Fake news: a media panic?
Fake news. From Donald Trump to Jeremy Corbyn, everyone is obsessed with it. The term caught on during last year’s US election, with examples ranging from the false claim that the Pope had endorsed Trump to baseless allegations that senior Democrats were involved in a paedophile ring meeting in pizza restaurants. But since then, the term has stuck, and is frequently used not only about blatantly made-up stories, but also merely partisan claims that would previously have warranted a counter-argument. Should we be more discerning about what is and isn’t fake news, or is the very concept flawed?
From stories about UFOs to premature warnings about summer heatwaves, newspapers getting it wrong is nothing new. And neither is deliberate media fakery, like the notorious Zinoviev letter, published by the Daily Mail in 1924, which purported to be a call to arms for British communists from a senior Soviet official, and caused significant political damage to the Labour Party. So why is everyone so obsessed with fake news today? National elections have supposedly been won and lost as a result of nonsense news circulating on Facebook. Google wants the power to filter out search results it decides to be fake. Even the head of MI6 has described fake news as a ‘threat to democracy’. But critics argue that the fake news panic isn’t really be about fake news at all, so much as it is about the ordinary ‘suckers’ who fall for it.
Meanwhile, the legal and ethical implications of a fake news crackdown are manifold. Who decides what news is fake? What should we do about it? Where do the lines between satire and fabrication blur? How do you sue anonymous news sites for libel? Or is this entire fake news panic just a malicious fabrication itself, designed to undermine the demos and expand elites’ powers to muzzle the media? Is fake news fake news?