What is ‘news’ and how is it different from ‘truth’?
After all the noise about fake news and bias, the greatest danger is not that people don’t know who to believe but that they stop bothering to ask. “Oh, they’re all the same, I don’t know who to believe so I won’t bother to vote.” And that is how we lose our democracy. Not just because powerful voices influence the media but, far worse, because powerless voters stop caring.
Opinion varies on how far newspapers and television affect voting behaviour. Many people don’t believe they are affected by advertising. They may also claim they can tell what is true and what is not regardless of the paper they read. This claim deserves examination, but so does the cliché that newspapers tell lies. Some may do, but that is not the main problem. Or, at least, not the only one.
Donald Trump tells lies but if you try to say that to his more dedicated followers they won’t listen. Not because they think he necessarily told the strict truth on every occasion, but because they don’t care. His general attitude expresses a belief they have that he is listening to them and nobody else is, so his general attitude is ‘true’ and anything he does to get power is justified. We need to distinguish between individual small facts and a general narrative, a way of telling stories that shapes perception and reflects emotional states.
Journalists tell new stories. What counts as news and how a story will be told are decided by the style of their paper, which reflects a world familiar to their readers. What they choose to talk about and how they choose to present their story depends on what their readers are used to, what they are interested in, what they expect and what they will accept. You could call that reflecting and reinforcing bias, but that is too simple. It is providing information of a certain sort for a certain purpose, selling papers so you can sell advertising space or gaining audience members to increase their ratings.
Advertisers need to know what sort of audience they are buying so newspapers need to keep a certain kind of audience ready to be packaged and sold to them. Some have party political loyalties and fight dirty in elections, spreading stories designed to harm the opposition. But all media outlets are a business first, not a political party. Their selection and presentation will obviously reinforce a set of values, assumptions and prejudices, but that is usually only considered a problem with other people’s newspapers, not the ones ‘we’ read. You might argue it is not the job of a newspaper to be neutral or objective but to tell the story as their readers wish to hear it. Not quite the same thing.
That is not to say all journalists fail to tell the truth as they see it. In broadsheet papers and on the BBC, for example, many people expect a level of enquiry and presentation that is rigorous and honest. That does not mean they are immune from following a house style and a general narrative tendency. If the story of the day is that an Arab Spring is bringing democracy to the Middle East some may be tempted to look for and/or present stories that support that line. Until they discover it is not going to happen that way. If the story is that Jeremy Corbyn is a weak leader who will never win an election, that is the assumption they are likely to accept. Until he starts getting more votes. The ‘truth’ will out eventually from some sources, and some media outlets may report it, but there will be a time delay while the accepted narrative changes. In the same way, they might print something untrue in large letters then, either realising their mistake or getting caught out, apologise a week later in small letters.
We also have to allow for the technologies of news outlets. A story featuring on radio may not appear on t.v. at all because they don’t have any pictures. That is not bias, just doing what they are best at. A Free Press is able to investigate and hold powerful people to account, but it is also free to say what it likes within the law. It is a business, not a court of law or an academic essay.
The Overton Window and how prejudice becomes acceptable
In 2017 a story was widely reported that a young girl from a Christian family was given to foster parents who were Muslim. They took away her crucifix, refused her bacon, spoke Arabic at home, hid their face with a niqab and told her she was wicked. It started in The Times and quickly spread to other ‘respectable’ outlets. Not a single element of the story was actually true, but it served to fuel anti-Muslim feeling. Some newspapers did not intend that effect and were embarrassed by their mistake. They were just accepting the narrative shape of a popular story.
An Overton Window (after Joseph P Overton 1960 – 2003) is a range of opinion considered acceptable in a given context. Slavery was once normal but is now considered immoral – outside the window. Racism or antisemitism are usually outside the window but in some groups it is accepted. If you hold ideas that are outside the normal window and want people to agree with you, then you need to ‘nudge’ their windows in a certain direction so that what was previously unthinkable becomes thinkable, then accepted, then normal, until it is so ‘natural’ you don’t have to think about it at all. The most effective propaganda tends to work like this, in stages, trying to sneak round our conscious ‘goal keeper’ and nudge the Overton window along in the subconscious. Social media is very useful for that purpose. Jokes about women in burquas looking like letter boxes will nudge the Overton Window to the right and encourage racism by making it, slowly, by degrees, more socially acceptable.
