Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Living in a world of fake news and alternative facts

It's hard to know what's real in this post-truth world where 'alternative facts' are the order of the day. But even before the age of the Internet the fuzzy lines between truth and facts have often been blurred.

Manipulating truth

How media manipulates facts or conveniently ignores important truths is nothing new. Governments keep information secret using the excuse of 'national security' and the cold reality of war may be glossed over for 'reasons of taste'. Thus whole nations may back a policy they might otherwise recoil from should they see the repercussions of a government's actions.

Uncensored footage which played out on US TV stations during the Vietnam War had a marked effect on the population and fuelled the anti-war movement.

Television long been seen by radicals as a way of controlling the masses. "Who needs controlling when they've got the cathode ray?" the Anarcho-Punk group Crass asked in its scathing attack of the medium of television in the song Nineteen Eighty Bore.

The audience were, Crass maintained, "Drained of any substance by the vicious telly blow, no longer know what's real or ain't, slowly going blind, they stare into the goggle box while the world goes by, behind." [LyricsYouTube]

In the age of the Internet we are saturated with information to such a point that many suffer from information overload. And it is easier for many to get sucked into the facile and empty sound bites uttered on both sides of an otherwise reasoned debate.


"Make America great again!", "Build a wall" and "Take our country back" have been the slogans of the Trump and Brexit campaign. Many however will look no further than the sloganeering. Sound bites are not confined to the right-wing however. Who can forget Obama's "Yes we can" mantra in his first election campaign. Powerful but meaningless slogans have become the mantra of politicians.

Such sloganeering is nothing new either. On both sides one liners have been used to add force to their argument. And quotes from figures of history are used or misused to add substance to their arguments.

In recent months Churchill, Hitler and Goebbels have all been been quoted and misquoted for the cause. Both sides in Britain's EU referendum have used Churchill as a cause célèbre. The Remain side have cited the wartime leader as one who helped found what was to become the European Union whilst the Leave campaign have selectively quoted or misquoted Churchill for their own ends [SayYes2Europe].

But of course those on the right will simply shout FAKE NEWS in response to anything they don't like.

Fake News

Soon after taking office Trump refused to answer any questions put to him by CNN labelling the organisation as "fake news" [YouTube - CNBC / YouTube - Press Conference in full CNN].

The so-called liberal press have been ignored in the last year as Britain rolled towards a vote for Brexit and America campaigned for a new president. The Guardian, New York Times, CNN and the BBC may have been shouting but few people were listening and many more were retorting that they were propaganda mouthpieces spouting lies and fear. So it was no surprise to some, such as veteran journalist John Pilger, that Trump won [YouTube - RT]

But we are where we are, another much coined phrase. And the world is on a much more dangerous course despite all the rhetoric uttered by the likes of Trump, May and Farage.

Trump and his advisers have set forth a plan that can only put the US on a path to confrontation. Within days in office Trump had signed executive orders banning individuals from several Muslim-majority countries [Guardian]. Meanwhile there has been increased rhetoric that the US will blockade China in its access of the Spratly Islands and the man-made islands within the so-called 9 dashed line [Reuters]. China's stance on the issue is bullish, maintaining that it has history on its side and that the South China Sea is part of its territory [Telegraph / Guardian]. But the US just as bullish and is building its military presence in the region as it rings China with a growing number of military bases [RT / Sun].

Ignoring real facts

But there are few in the West that are aware of what is happening in the South China Sea. Indeed China has fallen off the agenda as western media has focused on Brexit, Trump and the growing far-right populism that appears to be sweeping across parts of Europe.

Pilger has attempted to cover the concerns in his documentary The Coming War on China.

Unlike Bernstein and Munro's book The Coming Conflict with China, which concerned itself with a conflict of economics and politics, Pilger's film is very much focused on a military response to China's growing influence around the world.

In this post truth world of alternative facts there is denial of what the doomsayers, environmentalists, experts and others have been saying. Trump has been on record dismissing climate change whilst saying he wants to restart the US coal industry. Meanwhile there is a growing denial of conventional wisdom that a limited nuclear exchange would throw up dust into the upper atmosphere and create a so-called nuclear winter which could last months or even years resulting in an agricultural disaster which in turn would lead to global famine.

Nonetheless Pilger remains optimistic that such a war will not happen.

Hitler comparisons

But not everyone is so optimistic. Trump's so-called Muslim ban came into force the day after Holocaust Memorial Day and the irony was not lost on many who protested against the barring of citizens holding passports from a number of Middle Eastern and north African countries. "And so it starts," one person wrote on a Facebook post under a news item highlighting Trump's presidential order. But "Where will it end?" the same poster asks.

