US president elect Donald Trump screamed “fake news” at a press conference yesterday, Wednesday, in response to some piss-taking allegations.
A dubious document produced by a British spy had been published by BuzzFeed news and referenced by CNN.
It was a novel turnaround as many in the mainstream media had claimed fake news was responsible for Trump’s election.
Fake news is supposed to be more than simply news you don’t like. It isn’t the Sun newspaper claiming Jeremy Corbyn is dancing a jig at the cenotaph when he was merely walking down the street. Nor is it even slandering the 1989 Hillsborough disaster victims.
It isn’t even fake when the Guardian newspaper suggested that Yassar Yaqub was a drug dealer for no reason than an anonymous neighbour said so.
So what is fake news? The growth of social media has done a number of things. It has created a crisis for the mainstream media as readers go online and use social media for news.
People like to share, follow and friend things they have an affinity to. This is part of the attraction of social media. But it also creates an echo chamber. And that chamber provides advertisers with a group of people who share interests and ideas.
That creates a market to exploit. So advertisers are desperate to get you to notice their stuff. It is also why Facebook wants you to post photos and videos on their site rather than on a competitor’s.
The focused advertising uses algorithms to target adverts aimed at your interests. If you can tap into this market there is money to be made—tiny amounts per click but it mounts up.
An example of a bad algorithm is those ads you see for products you already bought online.
Sensationalism is an integral part of journalism. But the pressure to cash in encourages “click bait” headlines. For example, the Daily Mail newspaper has a sidebar of shame with celebrities in swimwear. The Guardian and the Sun have ad links at the bottom of their “proper news” inviting you to “see what celebrity x looks like now”.
But others have crashed the market. Some fake news is produced purposefully by teenagers in the Balkans or entrepreneurs in the US to make money from the click advertising. They focus on producing what would get clicks. And if it works, they exaggerate it to get more clicks—”the Pope says Catholics must back Trump”, that sort of thing.
Bizarrely some of this doesn’t exist at all, it is fake fake news so to speak. One cyberforgery ring has created over half a million fake internet users and 250,000 fake websites to trick advertisers into paying out millions of dollars a day.
Where crooks and big business go the state is not far behind. The spooks of a state creating fake news is not exactly new. From the British producing the Zinoviev letter in 1924, which claimed the Labour Party was run by Bolsheviks, it has been standard practice.
What has changed are some of the methods.
The Syrian civil war has produced fake news a plenty some from overzealous supporters of one side or another. But much was produced deliberately by states as a propaganda war. And in the Iraq occupation British PR firms produced viral fake videos for the US spooks.
There are three reasons fake news is here to stay and you won’t believe number three. One, the drive to profit. Two, the lies needed to defend those profits. And three, Donald Trump is US president.
Historian John Newsinger writes
All out for Palestine