A long time ago a little brown box stood on a shelf in the corner of the living room, with a dial and a few knobs. Every month we took a large battery into the local store and exchanged it for another. This box was our means of communication with an outside world. From this box came the stories of ‘Journey into Space’ and the affairs of ‘Simon Temple’ , or ‘The Archers’ which my mother would listen to each evening. We knew these to be works of fiction, but they were also entertainment, as was ‘Workers Playtime’, a mixture of music and comedy designed to cheer us all up in the post-war era. On some days during harvesting in summer I would go back from the barn and catch the latest cricket score and relay the summaries to the others working on the hay and corn harvest. These accounts people accepted as correct. In the evening we would sit by this box and listen to the BBC news, with accounts of events at home and abroad. These we also accepted as being true and correct. To me the task of determining what was truth and what was fiction seemed relatively easy.
Then my mother informed me of the broadcasts of William Joyce, known also as Lord Haw Haw, born in New York, who broadcast a large amount of misinformation during the Second World War. The aim was to influence opinion in Britain and lower morale. Listening to the recordings that were kept and comparing them to events, the way in which information was distorted and changed was very clear. Historians can go back through the ages and produce many other examples, so the idea of misinformation being used to manipulate is not a new one. My mother was trying to teach me that truth often lay beyond the immediate story. Accounts of the Great War (1914-1918) in Europe illustrated the way in which selection of information was used so that the press were not able to report the real horrors at the battlefront. Truth, in this case, was being hidden or suppressed.
Soon I started to look at the headlines of different papers and could see that the same story could be presented differently, that much of the press could be regarded as being ‘right wing’, or nationalistic, or as ‘left wing’ and socialist. Going back to that period between the wars in Europe I realized that in some cases a person could influence both a right wing and a left wing newspaper, and might use both to advance a personal opinion. In the early 1930’s the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror were used as mouthpieces to support a British Fascist called Oswald Mosley. Reading a newspaper has always been an exercise in trying to dissect the factual part of the story from the opinion of the writer. The same is true of ‘news’ when presented by radio and television. The use of ‘columns’ by various activists allows any news to be given a slant so that there is inevitably some distortion. This has ranged from selection of ‘facts’ to support an opinion, to rather blatant opinion that is unsupported by any factual information, such as the rants against immigrants and child refugees that have appeared in the right wing tabloids in the United Kingdom and have now persisted for some years.
‘Truth’ has never been high on the agenda when elections are taking place, but most of us are happy to accept that much of what takes place is little more than propaganda. Posters and leaflets from political parties rarely stand up to any in-depth scrutiny. The issue though is not whether these posters and leaflets are telling a ‘truth’ but whether they are reflecting what people might wish to hear. Where a section of the press has devoted many front pages to anti-European propaganda, supported by columnists, the leafleting of the public and use of posters to suggest a campaign supported a particular action proved very effective. Harnessing general concerns on a wide range of issues the manipulation of opinion over one single issue became very easy. Votes were easily harvested where a single source could be blamed for all ills, regardless of whether there was any evidence to support the view.
As a teenager I was encouraged to read a work by George Orwell, his ‘1984’ was becoming popular among young people who were interested in the amount of freedom they had. Two things stood out for me from his work. The first was the way in which the media could be used to manipulate and even control the behavior of the public. The second was that no matter how much effort was put into this manipulation there would always be some who were going to question and they needed to be suppressed in some way. At the time I was reading the book, in the early 1960’s, the idea was fascinating, but changes were taking place that meant I paid less attention to the writing than I should have. Popular music and fashion were being used as media to challenge the status quo, students were exerting an influence in cities such as Paris and London, I was busy demonstrating against apartheid, campaigning for nuclear disarmament and walking to raise money for charity. The vision of George Orwell seemed to be a world set in a far distant future, but not the world that I was entering as a young teacher. The songs of Pete Seeger were being used to promote the Civil Rights Movement, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Donavan and others were writing in a way that made us believe the times really were changing, and changing for the better.
