Fake Plastic Souks: Fake Plastic News

Posted on the January 12th, 2017 under Personal Bloggers by

English: A set of online ads featuring fake ne...(Photo credit: Wikipedia)There’s an awful lot of talk about fake news online, a background rumbling that occasionally erupts as indeed it has this week. We have all enjoyed the controversy surrounding the US intelligence dossier that purportedly places the future President of the land of the free and home of the brave in a Moscow hotel room watching gleefully as a number of ladies of dubious reputation perform vengeful lewd acts involving micturating on a bed previously used by the previous President of the LOFTAHOFB.The fun thing about the story, which is more than likely total bunkum, is how deliciously fun it is. Liberal America would just love to believe it. So would most of us, no?The trouble is that it’s getting very hard indeed to sift the wheat from the chaff. But fake news is nothing new: we’ve always been rather surrounded by it. Was King Richard III really a vile, drooling hunchback who murdered two little princes? Probably not, but we’ve been just a tad under 500 years late coming to that conclusion. At the time, the spread of rumour was mostly by word of mouth – Gutenberg had only just invented the printing press and printed his celebrated bible – and so it was word of mouth, together with a wee dose of Shakespearean bile a hundred years later, that was to seal Richard’s poor reputation.Gutenberg’s press – and pretty much every innovation in media and communications since – merely accelerated the process.Richard was just one of a million historic examples of fake news, many of them classic examples of history being written by the victor. Sitting in Dubai, the issue of the Al Qassimi ‘pirates’ comes to mind – opposed to the invading British, they were quickly labelled brigands and pirates and so, for a good hundred years, the whole area was happily referred to as ‘the pirate coast’. My own novels have often played with the idea that my freedom fighter is your terrorist and vice versa.From Gutenberg to the Internet we see the rapidly evolving role of news media – from the invention of the ‘newspaper’ through to the era of press barons and the dominance of media by politics and big business. Idealistic journalists have constantly found themselves challenged by repressive forces, from political interference through to commercial censorship, our media has represented a combination of people telling truth to power and power telling lies to people.We used to depend on those solid journalists and their editors to help us better understand the world around us from an informed viewpoint and we were, up until pretty recently, happy to buy whatever narrative they decided to shape for us. If we suspected any interference behind the scenes, we tended to gloss it over. For our media and governments would never tell us porky pies, would they? Our government, after all, governs in our name, does it not? Represents us? Why, then, would they lie to us?It’s not just governments, of course. Big business loves fake news. Advertising and PR agencies have long placed fake news stories in media. You can spot the weasel words, ‘studies say’ and ‘most folks agree’ are just two of many sure-fire signs that studies don’t and most folks wouldn’t. Palm oil, gun lobbies, Israeli settlers, big pharma selling GMOs to Africa – you name ’em, they’ve been manipulating news by seeding untruths and obfuscation disguised as surveys, research and expert opinion.As the Internet has whipped the news cycle into a news cyclone, we have seen the erosion of trust in ‘mainstream media’ and politics become a dominant force in our society. Last year’s two most savage political upsets were arguably driven by public anger and disaffection with politics, following on from the waves of disaffection which washed around the Middle East and made their way to Europe with the riots in Britain and Occupy Wall Street in the US. We’ve seen growing disaffection with big business, too. That wave of disaffection has moved with blinding speed because of the Great Networks of our age.In the face of that disaffection, our media has been failing – plummeting revenues and the slow death of print have led to staffing cuts and a growing pressure to keep up with the twin-headed Gorgon of Twitter and Buzzfeed. We need clicks, boys, and we need them fast – realtime if you please.If you want to see the result of this dual pressure to make old media models perform in the new media age, you only have to wander around the Daily Mail, the world’s most popular news website. It’s not a terribly edifying experience, especially if you believe (as I do) that we tend to get the media we deserve. The difference between the Mail’s mainstream content and the stories in the ‘Taboola’ tabs is getting frighteningly slim. Real ‘news’ is starting to mimic fake news.Making it all worse, alongside these pressures we have the very nature of the Internet. Ubiquitous, always-on, filled with people, animals, trolls and lice and all their spurious motivations and agendas. What would have been irrefutable proof in Richard’s day (a letter, say) or Nixon’s (a tape, say) is worthless today. We can Photoshop images, edit sounds, manipulate documents and fake testimony.We can harness the news cycle and network effects to put untrue stuff out there and by the time anyone’s got around to saying, ‘Wait, what?’ it’s too late. Site X has run it, sites A-W have picked up from site X in the relentless rush to harvest those early clicks and suddenly the whole Web is full of the Spurious Thing. You can probably correct Site X, but that’s about as far as you’re going to get in terms of actually slipping a cork in the bottle. By about now you’ve got yourself a nice little hashtag and you’re the talk of the town.But this all has just democratised demonisation. We’ve always had fake news. It used to be the preserve of the wealthy, powerful and the victors. Now spotty Herberts in tenement bedrooms can do it. And there are companies out there who are harvesting clicks by the million by intentionally creating alarmist rubbish and pushing it with ‘clickbait’ headlines. Filtering the truth from the fake these days can be a bewildering game. And most people couldn’t be bothered.Which is, to be honest, a worry…

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