Even before Trump won the US election people likened him to Hitler. But as he follows through on his much talked about policies of banning Muslims, reinforcing borders and building walls such comparisons have grown.

There are of course stark differences. Trump is not as blatant as Hitler was. But just because law enforcement don't wear jackboots and wear swastikas it doesn't necessarily mean America is not on a path towards fascism.

However, there are checks and balances in American politics and the constitution does protect people's rights being eroded. But in the post-truth world one is now confronted with, how long before peoples and governments are persuaded by the lies? Can the checks and balances be cancelled out? And can a president of the free world ride roughshod over the constitution? 

Alternative facts

No sooner than Trump had been inaugurated than facts were being disputed. Sean Spicer, Trump's White House press secretary, made an angry declaration that the media faked low attendance figures and claimed their assertions did not stack up against photos, videos and public transport figures.

Donald Trump drew "the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe" Spicer declared despite clear photographic evidence showing smaller crowds than during Obama's 2009 inauguration [Guardian].

On 22nd January 2017 US Counsellor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, coined the phrase "Alternative facts" during a Meet the Press interview on NBC, as she defended White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance at Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States [Washington Post].

The 'alternative facts' didn't end there. Only two weeks into the presidency Kellyanne Conway made yet another major blunder as she attempted to defend Trump's so-called 'Muslim ban'.

"President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized, and they were the masterminds between the Bowling Green massacre. Most people don't know that because it didn't get covered," Conway said during an interview with MSNBC's Chris Matthews [CNN].

However, the Bowling Green massacre didn't get covered because it didn't happen. In fact there has never been a terrorist attack in Bowling Green, Kentucky, carried out by Iraqi refugees or anyone else.

It appeared Conway was referring to two Iraqi citizens living in Bowling Green who were arrested in 2011 and eventually sentenced to federal prison for attempting to send weapons and money to al-Qaeda in Iraq for the purpose of killing US soldiers, according to a statement from the Justice Department. Conway later sent out a tweet saying that this is what she was in fact referring to. However, there was no massacre [Washington Post].

Of course, anyone can make a mistake. But to go to an interview apparently so ill-prepared is quite inept. And while Conway did put out a correction of sorts not everyone would have seen it and might still be enveloped in a world of alternative facts.

Brexit lies

The EU referendum campaign in the UK is another example where the lines between truth and lies have blurred. One of those campaigning to Leave Europe was Boris Johnson who not only claimed the EU dictated the shape and curvature of bananas but also how many might be sold as a bunch.

"It is absurd that we are told you cannot sell bananas in bunches of more than two or three," Johnson told a pro-Brexit crowd in Stafford. While he was picked up by the press for making it up as he goes along, many ignored the facts and accepted the lies [Telegraph / BBC].

But Boris continued with his alternative facts. As he arrived in Cornwall he spoke of the EU's interference on the shape of bananas.

Brandishing a Cornish pasty - which ironically is one of more than 60 British food and drink products that have protected geographical status under EU law, meaning they cannot be ripped off by imitations made elsewhere - Johnson said it was "absolutely crazy that the EU is telling us how powerful our vacuum cleaners have got to be, what shape our bananas have got to be, and all that kind of thing".

However the truth of the matter is rather mundane. Rules on vacuum cleaners is partially true, but is an attempt to cut back on energy consumption. Furthermore the rules affect only a small proportion of vacuum cleaners.

As regards bananas the so-called Brussels ban on bendy bananas is one of the EU's most persistent myths.

Bananas have always been classified by quality and size for international trade. Because the standards, set by individual governments and the industry, were confusing, the European Commission was asked to draw up new rules.

Commission regulation 2257/94 decreed that bananas in general should be "free from malformation or abnormal curvature" [BBC]. Those sold as "extra class" must be perfect, "class 1" can have "slight defects of shape" and "class 2" can have full-scale "defects of shape". Nothing is banned under the regulation [Guardian / Spectator].

Believing the lies

But many people were drawn into the lies and apparently voted on the strength of these lies. "I was voting remain and at the very last minute I changed my decision and I went to leave," an audience member on BBC Question Time said recently, adding, "The reason because of that is because of… I go to a supermarket and a banana is straight. I'm just sick of the silly rules that come out of Europe." [Sun / Mirror / Daily Mail].

The Leave campaign has also been taken to task over other campaign lies such as the extra £350 million that could be spent on the NHS instead of being used as Britain's daily EU membership fee. The detail over facts and figures has been somewhat lost in time but even days after members of the pro-Brexit camp such as UKIP's Nigel Farage were calling the famous bus slogan "a mistake".

