Tuesday November 20, 2018
Tuesday November 20, 2018
Negative news screening in the fake news era
The Trump administration’s fractured relationship with the US media has prompted much talk on the freedom of the press. Outright hostility towards journalists encourages a cynicism towards the press that clearly chimes with the president’s electoral base, many of whom consider the media nothing but a megaphone for vested interests – ideological sounding boards – for whichever political affiliation they wish to promote, and though no great orator, Trump has managed to articulate this sense of political disaffection in one pithy phrase: Fake News (Trump’s caps).
It is very effective. Leaders worldwide have quickly caught on by spotting that this phrase was an easy way of getting out of trouble by blaming the media. The press has responded in kind by underlining their credentials as exponents of the truth. Between these warring forces, where is the modern MLRO to discover accurate information? And with so much false information (especially online) is it always worth it?
Misinformation campaigns, occasionally organised at a state level, such as in Russia, have made distinguishing the real from the fabricated much more difficult. But it does not have to be a state involved in the promotion of fake news: the obscure Macedonian town of Veles, for instance, was home to students who churned out fake news stories at the US election with no other motive but profit.
Fake news must also be separated from good old-fashioned, straight up propaganda. Those students from Veles were copying and pasting articles from news sources, chucking in a clickbait title, posting the link on Facebook and sitting back and watching the thing take off. Clearly this is not the same as, say, an article in a state-run newspaper defending the government. Both can contain outright lies, or perhaps subtle manipulations of the truth – and media owned by the government can attack domestic political opposition including individuals. But identifying the difference between state-run propaganda and fake news will make finding out the information you need that little bit easier.
For instance, you should know that RT (Russia Today) receives funding by the Russian state, and has been accused of spreading disinformation. Given the Salisbury poisoning and the further deterioration of the relationship between the UK and Russia, knowing how small the leap is between RT and the state would give you vital background information on how such a story would be reported in the Russian press, particularly with regard to the individuals involved, whose alleged innocence was loudly proclaimed on RT.
‘The situation is desperate’
For another example underlining the seriousness of the situation we confront, consider Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist killed by a car bomb in 2017. Her blog Running Commentary had from 2008 been the island’s most talked about site, probing the personal and political dealings of the Maltase government and opposition and their business links. She posted on the Panama Papers revelations, the ‘golden passport’ programme, offshore companies linked to Malta’s PM Joseph Muscat and Malta’s connection to the Azerbaijani laundromat. It was a fantastic mixture of humour, information and genuine incredulity at what Galizia could see happening in her country.
On 16 October 2017 she signed off a blog post with the words: ‘There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate’. Twenty minutes after posting, the bomb planted in her car was detonated as she drove from her family home. Ten people were arrested, and three were charged and found guilty of her murder, but many allege only the hitmen were arrested and sentenced, and not those who conceived, plotted and ordered Galizia’s murder.
Her death received attention from all over the world; the EU was (and remains) especially concerned. At the United Nations, a human rights review recently pushed Malta to do more to protect journalists, as well as recommending that the country ‘complies with EU anti money laundering directives’ and improve its fight against corruption and human trafficking. What the UN’s comments reveal is that no issue operates in isolation – though these areas appear disparate on the surface, Galizia’s murder demonstrates that they do not operate independently of each other and have a nasty habit of combining to create further criminality.
The reliability of your negative news screening is dependent on what you know about the source from which you are receiving your news. RT and Daphne Caruana Galizia demonstrate two extreme ends on the spectrum of journalism, and the complexities of political reporting.
Journalism is as complicated and multifaceted a profession as any other; it is made up of those who look to obtain the truth, reveal criminal behaviour and expose corruption, and those content (or if not contended, then at least unhappily willing) to be mere mouthpieces or apologists for the powerful and the rich. It makes your task of getting accurate information that little bit harder.
Your watchword should be discernment; within reason, look to understand media in different countries. Use the Press Freedom Index to gauge how objective media reports from a particular place are likely to be. Take everything into consideration and always consider what you know about the sources you use for negative news screening.
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