That vision began to alter as the Cold War reached a height, nuclear missiles were being stockpiled and more and more troops were being deployed near the borders of the old Soviet Union. We were being told of the necessity of having a nuclear deterrent, that the west must have the capability to destroy all of the Soviet Union if the deterrent were to be effective. The vestiges of such negative thinking still remain in the United Kingdom with the intent to continue the Trident missile program. Was the world really changing, or was my perception of the truth being manipulated? Had I been selecting my own ‘truths’ in listening to the works of Dylan and others whilst being blinded to what was really happening?
In the 1970’s and 1980’s the change seemed to be far greater, but I became very cynical about the motives for that change. The strikes of miners to hold the country to ransom, then the crushing of unions in the 1980’s were actions that were never going to bring people together. The politics of extremism seemed to be surfacing as each side sought to discredit the other in what was increasingly becoming a two-party state. The idea of ‘fake news’ was still in the future, but careful editing of events was becoming more frequent in both the printed and the broadcast media.
Going to work in Florida I was introduced into a new way of conducting elections, and how the media was involved. However, the real insight came in a study of the way in which news outlets were operating. The world had actually changed quite remarkably in a short space of time, but that change was in our ability to communicate. Digital news channels were providing space for comments on almost every story. Facebook had yet to emerge, but the potential to use the internet was clear. Opinions that might have been expressed in the home, or in a bar, were suddenly being broadcast to a much wider audience. Those opinions could often be expressed by using anonymous accounts and the extremes voiced did not suggest a compassionate and caring society, rather that the opposite might be true. Were we really living in such a vindictive world?
The calls for those who had committed crimes to be thrown into jails to rot until they died, to be lynched, the claims they were all drug addicts, and similar sentiments, made it clear that you could say almost anything. The right to free speech meant that such opinions were largely unchallenged, but the way in which these outlets were used made some realize the potential for what was to become ‘fake news’. Suppose a person were arrested for stealing a car, a glance through comments would reveal that there would be several claims the perpetrator was black, had a long criminal record, and maybe an abuser. These comments never needed to be checked, some even appeared when no name was given to the person arrested. At first I suspect that most ignored the way in which these comments were added to stories. After a while we began to notice that the same names would appear for numerous comments, the name used often revealing something about the author. The first internet trolls were appearing, and they usually expressed opinion that was polarized.
My first experience of a presidential election, Obama against McCain, showed two very different personalities who managed to debate and conduct campaigns that were largely respectful. In contrast, in the south, there was a very different struggle taking place. The idea of a black president was met with trolls filling every comment column in the media with suggestions and claims that were deliberately fake. Claims of birth place and faith dominated, and some of those were still in evidence some eight years later. I soon realized that at almost every level there was something that was becoming more apparent. The ‘argument’ or debate was moving away from issues and was becoming more of a contest where supporters spent their time and effort in attacking the character of another candidate. They attracted the attention of the media not because anything they said was necessarily true but because sensationalism sold papers and gained viewers.
When Facebook hit the internet a new communication network was formed. Initially the group of ‘friends’ were simply those people who you knew personally in one way or another, but then soon expanded with those who you might have studied with, met at concerts or encountered on holiday. After only a short while we found that groups could be formed who shared similar interests. The potential circle of those who were able to view your comments expanded. Since the venture made money through advertising revenues then the more shared interests could be promoted the greater the revenues.
Even before the 2016 events of Brexit and the Trump and Clinton contest the seeds of fake news that were being sown on Facebook and elsewhere were clearly yielding fruit. Whilst studying courses that related to climate change I realized the ‘troll’ syndrome had spread rapidly. Comments of climate deniers could be found on almost any discussion group and they were persistent. However, on those courses many claims, from climate deniers or from climate change believers, that could be shown as lacking any real credibility were soon exposed. In contrast, the platform provided by Facebook allowed any comments to be expressed and challenges could be controlled. Climate denying trolls would quickly add to comments of those who were posting about climate change. The greater concern should have been for the comment initiated by climate deniers where any efforts to present more reliable information were removed. The sites were obviously being managed to only reflect views that agreed with the original comment on climate change denial.
