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Fake News and Fake Facts
Getting to the Heart of "Misinformation"
The war on so-called “misinformation” has been ramped up lately with the (mercifully short-lived) introduction of what has been dubbed the Biden Administration’s “Ministry of Truth”. Across the pond, the UK’s Online Safety Bill – which would require social media firms to police “legal but harmful content” – recently received its second reading in the House of Commons, while the EU’s Digital Service’s Act is also threatening to break out of its chrysalis. The big irony, of course, is that the state itself is the biggest purveyor of falsehoods. The only reason it needs to curb the free dissemination of ideas is not to crush lies but to crush inconvenient truths.
Many readers are likely to be under the impression that the essence of fake news is the misreporting of facts. Such a view is amplified by the beavering of so-called “fact checkers”, whose purpose seems to be to smother any statement that the regime happens not to like.
Facts can, of course, be disputed. It would be a mistake to assume, however, that outright lies are the most insidious sources of false impressions. If uncomfortable, undeniable facts happen to crop up, the state and its big tech minions are just as likely to ignore and censor them rather than to lie about them. What matters more is the fostering of false narratives. Such an endeavour depends not on the accuracy of facts themselves but on how those facts are selected, presented, ordered and described. Indeed, the same set of agreed facts can be used to tell completely different stories.
To take a simple, fictitious example, say that US President Joe Biden – for a reason that cannot be established – is unable to accept a phone call from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Now consider the following, possible headlines with which media outlets could report this occurrence:
“Communication Difficulties Hamper Biden and Boris Talks.”
“Biden Hangs Up on Boris.”
“Has BoJo been Snubbed?”
“White House Falls Out with Downing Street?”
“Bumbling Biden Latest: Can President not Even Pick up a Phone?”
Each of these hypothetical headlines is reporting essentially the same fact, yet they are each designed to convey an entirely different impression.
The first – the most apparently neutral of the five – suggests that the cause was technical in nature. But the author is still attempting to instil a particular stance: that the leaders are eager to work with each other but their mutually agreed ambitions have simply been frustrated. Thus, what appears impartial with regards to the individuals concerned is still trying to lend its readers a specific impression.
Headlines two and three, on the other hand, are eager to put Boris Johnson in a bad light. Two is feigning neutrality, given that there could be any number of reasons for one person to “hang up” on another. However, highlighting the fact that Johnson was the one denied a hearing is clearly designed to put him at a disadvantage. Headline three is more blatant, suggesting that Johnson has managed to fall out with the American president, or – worse – is simply not worthy of the latter’s time.
The fourth and fifth headlines, though, focus the spotlight on Biden and why he was not able to take the call. Once again, the first of these is attempting to appear neutral. However, by making the “White House” the subject of the sentence, the impression created is that it is the American who has angered the Briton. Thus it is the latter who is calling the shots. Headline Five pulls fewer punches, speculating upon Biden’s physical and/or mental infirmity as the reason for the missed phone call – highlighting the possibility that this is the “latest” in a long series of mishaps.
Narratives are also as dependent on what is not said as much what is actually stated. Indeed, each of the headlines quoted above skirts around the fact that no one has established the precise reason for the failure of the phone call, inviting the reader to fill in the gaps. In other instances, we have seen that entire stories can simply be ignored if they are inconvenient to a particular narrative (such as Hunter Biden’s laptop). Consider also, however, the following headline:
“President was ‘Sober’ at Summit”
Such a statement will almost certainly be true in a strict, factual sense – we do not expect our political leaders to be inebriated at their plush conferences (or at least not while the cameras are rolling). What matters, however, is not the truth of the statement: rather, it is that such a fact was thought worthy of attention. Clearly, the impression being conveyed is that, for the rest of the time, the President is a drunkard.
These characteristics of narrative creation shouldn’t necessarily be ascribed to explicit bias (although that very often will be the case, of course). Rather, the presentation and description of any set of facts will be influenced by a particular world-view. If, for instance, Donald Trump happens to have a meeting with Vladimir Putin, it is impossible for pre-conceived notions of these two figures to remain excluded from the reporting of the occasion. To take the most extreme possibilities, should you believe that the first figure is a threat to democracy while the latter is a dictator, then you will, naturally, approach the phone call with suspicion. In fact, it is most likely that you will be looking for something nefarious about the conversation. If, on the other hand, you start from the notion that they are responsible statesmen railing against the globalist establishment, then you are likely to be far more positive. Each point of view will lead to a different selection, description and emphasis of particular aspects of the dialogue.
If it is not facts that are necessarily in dispute, but, rather, their presentation, then seeking confirmation of accuracy and veracity from so-called “fact checkers” is a waste of time. For all they will be able to do is to repeat the exercise of narrative creation from their own perspective, producing a result which could be equally open to dispute. If this is true of relatively simple matters, it is even more so for complex issues of history, law, science and ethics.
To avoid misunderstanding, we are not suggesting that one narrative is as good as any other, nor are disputes over particular narratives purely subjective. Clearly some narratives convey a more accurate depiction of reality than others. Merely that, if we wish to grasp essence of what constitutes “fake news” and “disinformation”, we need to dig much deeper than the facts of a particular case. All of this, moreover, is true even if the reporters are striving to being honest. Should you throw dishonesty, or a particular agenda, into the mix, then the problem will be far, far worse.