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Between A Grainy Photo And Dirt

Suggestions that traditional news media died in 2016 as “post-truth” reality defined news - online and elsewhere - widely misses the mark. Disruption certainly has a place in civil society but not the only place. The ethos of journalism is easily dismissed but not, completely, forgotten. It’s just the hacks who send out press releases, whether touting a new experience for over-stimulated Millennials or sowing confusion among those “low-information” voters.

grain of truthAs 2017 has come upon us journalists of the legitimate kind are, yet again, fighting back against the rude, crude insurgency posing as the real thing: fake news. For decades journalism looked askance at popular tabloids with their monsters of the deep, celebrities in unnatural positions and UFOs arriving. The headlines are always juicier than the stories; crafting a tabloid headline considered high art.

The journey from UFOs dropping off aliens to boats and airplanes landing with migrants and refugees has become depressingly brief. Every tabloid editor knows well the enduring attraction of the unknown, unexplained and scary. All of this badness, then, needs a culprit; none better than distant and mysterious authorities. A grainy photo gives an air of authenticity. A new industry emerges to feed an overwhelming desire for simple explanations, preferably pointing fingers out, facts unnecessary. Complexity was not the 2016 word of the year: it was post-truth.

Journalism, by definition fact-based, feels this new gravity, already tipped sideways by digital competition. Legitimate news outlets have responded with more facts, polls, surveys and experts using three-syllable words. Fake news rushed in, filling a void in the complexity gap, changing the laws of media physics.

An infamous fake news website quoted a former Israeli defense minister in late December threatening to “destroy (Pakistan) with a nuclear strike,” reported CNN (December 26). Pakistan’s current defense minister, within a couple of days, took to a popular social media portal: “Israel forgets Pakistan is a nuclear state, too.” Quite quickly, the Israeli and Pakistani defense ministries traded social media messages; the former calling the fake story a fake, the later saying, in essence, OK, we won’t shoot first. It was a tense 48 hours.

Examples of fake news - and attention given to it - have circled the globe with increasing effect. There was the crazy guy who ran into a pizzaria looking for a secret tunnel conspiracy theory reported by fake news sites and repeated by people who should have known better. He carried an assault weapon and popped off a couple of shots.

Elections, and therefore democratic institutions, have been soiled by the confusion sown, nuclear war notwithstanding. Those on the horizon are threatened. Solutions offered to diffuse the fake news threat, so far, range from implausible to ineffective.

By their ubiquity in the digital sphere social media portals are low-hanging fruit for well-intentioned efforts to counteract fake news and hate speech. Individuals can - mostly - share ideas, agreeable and otherwise, across the the great expanse of digital openness. As the passage from adolescence to adulthood is defined as the ability to restrain the impulse to phonate every thought social media perpetuates the inner 12 year old. And it takes an adult in the room to issue corrective measure.

Facebook is by sheer weight the social network reference. It is wildly popular, carrying bits and bobs from billions and earning billions in the process. Until very recently, its executives attempted to bury controversial policies allowing hate speech - or not - and positioning fake news sites - or not - as a task for bots and algorithms. We’re a tech company, they’ve said, and not a media outlet.

The company continues to dance between the two. Last week former CNN and NBC TV news anchor Campbell Brown was announced as Facebooks head of news partnerships, reported the New York Times (January 6) and not head of news. Nobody wants Facebook to empower an editor-in-chief to police content except those who really want Facebook to police content. Facebook executives are far more interested in the Facebook Live video feature and its endless revenue producing opportunities.

The drumbeat for doing something corrective is drowning out every Facebook PR initiative. With little faith in self-regulation German Social Democrat Party parliamentary chairman Thomas Oppermann offered, to Der Spiegel (December 16), that Facebook and other social media networks be fined if fake news is not promptly removed, €500,000 per occurrence. "Facebook did not avail itself of the opportunity to regulate the issue of complaint management itself," he added, saying legislation is under consideration. "Now market dominating platforms like Facebook will be legally required to build a legal protection office in Germany that is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

“Fake news should be really expensive for companies like Facebook, if they do not prevent its spread,” said out-going European Parliament (EuroParl) president Martin Schultz to the Funke-Mediengruppe editorial board (December 18). “It is not a big problem technically to label or delete fake news and it also must be possible to have people available around the clock to answer questions.”

Banning anonymous postings to social networks would cure part of the fake news problem, suggested well-known Italian journalist and television channel TG La7 news director Enrico Mentana to Il Fatto Quotidiano (January 3). “If someone wants to poison the well, they should put their signature on it. You can be free to say what you want but you have to put a first and last name on it. The real enemy in a free society is anonymity.”

Well-known social media networks are easy targets; big, rich, new and, generally, not of purely local origin. Inflammatory postings weave among the family photos, pet videos, birthday greetings and recipes.

Hate-laced, contrafactual content posing as news is more difficult to police. Much of it appears on the web, but not only. Some is the classic propaganda of State actors bent on sowing discontent and degrading critical real news sources. Others, more insidious, are the pop-up websites, video channels and, indeed, newspapers promoting disruption and aimed at rallying the like-minded. After recent populist success in elections and referenda in several countries flame-throwing fake news outlets have provoked outrage within civil societies.

“We are at a crossroads: we must choose whether we want to leave the internet as it is, a Wild West, or impose rules taking into account that communication has changed,” said Italian Competition Authority chairman Giovanni Pitruzzella to the Financial Times (December 29). “Post-truth is one of the engines of populism and a threat that weighs on our democracies.” He proposed network of European public agencies “independent of government, ready to act quickly if the public interest is threatened” to name and shame fake news purveyors, largely online. The Czech Interior Ministry’s new Center Against Terrorism and Hybrid Threats (CPTHH) began its task with the ringing in of the New Year. The unit of between 20 and 30 cyber experts was established earlier in the year to point out disinformation campaigns “systematically manipulating the public.” It will not be a law enforcement or intelligence agency, noted the Interior Ministry (MVCR) website, nor will it “have a button for switching off the internet.”

With a loud “Bah Humbug” Czech president Milos Zeman warned of “censorship… persecuting people for their opinions,” in his Christmas message quoted by Czech online news portal (December 30). The Interior Ministry offered to send him “comprehensive materials… to get him acquainted with the work of the CPTHH.” President Zeman’s constitutional authority is limited to ceremonial roles. He has praised Russian Federation president Vladimir Putin and US president-elect Donald Trump.

Police in Dortmund (Hesse), Germany refuted in the strongest terms an online article claiming 1,000 Muslims set alight a historic Church on New Year’s Eve. It was published in the notorious US right-wing racist, anti-immigrant Breitbart News using factoids rearranged from local news reports and distinctly amplified. “They used our online reports for fake news, hate and propaganda,” said Dortmund news portal Ruhr Nachrichten (January 4).

The small fire was out in less than 15 minutes and caused no damage. “We shook our heads in disbelief when we saw how this operation was politicized,” said Dortmund police spokesperson Gunnar Wortmann, quoted by the Washington Post (January 6). Breitbart News is planning both German and French editions in the coming months and has close ties to US president-elect Donald Trump through his “senior counselor” Steve Bannon, former Breitbart News CEO.

"If fake news replaces verifiable sources, there is a risk of manipulation," said German Federal Justice Minister Heiko Maas, quoted by Schweriner Volkszeitung (January 6). "Counterfeit news is poison to our cultural debate.”

Fake news with its various strains is a difficult disease to cure. Liberal democracies are revolted by that Orwellian Ministry of Truth. The “illiberals” grow in a rotting petri dish of power-seeking hate, truth and facts succumb. It is not the new truth. It’s just another word for smells bad.

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