He told ITV's Good Morning Britain that the pledge came from others in the Leave campaign and that it was their "mistake" to loudly earmark £350 million for the health service during the campaign.

However, only days before Nigel Farage had said EU cash should be spent on the National Health Service after Brexit [Independent].

Prior to the vote former PM John Major made a withering assessment of leading members of Vote Leave, calling their campaign deceitful, untrue, depressing, awful and "verging on the squalid".

Major claimed Gove had wanted to privatise the NHS, Johnson wished to charge people for health services and Duncan Smith advocated moving to a social insurance system. "The NHS is about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python," Major said on BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show [Guardian].

This wasn't the first U-turn by the Leave camp. Soon after the PM Theresa May declared Britain would not seek to maintain access to the Single Market those in the Leave camp conveniently forgot about their mantra that Britain would not have to leave the Single Market [YouTube - Open Britain]

U-turns or abandoned promises are of course nothing new but the Brexit campaign was perhaps awash with them more than any other in living memory [YouTube].

Far Right battle cries

It is not just Britain and America experiencing a post-truth world. Across parts of Europe the electorate are being subject to lies and half-truths.

In France the election is being fought in a post-Brexit, post-Trump, post-truth atmosphere with the Far-Right in particular seeking to capitalise on the back of Brexit and Trump whilst slandering the opposition [Guardian].

Speaking on CNN Marine Le Pen the French Presidential Candidate for the National Front claimed that Crimea "has always been Russian" and that what happened was a "Coup d'Etat".

CNN's international correspondent appeared shocked at Le Pen's answers. "Does it not bother you that a big country broke international law and invaded and annexed a small country?" Amanpour asked. "There was a coup d'etat in Ukraine…" Le Pen retorted.

"That's what you think?" Amanpour asked.

"It's not just what I think, it's the reality. There was a coup d'etat. There was an agreement among different nations and the next day this agreement was broken and some people took power…"

Amanpour forced the issue in an attempt to clarify Le Pen's position. "After the invasion and the annexation…Yes!"

"There was no invasion of Crimea…" Le Pen once again asserted

"But they [Russia] annexed Crimea! It was part of Ukraine! And the French were part of the deal that guaranteed the independence of Ukraine in 1994," Amanpour told her.

"Crimea was Russian. It has always been Russian," Le Pen insisted [CNN / Full Transcript].

While the issues surrounding Ukraine and Crimea are indeed complicated Le Pen's opinions on the matter are somewhat disturbing [Telegraph].

Rising nationalism

Nonetheless, Le Pen is riding on a wave of nationalism and populism that could see her seizing power. It would be a win that could set France into a spin, politically economically and sociologically [Guardian].

France has had a long tradition of tolerance. Its motto is Liberté, égalité, fraternité and whilst a somewhat conservative society it has long lived under a flag of socialist values too.

A France under Le Pen could set the country on a far more tumultuous route than Brexit has with Britain [NYT / Newsweek].

There are very real fears that not only Le Pen but other far-Right candidates could seize power across Europe. However organisations such as Rue89 believe that the French political system will save at least France from such an outcome.

Existential crises

Part of the problem faced by voters is the very real issue of so-called Fake News. Recently Christiane Amanpour wrote a piece suggesting that since Trump the very nature of journalism was in an "existential crisis".

"I believe in being truthful, not neutral. And I believe we must stop banalizing the truth," Amanpour wrote. "And we have to be prepared to fight especially hard for the truth in a world where the Oxford English Dictionary just announced its word of 2016: 'post-truth' " [CNN]

Such concerns are heightened by the fact the world now has a US president who essentially calls anything he doesn't like or agree with 'Fake News'.

When polls appeared to show most people did not agree with his travel ban President Trump declared the polls were fake. "Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting," Trump tweeted.

His war on the media has been consistent both throughout his campaign and during his first days in office. At some rallies, some Trump supporters even yelled a term used by the Nazis, "Lugenpresse" (translation: lying press), at media staff members [TimeCNN /CNN]

Trump's latest attacks on the media are extremely dangerous. At a CIA meeting Trump declared "I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth" [CNN]. He's called out individual reporters for alleged bias. He's insisted that the media as a whole is failing. But now he has accused the media for covering up or under-reporting terror attacks [Washington Post / Guardian].

"You've seen what happened in Paris, and Nice. All over Europe, it's happening. It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it," Trump told senior US military commanders and coalition representatives on 6th February at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida [Washington Post].

