just individual donors, projects that seek to combat fake news are increasingly becoming a part of our electoral process. The most recent UK election was monitored by the Full Fact and First Draft initiatives, which brought together 25 fact checkers and statisticians to verify the facts behind viral news stories.
Similarly, the EU has developed its East Stratcom team which has discredited 2,500 stories over the last 16 months in an attempt to address disinformation campaigns in European elections, specifically those believed to be organised by the Russian government. However, possibly the most significant development is the production of tools that allow users to determine the accuracy of content for themselves. For example, the Google plugin developed by the EU and backed by inVID provides users with the ability to verify the location and times videos were recorded, as well as check more detailed information about the source. Giving individual users this power means they can discredit for themselves content that was photoshopped or staged. Similarly, Project PHEME, so named after the goddess of rumours and fame in Greek mythology, produced an algorithm able to classify the accuracy of tweets, classing tweets on a scale from one to ten, with one being ‘rumour’. If distrust in the existence of ‘truth’ is the primary problem in news, creating tools that allow consumers to rely on their own ability to verify information should go a significant way to fixing the problem.
Trust in news is not gone altogether, revealed by our trust in the ability of journalists to reveal societies largest problems, to the large increase in subscriptions to the New York Times. It is important to remember at this point that despite the current trend amongst commentators to characterise the world as constantly getting worse, the press has always had problems. Our doubt over truth is new, but the propensity to lie is not. Some concerns that used to plague news are gone altogether. For example, the ability of governments to control the news is becoming increasingly impossible in today’s interconnected Britain.
News and journalism have always faced problems and indeed always will. But as anyone who has ever submitted a tutorial essay will know, something does not have to perfect to make expending effort worthwhile.
Finding truth may be an impossible task and human history is filled with those who have made errors on this path. Neither Spicer nor Washington was perfectly truthful; the difference is Washington sought not to exploit loopholes in news and truth, but to serve it to the best of his abilities.
This may seem like an irrelevant distinction, but we can never get all the facts correct. What matters is not one hundred percent accuracy, but rather that we care when things are shown to be wrong.
When we cease to care we leave power in the hands of those with the loudest voice, those with the platform to decide what counts. In today’s world we must try and remember that whilst perfect news may never exist, it is more important than ever to try.
Original illustration by Vicky Robinson.