Concern about “fake news” — false reports made to look like genuine news articles — crystallised around the US presidential election.
The Financial Times reported a “barrage of fake news…conspiracy theories, prejudice, harassment and hate speech created on digital networks…much of it aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton or boosting her opponent”. A well-publicised example involved the fictional Denver Guardian, a spoof site which “reported” an FBI agent probing a story about Clinton having been found dead. Outgoing President Obama called it a “dust cloud of nonsense”. Other stories had the pope endorsing Trump and Clinton selling arms to ISIS.
A review by digital news site BuzzFeed of about 2,800 posts from six “hyper-partisan” Facebook pages led it to conclude: “Hyper-partisan political Facebook pages and websites are feeding millions of followers false or misleading information.” At the same time a Pew Research study suggested Facebook had become “a news source for more than half the US population”. Trump’s victory was sufficiently questionable — he won fewer votes than Clinton — that it appeared this may have been decisive.
Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg denied the social media giant bore any responsibility, but was thrown on the defensive with the FT suggesting he sounded “fearful of unpicking his business model”. The EU warned Facebook it needed to get tough on “fake news” and the German government proposed hefty fines for propagating fake news.
The alarm has taken on aspects of a moral panic. Apple boss Tim Clark declared fake news was “killing minds”. The pope condemned it as a “sickness”, likening it to “coprophilia” (pleasure in shit). A select committee of MPs launched an inquiry. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) argued for school courses on fake news. And Trump muddied the water by slinging the term at any media story critical of his administration: “CNN, very fake news; the BBC, another beauty.”
There isn’t space here to go into all aspects of the furore, but it’s important to note fake news isn’t new. What are tabloid newspapers but a collection of click bait headlines on stories bearing little relation to “news”? More significant, think of Bush and Blair’s justification for the invasion of Iraq in 2003: the false claim, repeated wholesale by the media, that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction”. The pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, an event filmed and photographed to portray it as a popular event, turned out to be nothing of the kind — not dissimilar to Trump’s claim of mass popular endorsement by the non-existent crowds at his inauguration.
These are far from isolated instances. In 1946 a Labour attorney general felt compelled to denounce “newspaper proprietors, [who]…distort the facts, [and] suppress the news”, and in 1931 Tory prime minister Stanley Baldwin described press lords Beaverbrook (Daily Express) and Rothermere (Daily Mail) as “engines of propaganda”. Baldwin could have been speaking today when he said, “Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentation, half-truths, the alteration of the speaker’s meaning, suppression.”
News is a commodity and fake commodities, like fake designer goods, are as much products of capitalism as “genuine” ones — produced for profit, in competition with rival producers. Digital advertising makes fake news profitable. But as with mainstream media, profits are not the sole reason for its production. “News” plays a role beyond profit making for publishers like Rupert Murdoch who will tolerate losses in parts of a business (such as The Times) in return for influence.
The media also plays a wider ideological role. It was just emerging in Marx’s day, but Marx’s observation that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas” expresses this. “News” helps legitimise the system, making profit and competition and the institutions that go with these part of our daily lives.
Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s book Manufacturing Consent explains the role of the modern media “to amuse, entertain and inform and to inculcate individuals with the values, beliefs and codes of behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and conflicts of class interest…this role requires systematic propaganda.”
Yet “news” does not immediately appear as propaganda “where the media compete, periodically attack and expose corporate and governmental malfeasance, and portray themselves as spokesmen for free speech”, and this “occurs so naturally that media people are able to convince themselves they choose and interpret the news ‘objectively’.”
Fake news can best be understood as propaganda which ignores these media conventions.
There are multiple factors behind its prominence now. One is the crisis in the newspaper industry, which in Britain saw revenue halve in the decade to 2015. Seven national newspapers lost 10 percent or more of their print circulation last year. Advertising spending is increasing but the money goes to Google and Facebook which swallow 60 percent-plus of global digital marketing and are forecast to take 80 percent by 2020.
A second factor is the level of distrust in establishment politics. There are multiple reasons for this, but the lies to justify the Iraq War (and its failure), and the economic crisis of 2008-09 — the crash, banks bailout, recession and austerity without the ruling elite paying a price — are key factors. Added to this is the lack of a coherent ruling class account of capitalism’s current state and how to react to it.
A third factor stems from the Clinton administration’s decision in the mid-1990s to throw the web open to the market, allowing a fusion of unfettered capitalism and burgeoning technical possibilities. Developments in digital marketing involving social media, algorithms, automated systems (bots) and use of personal data have created previously unimagined possibilities for psychological operations or “psyops”. To give just one example, it is estimated that one fifth of tweets about the US election were generated by bots and targeted at Facebook users in swing states.
A fourth factor has been the organisation in the US of a cabal of billionaires and other elite figures rallied by fossil fuel magnates the Koch brothers. Journalist Jane Mayer in her book Dark Money details the creation and activities of this group of hedge fund, brewing, oil and mining billionaires allied to “heirs of some of America’s greatest dynastic fortunes, right wing media moguls, conservative elected officials, writers and publicists”.
Apart from unimaginable wealth, what unites this group is a commitment to roll back Federal government, oppose restrictions on Wall Street, curb the US Environmental Protection Agency and scrap Obamacare. Mayer reports the Kochs raised $889 million to pursue these aims in the year of Trump’s triumph. The group’s members include hedge fund and automated trading billionaire Robert Mercer, who bankrolls the Trump-supporting digital “media” group Breitbart News, at the heart of the fake news furore. Mercer was also Trump’s single biggest donor.
