Democrats blame it for the defeat of their candidate, Hillary Clinton, in the U.S. presidential elections. President Donald Trump rails against “fake news” from the “dishonest media,” singling out CNN. Facebook and Google, both of whom have been accused of being particularly lax in policing the dissemination of fake news across their platforms, are announcing new rules to control the epidemic.
What exactly is fake news and why is it exploding now?
First, there is nothing new about fake news. Humankind has been promoting fake news since the first narrative. What’s mythology after all if not fake news? You didn’t really think that a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the legendary founders of Rome, did you?
Certainly, outright falsehoods that are presented as true constitute fake news. Where does “spin” stop, however, and fake news start? How much of advertising constitutes fake news?
PR hacks have been creating fake news for their Hollywood clients ever since there have been celebrities. The Kardashians figured out how to make it incredibly profitable. Then there are statistics. According to Mark Twain, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Be selective with your statistics, and it’s not hard to get a majority of respondents to agree with whatever you are contending.
Advances in mass communications and a deeper understanding of human psychology elevated the creation and dissemination of fake news to new heights in the 20th century. Wars have always offered a handy pretext for creating fake news. From “Remember the Maine,” the justification for starting the Spanish American War, to British propaganda on “the rape of Belgium” by German troops in the First World War; demonizing an enemy has always been a foolproof way of mobilizing popular support for the war effort. If the truth suffered, well at least it was for a good cause. It was the Nazis and the Soviets, however, who used fake news not just to create propaganda but to support an entire alternative reality.
During the Cold War, the KGB’s First Chief Directorate was responsible for carrying out “active measures.” These were defined as a comprehensive program of political warfare intended to shape the course of world events. Active measures included: disinformation, propaganda, counterfeiting documents, as well as intimidation and assassination of opponents.
Among the more successful Soviet-era disinformation campaigns was Operation Infektion, the claim that the AIDS virus had been created by U.S. Army scientists at Fort Detrick in Maryland, or the claim that fluoridation of water was an effort of the U.S. government to sterilize minorities.
The KGB also created the widely accepted story that a nuclear exchange would create a “nuclear winter” that would kill any remaining survivors; a story aimed to turn the public against the deployment of Pershing II missiles. In the 1980s, the KGB circulated a story that U.S. funded orphanages in Central America were being used to harvest organs for the benefit of the children of wealthy Americans. Even now, occasionally the story resurfaces.
So why has fake news suddenly become a problem? There are three reasons, all closely related. First, news is now a profit centre. In the early days of broadcast journalism, news departments were notorious financial black holes. The idea that a major network could have made a profit from its news division would have been laughable. The news department was the price that broadcasters paid for securing and retaining broadcast licences.
Ted Turner showed that a news channel could be operated at a profit, and 24/7 cable news networks are now multibillion-dollar profit contributors to their corporate owners. Cable news created an insatiable demand for news that would hold an audience’s attention. Media platforms that disseminate news, from cable broadcasters to online news sites, have expanded exponentially.
That also means that aggregating news, whether real or contrived, is also a profit centre. The pay-per-view business model of many online news sites means that it is relatively easy to monetize news creation. In fact, the more sensational or outrageous the news, the more likely it is to get attention. This practice has also created the category of “advertised news,” which often appears on web sites as “sponsored news.” For the Russian SVR – the Foreign Intelligence Service, that inherited the disinformation and propaganda function of the KGB – it means fake news has the added advantage of generating income as well as advancing the Kremlin’s political agenda.
The second aspect of the insatiable demand for news was that such news also had to be entertaining. In the 1960s and 1970s, national newscasters were typically grim, grey-haired old men, whose power and influence rested on their ability to single out what stories would enjoy national coverage. Walter Cronkite earned many plaudits during his tenure as the U.S.’s most watched news anchor, and he would not be described as “entertaining.”
One way of making news entertaining was to make it controversial – the format of tabloid TV talk shows and talk radio shock jocks gradually morphed with broadcast news. In this strange new format of Cronkite-meets-Jerry-Springer, opinions, however outrageous, became the news. Who would have thought that differences between pundits over tax policy or foreign relations would prove as entertaining as, “Do you know who is the father of your baby?”
When reporting news, facts matter. Ignoring the facts, or misstating them, has legal repercussions. When opinions are the news, the opinion itself becomes the fact. Any statement takes on the aura of news if in fact it is an opinion held by a prominent pundit on a TV news show. When an opinion is the news, distinguishing between news and fake news becomes rather subtle.
The third factor has been the pervasive loss of authority within the media industry. The Internet is a great democratizer. In an environment of proliferating media platforms, however, even leading media outlets have seen a sharp erosion in their standing and authority.
In the first half of the 20th century, if you wanted to stage a revolution the first thing that you did was seize the post office and the newspapers. That’s what Lenin and the Bolsheviks did. In the second half of that century, you took over the radio and television stations, that was the protocol for every Third World military coup. Today you take control of the cell companies and the Internet providers.
In the avalanche of news, the legitimacy of sources can often get blurred; especially when traditional, leading media outlets are accused, rightly or wrongly, of having biases and pursuing their own agenda. It used to be that a news story didn’t gain legitimacy unless one of the national broadcast networks or major print outlet carried it. Today, if it’s on somebody’s Twitter feed it’s a news story. Aggregate enough Twitter followers and not only are your tweets news, but your twitter feed becomes an alternative media outlet.
Welcome to the media world of the 21st century.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and commentator on world politics.