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Itís A Fake, Fake, Fake, Fake News World

Itís been an exciting time for fake news. Designated two months ago the 2017 word of the year, fake news has moved from strength to strength. Not only is everybody talking about it, fake news purveyors are revelling in their dark basements. Being a post-modern cultural icon requires dedication and more, just like bitcoin.

mad worldThe European Commission’s new High Level Expert Group (HLEG) on fake news and online disinformation had its first official meeting last week (January 15). Creation of the HLEG was announced last August. A panel of 39 experts was assembled. Representatives of Facebook, Google and Twitter attended. A strategy will be recommended in late April.

Coming to grips with fake news necessitates an accepted definition. There are several from which to choose. The entrepreneurial spirit of Macedonian teenagers with lots of time and an internet connection proved less than bracing. Disinformation meant to sow discord and confusion - once known as propaganda - is sufficiently academic, and easily adapted to social media. Autocrats and dictators have taken the definition of fake news to yet a new level, the preferred invective for any critical news reporting.

"Fake news is a direct threat to the foundations of our democratic societies,” said Digital Economy and Society Commissioner Mariya Gabriel at the requisite press conference, reported the AP (January 15). “It threatens the reputation of the media and the well-being of our democracies,” adding “Technologies have deeply changed the way citizens access the media. We have set ourselves the goal of looking at how to define fake news.”

Press/media freedom advocates also see the democracy-challenging denigration of real news reporting as a problem. They are particularly irritated by autocrats and dictators supplanting one definition of fake news - disinformation - for another - unwanted criticism. Earlier this month (January 8) the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) announced its Global Press Oppressor Awards, slightly tongue-in-cheek as it was meant to coincide with US president Donald Trump’s “most dishonest & corrupt media awards of the year,” announced on Twitter at the first of the new year.

The CPJ named and shamed all the usual suspects in appropriate categories: Most Thin-skinned (winner - President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, runner-up - US President Donald Trump), Most Outrageous Use of Terror Laws Against the Press (winner - President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan, runner-up - President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Tightest Grip on Media (winner - President of China Xi Jinping, runner-up - President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin), and Biggest Backslider in Press Freedom (winner - Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, runner-up - President of Poland Andrzej Duda). The CPJ’s Overall Achievement in Undermining Global Press Freedom award was bestowed on US president Donald Trump.

Delayed for unknown reasons, ethics questions suspected, President Trump went on with his fake news rant but not before late-night TV comedians in the US had their fun. Several took out large billboards in New York in the style of Oscar award hopefuls touting their qualifications for “The Fakeys.” In the end, President Trump complained (January 17), again, about the New York Times, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, ABC News and CNN. His primary complaint, without surprise, is reporting on “Russia collusion,” investigations on which are ongoing.

Getting to the facts while sifting through the fake news requires lifting diplomatic circumspection. “The purpose of a disinformation campaign is to get people to believe that the disinformation is fact, is credible,” said EU Commissioner for Security Julian King to the European Parliament, quoted by The Independent (UK) (January 17). “If we look at opinion polls measuring how many people accept obvious disinformation planted in pro-Kremlin media, then unfortunately we have to conclude that Russian disinformation can be extremely successful.”

Another press/media freedom advocate Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) took to social media for a little satire at president Trump’s expense, showing various dictators and autocrats - “press freedom predators” - rejoicing at Trump’s “creativity in trampling media freedom.” Director general Christophe Deloire referred to Trump (January 17) as “not letting one week go by without attacking and denigrating journalists. By attacking journalists in this way and grotesquely treating the media as children, Donald Trump poses a major threat to US democracy.”

Long serving US Senator John McCain, a Republican, took to the Washington Post op-ed page (January 17) observing: “The phrase fake news — granted legitimacy by an American president — is being used by autocrats to silence reporters, undermine political opponents, stave off media scrutiny and mislead citizens.” Poland’s President Duda, however, thanked President Trump for fighting the fake news “phenomenon,” reported Bloomberg (January 18). Then fake news fell off the news cycle, for a day, with President Trump’s “shithole” apogee.

Air, of course, only clears by the laws of physics. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Sorting out a solution to fake news - regardless of definition - requires shifting an immovable object, several actually. Warm air rises.

The new German Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) gave heretofore immovable publishers - online and elsewhere - a shove. It is possible that hate speech posted online and not quickly removed can earn stiff fines. Howls of “censorship” have filled the air.

“We do not strive for something like a Ministry of Truth,” said the HLEG chairperson and Utrecht University communications law professor Dr. Madeleine de Cock Buning to NRC Handelsblad (January 15). “That is certainly not the intention. Recently there was a critical journalistic report about the Polish government that was subsequently labeled as fake news and the publishers fined. You obviously do not want that, because that is abuse of the term fake news."

Social media platforms are, at once, feeling the heat and trying to avoid disruption to their very successful business model. Facebook executives and lawyers have steadfastly denied any role in news platforming. Under pressure the much maligned Facebook News Feed, which selects algorithm-proven links to third-party websites based on collected datasets, is undergoing yet another change, perhaps one last before disappearing.

Soon, said News Feed head Adam Mosseri in a blog post (January 19), they will “prioritize news from publications that the community rates as trustworthy.” Gone will be the legions of humans paid to sift through various posted news items for hate speech and fake news. In their stead will be algorithms reading user preferences. “Publications that do not score highly as trusted by the community may see a decrease (in traffic).” This is rolling out now in the US, the rest of the world to follow. Troll-bots will have a field-day with this.

Don't try to mastermind this
Or discover what's behind this
Just scratch your neck and say what the heck
It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World theme (Shirelles version - 1963)

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