Brexit was probably the first of the efforts to organize and present fake news, though the official Leave and Remain campaigns confined themselves to distortion by selecting and presenting information. Whilst this happened the ‘Facebook’ news machine was changing up a gear, with trolls attacking any comments they could find and producing stories that seemed to have no substance at all. Where the subject matter was hard to dispute the troll activity usually descended to personal insults and even threats against individuals. Facebook seemed content, at that time, to turn a blind eye to such activity.
Finally, we came to the 2016 election and the explosion of fake news. The stories about each candidate were usually derogatory and complete fabrication. Following the election a number of news sources set about investigating how the fake news had managed to survive the process of regulation they were subject to. The regulation appeared not to exist, anybody could post any story they wished and then set about editing out any comments that challenged the authenticity. Whilst some of the stories were clearly malicious others appeared to be nothing more than mischief-making. If that were the case, then why fabricate a story? The answer lies in advertising revenues and the money to be made by setting up sites within Facebook, or linked through Facebook. Those who produced the sites for fake news and then linked them to Facebook were usually not based in the United States, although there are now admissions the fake news was produced from within the United States. They gained revenues from their activity just as Facebook was gaining revenue. So an unregulated supply of fake news became a profit making activity, monetary gain was seen as more important than truth.
Even if all the fake news during the United States election were produced purely for mischievous reasons there remains a problem. Social media was now creating an illusion of truth, whether intentionally or unintentionally. More people were looking at social media for ‘news’ then were looking at traditional media. The distortion by traditional media outlets had produced a cynical reaction so that many actually believed that social media might prove to be a better source of ‘truth’. The post-election analyses show that nothing could be further from the ‘truth’. The technology and the ability to create videos of fake news, dubbing of speeches and editing of news footage, has opened up the possibility of a propaganda war that is more far reaching and sophisticated in construction than anything we have ever experienced before.
As the incidence of fake news becomes more widespread there are suggestions we are now living in a ‘post-truth era’. If this is so then we must try and answer a further question, why was this fake news so easily believed, in some cases passionately believed? The answer is that the foundations were laid many years ago, they include government censorship of news, bias of newspapers, ownership of the media by a few, political campaigns that relied on distortion and then on personal attacks. All of these things have contributed to a doubting of traditional news sources and a reliance on other sources.
We do need regulation to avoid a post-truth era, but we must achieve this without censorship. The ‘Obama was born in Kenya’ conspiracy should have been handled firmly and those who published, or circulated an untruth of this nature needed to be regulated and held to account. Allowing this and other stories to go unchallenged as published material has simply opened the flood gates to the stories we now have. We have also no way of knowing how much information published by Edward Snowden and others is genuine, or whether the material has been altered or edited in some way, nor have we any means of verifying how much material released through WikiLeaks is authentic. With claims that Russian intelligence services were able to hack into data relating to the United States election and influence the outcome there are plenty of reasons for investigating how fake news is created and being used.
Of course we can all select and build a composite picture of our own idea of truth, but is that a result of our upbringing, our education, our experiences, or is this something we do naturally? If we can be so easily manipulated to select our news sources then we are going to find that fake news plays an increasing role in our lives. Fake news is no longer going to be about mischief, or elections, but has the potential to manipulate in other ways, directing our attitudes and actions in ways that will fuel prejudice and hate. If we want to live in a more caring and compassionate society then we must make every attempt to eliminate fake news from all forms of media, but particularly from social media. Those who have gained power through the use of fake news are not going to relinquish that power easily, but unless we really do want to see ‘1984’ come to fruition we are going to have to meet the challenge of exposing the propagators of fake news. Meeting that challenge will ensure we never have to live in a post-truth era.