Steve Bannon, the former naval officer, investment banker and executive chairman of Breitbart, recruited Mercer to Breitbart and was in turn brought into Trump’s campaign by Mercer. Bannon is now White House chief strategist, despite Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren identifying him as “a white supremacist”.
It would be wrong to characterise Breitbart as solely pushing fake news. According to the FT, it was Breitbart’s Big Government blog, which broke the story that Democratic US congressman Anthony Weiner, husband of a senior Clinton aide, sent photos of his genitals to women online. But its politics and operating methods are clear.
Breitbart London, set up in 2014, is run by former UKIP leadership candidate Raheem Kassam. In Germany, Breitbart “reported” in January that 1,000 migrants in Dortmund had attacked police waving ISIS and al-Qaeda flags and set fire to Germany’s oldest church. In reality, a New Year’s Eve firework caused a small fire on scaffolding near a church that was not Germany’s oldest. Yet the story made headlines after being shared on social media.
There are other players — digital “entrepreneurs” tapping into the commercial possibilities provided by Facebook, Google Adsense, right wing paranoia and racism. The FT reported on Brandon Vallorani, head of Liberty Alliance in the US, who creates and distributes fake stories for a right wing social media audience, having progressed from “selling Tea Party T-shirts, knives and bumper stickers with taglines such as ‘pro-life, pro-God, pro-guns’ [to] operating 176 Facebook pages that reach more than 50 million followers”. Vallorani employs 40 content creators and Facebook drives “60 percent of traffic to the company’s 100-plus sites”.
The Washington Post caught up with another “impresario of a Facebook fake news empire”, Paul Horner, who said, “People just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact checks anything.” A third, Justin Coler of Disinformedia, was behind the fake Denver Guardian site. Then there are overseas sources such as Macedonia, where the FT reported “more than 100 US politics sites are run” from the town of Veles.
Fortunately, some studies shed more useful light on the phenomenon. The Columbia Journalism Review in the US examined 1.25 million stories published online between 1 April 2015 and the US election in November, looking at sites such as Breitbart, Infowars, Truthfeed and Ending the Fed and analysing the hyperlinks and social media patterns around them. It concluded: “A right wing media network anchored around Breitbart developed as a distinct and insulated media system, using social media as a backbone to transmit a hyper-partisan perspective. This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have…strongly influenced the broader media agenda [which] revolved around the agenda the right wing media sphere set: immigration.”
The Review also noted, “Attacks on the integrity and professionalism of opposing media were a central theme.” Specifically, Murdoch’s right wing TV station Fox News was targeted along with Trump’s Republican rivals. Two Breitbart headlines give a flavour: “Fox News colluded with Rubio to give amnesty to illegal aliens” and “Google and Fox TV invite anti-Trump, Hitler-citing Muslim advocate to join next GOP [Republican] TV debate”.
The study suggested that, “It’s a mistake to dismiss these stories as fake news; their power stems from a potent mix of verifiable facts, familiar repeated falsehoods, paranoid logic and consistent political orientation…[they] can more accurately be understood as disinformation.”
A study by economists Matthew Gentzkow of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research and Hunt Allcott of New York University suggests social media played “a much smaller role in the election than some might think” and fake news even less. The pair analysed the social media traffic on news sites and the most-shared fake news stories, and ran a post-election survey of 1,200 US voters reviewing various items of “news” — some genuine, some fake stories circulated during the election, and some fake stories exclusive to the survey and never distributed. Only 15 percent of respondents recalled seeing the fake news stories and 7.9 percent seeing and believing them. Similar proportions reported seeing (14 percent) and believing (8.3 percent) the phoney stories which never went out.
Gentzkow and Allcott concluded: “The most widely circulated hoaxes were seen by only a fraction of Americans, and only about half of those believed it.”
In Britain a YouGov survey for Channel 4 News explored “disinformation purporting to be fact” by presenting six stories, three fake, to 1,684 adults. These included fake headlines such as “Immigrants to be given £8,500 on arrival to boost economy” and “Trump offers one-way tickets to Africa, Mexico for those wanting to leave America”. Only 4 percent were able to identify all three fake items. However, almost half said they were worried about fake news, two thirds thought social media sites weren’t doing enough to tackle it and 46 percent (rising to 69 percent of 18 to 24s) wanted more fact-checking sites.
Fake news appears to fit the wave of populism ridden by Trump and provide an explanation for it, but it’s a symptom not a cause of the crisis in contemporary capitalism. It will not go away. Socialists can rightly point to the hypocrisy and myopia around fake news, and understand the problems it poses for the ruling class even as factions within the elite deploy it for their own ends.
But we should not be indifferent. Fake news is pernicious. It is used by those seeking to propagate hatred and poses a serious threat to those wanting to challenge the system. It’s not enough to say all “news” is propaganda. There is a world of difference between Goebbels and The Guardian.
Understanding the contradictory role of the media is important. Media outlets can’t just reflect the values of capitalism; they must relate in some way to the realities of a system based on exploitation and oppression. At times this results in major exposés of the way the world really works: the phone hacking and collusion with police at Murdoch’s papers, the Panama papers’ exposure of tax havens, the MPs’ expenses scandal. This is not new. The Watergate scandal which brought down US President Nixon in the early 1970s and the exposure of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam in 1968 which helped fuel the anti-war movement were the products of dogged journalism within the constraints of mainstream media.
Trump’s claims of “fake news” and “dishonest media” aim to disarm investigations into his business and administration. But media scrutiny will ultimately play a part in his downfall. The greater the opposition to his presidency, the greater the number of leaks and whistle blowers, the greater the space for investigative journalism and the sooner he will fall.