Quite how much coverage Trump would want to see is unclear. Some of the incidents on his list might have got front page headlines in one country but only a mention in foreign press. But every incident on Trump's list was covered, some extensively [Guardian].

Effects of fake news

There is an irony however in Trump's attacks on the media. Whilst there may well be a large number of Trump supports abandoning traditional media sources, some such sources have seen audience numbers and sales rise. For example The New York Times, one of Mr Trump's favourite voodoo dolls, which he has repeatedly admonished on Twitter and in rallies, is doing very well out of the new president. In the three weeks after his election, it sold 132,000 digital subscriptions - a tenfold increase [CNBC / BBC].

But the issues concerning fake news are not going away.

Facebook was singled out during the US election as providing a platform for Fake News. Such items have also been said by some to have influenced people in the way they voted.

While slow to react to the criticism Facebook has now set up a 'fake news' filter for the country in the lead up to national elections in France. It follows a similar decision it made with regards to the upcoming German elections [FT]. Google has also joined forces in seeking to weed out 'fake news' stories in France ahead of the country's presidential election [Reuters].

While the effects of fake news on Brexit and the US election are highly subjective and open to debate, the effects on some individuals has been very real.

One refugee who became a victim of fake news is now suing Facebook accusing the social network of aiding incitement by spreading posts with false claims he was an Islamist terrorist [NYT / CNN].

In the Soviet Union of the nineteen-seventies and eighties everyone knew that everything said on the radio or on television, everything - with the exception of weather reports or sports results - was a blatant lie.

But in today's world where we have rejected experts, readily absorbed 'fake news', dismissed real journalism as 'fake news' and even vote on the basis of believing government bodies dictate on the shape of fruit, the world of truth has become ever more blurred and fuzzy.

In the 1930s when an electorate voted for Hitler they might be forgiven for not being fully informed. Some 80 or so years on people are saturated with information to the point that many suffer from information overload. Furthermore the public have to make their own minds up what is fiction and what is fact. And it's more difficult than one might think [Salon].

There is a very real danger that not knowing what is real or fake could send us all into a very dark dystopian world indeed [New Yorker].

Irony and satire

In recent months some have sought light relief by satirizing the situation, from Brexit, votes based on nonexistent laws on bananas, nonexistent inauguration crowds and other bizarre quirks related to the new US president such as his demeanor, hand size and haircut. Humour can provide relief and some, such as the New Yorker, see it as a political weapon.

But US president Donald Trump's new administration seems impervious to parody, and shows no signs of changing tactics even if Trump himself gets a little peeved by his Saturday Night Live sketches calling them  "unwatchable" and "totally biased" [Time].

Sean Spicer has also been parodied on SNL with great affect and in fact the recent satirical sketches have in fact boosted ratings [Washington Post]. 

Saturday Night Live has recorded 22-year high ratings as a result of its scathing attacks on US president Donald Trump and his White House spokesman Sean Spicer, drawing an average audience of 10.6 million viewers [Daily Mail].

But as Hannah Arendt, a philosopher who dissected the rise of totalitarianism during the Second World War, showed in 1951, political lies aren't funny at all [Quartz].

Ultimately, humans are fallible judges of the truth. Scientific studies have shown that determining a statement is false takes more mental energy than simply accepting it as true. It would be exhausting to go through life questioning everything around us, and so humans are naturally inclined to judge what we see and hear as truth. Indeed even if papers attempt to clarify things many will dismiss this as - you've guessed it - fake news [Mirror]. Research indicates that frequently repeating a lie further creates "the illusion of truth." [Researchgate]

Herein lies another irony. Since the birth of fake news and alternative facts those on the side of truth have incorrectly cited the Nazi Joseph Goebbels as having said, "If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself." In fact Goebbels never said this or a number of other quotes often attributed to him [Truth is the Greatest Enemy of the State].

Whilst attributed to Goebbels it is likely the quote is drawn instead from "War Propaganda", volume 1, chapter 6 of Mein Kampf (1925), by Adolf Hitler. Often referred to as the Big Lie, the expression was coined by Adolf Hitler, when he dictated his 1925 book Mein Kampf, about the use of a lie so "colossal" that no one would believe that someone "could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously." Hitler falsely claimed the technique was used by Jews to blame Germany's loss in World War I on German general Erich Ludendorff, who was a prominent nationalist and antisemitic political leader in the Weimar Republic.

It is truth that is the enemy of the state. But knowing what the truth is has become harder to determine. And some might say, just like Magritte's painting The Treachery of Images, truth and fact is all a matter of perspective [YouTube].

tvnewswatch, London

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