Any advertising or campaigning undertaken by someone trying to get elected has to be declared so we know how much they spent. There are limits on how much any candidate is allowed to spend and it is easy to check their accounts. But messages supporting them on social media, directly or indirectly, are usually free and even paid for ads can be shared for free. If a message goes viral millions read it and it costs nothing. It is not surprising that social media gets a lot of attention from anyone seeking power.
Breitbart News is a very powerful organisation in the US that supports parties or candidates who it thinks will implement the policies they believe in. They are skilled in using ‘fake’ or manipulated ‘news’ to move public opinion further to the right and thus support radical right wing candidates who might otherwise be considered too extreme to get elected. If such an organisation were operating in the UK would you know? Would you spot their output? One to watch out for at the moment is called Reason: Common sense, for the common good. It poses as neutral site offering common sense analysis but is actually a right wing propaganda machine, sounding a lot like the American web site Reason and obviously well-funded. It will certainly try to influence political debate and the outcome of any election in the UK.
In the US, Facebook is under pressure from investigators trying to find out how much was paid by Russian sources for ads supporting US candidates. It is alleged that 3,000 political ads were bought, perhaps to destabilise the US as an act of foreign policy – warfare by Facebook posts.
Most people reading Facebook or Twitter are not really paying attention. Ideas, images, assumptions and values flash by at speed, with popular stories being spread quickly and uncritically, liked and shared long before anyone finds they are not true. A denial or proof they are not true may or may not follow but by then the unspeakable has been said and the Overton window might be moving. There are two distinct elements to this; untrue stories and damage by implication.
Untrue stories are easily spread. If they are shocking and thus interesting they will be shared and if they confirm what people already wish to believe they will be accepted as facts. They may later be challenged but by then it is too late – they will still be repeated and believed by those who wish to believe them. And for those who are ‘undecided’ or ‘ not political’ they may just tip a decision to vote in one direction.
There are fact-checking sites (see below) but how many people bother to check stories they casually meet on Facebook or hear in the pub? Especially if you find it interesting and it confirms your prejudice. Was it ever true that Obama did not have a US passport? Of course not, but many Trump supporters still believe it. If a fake story gives pleasure then it will be repeated even by people who know it is false. Everyone seems to love a conspiracy theory and the Middle East is made more unstable because of the way fake news is used ? How much influence did the Russian state have on Trump’s election ? How much influence could a lobbying group have on UK elections? And how would you know it was happening?
Trusting your own judgement
The problem is so widespread that a generation bought up on this diet might start to assume all news is fake, giving rise to a scepticism that rejects all important information on the assumption it is probably ‘fake’. This leads to a disengagement from the political process so they are in effect, disenfranchised. And, of course, easier to manipulate, as they have no foundation from which to examine influences. The less you ‘believe in politics’ the more you are pushed around by those who do.
Another potential result of being disenchanted with the political system is that voters don’t vote on simple family loyalties or from habit anymore. Instead, they look at pools and predictions about who is doing well and try to switch parties, voting tactically, perhaps on a single issue, to keep a party they don’t like out of power or even just to make a point that they are fed up.
Meanwhile, those who might benefit or suffer from a certain proposal in a manifesto might form a pressure group or hire a lobbying form to try to influence both parties and voters, taking advantage of the new instability.
Not all attempts to influence are easy to spot or even very direct. When Hilary Clinton published her book on how and why she lost the US election to Trump, it received thousands of reviews on Amazon within a few hours. 50% of those reviews gave it one star out of five, which spoils her reputation and discourages people from reading it. Another 45% gave it five stars, supporting her. It is very unlikely any of those people had time to actually read the book – they just wanted to express an opinion about the author. They were all removed by Amazon. How much influence any of this had it is hard to know. What we do know is that comments on social media can be posted quickly and cheaply by robots and are, at the moment, largely unregulated. The problem with free speech is not that someone is free to call you a fool, but that they can convince others you are a fool in ways that are hard to fight.
In an uncertain world, where even the best of our knowledge might be relative and temporary, we still need to have principles we can act on. How you select them is a personal choice, possible a lifelong journey. What matters is that you choose them. We hope this blog has encouraged a more critical process. And if you want to explore a given story or source, try these links: