The media like to call it the ‘Post Truth Era’, this strange age that we’re living in, where politicians happily spout what are patently lies and remain unrepentant when they are caught out, with large sections of the public apparently not caring that they’ve been lied to. And it isn’t just right wing demagogues like Donald Trump or political opportunists like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the whole ‘Leave’ campaign in the EU referendum who are guilty of these tactics. A characteristic of the Corbyn camp during the Labour leadership campaign has been its predilection for denying the truth of certain facts, even in the face of overwhelming proof of that truth. Most notable was Corbyn’s attempts to deny that he’d called for the immediate triggering of ‘Article 50’ in the wake of the EU referendum’s disastrous outcome. This, despite the existence of video footage showing him saying it. Shadow Chancellor and chief Corbyn puppet-master John McDonnell has similarly sought to deny the truth of statements he was recorded making in videos posted to You Tube. Regardless of ideology, the prevailing mantra amongst politicians is that if you repeat a lie often enough, people will be bludgeoned into believing it, even in the face of evidence refuting it.
Not that there’s actually anything new about this. It’s just that both the lies and the lying seem more blatant nowadays and modern media, particularly social media which bypasses the regular news outlets, ensures that the lies really have travelled all around the world before the truth has even gotten out of the starting blocks. Of course, the whole internet which, despite the best efforts of the likes of Google, remains relatively unregulated and unpoliced, is a seething continent of lies, home to all sorts of crackpot conspiracy websites peddling ideas which, in the past, would never have escaped the minds of their perpetrators. The web has given a platform to every wild and whacky idea out there, often presenting them via slick-looking websites which carry an air of authority, thereby legitimising these untruths in the eyes of many casual web browsers. Every idea is equal on the web, no matter how ludicrous it might be. So, is it any wonder that people seem to me more susceptible to the lies of politicians and their ilk? Especially when people are allegedly less trusting of the so called ‘mainstream media’ to actually report the truth.
In response to this Age of Untruth the established media do what they always do: aim at the wrong targets. They declare war of ‘fake news’, with the likes of Facebook and Twitter joining up with various media organisations to create a ‘platform’ where news stories can be ‘verified’ before they get disseminated across the web. This, apparently, is how they are going to stop ‘faux news’ stories going viral to create fake terror alerts and false reports of celebrity deaths. The problems with this are manifold. For one thing, false death reports and fake terror alerts tend not to be the result of ‘fake’ news stories, rather they are a result of the way in which social media itself operates, where a single person with sufficient ‘followers’ or ‘friends’ can set something with no substance whatsoever trending. The other big problem is how, exactly, do we define a ‘fake’ news story? Just because something published online isn’t true, doesn’t mean that it has malicious intent. Obviously, I have a vested interest here, as the owner/operator/writer of a satire site, (well, I like to think that The Sleaze is satirical, others might differ), nothing I publish is actually true. But that doesn’t make me guilty of peddling fake news. The site makes clear on its masthead, which appears on every page and story, that it isn’t true, that it is intended as satire and parody.
This, however, doesn’t stop The Sleaze being lumped in with the so called ‘fake’ news sites on many of those web sites which purport to be able to tell people what they are reading is true or not. The very fact that such web sites exist indicate where the problem with ‘fake’ news really lies: the lack of critical faculties amongst some users of the web. I mean, really – if you can’t make a judgement for yourself on the veracity of something you come across online, then I despair of the human race. Sure, increasingly I find there’s a problem when people whose first language isn’t English read satire stories, the fact that what they are reading isn’t meant to be taken literally, is sometimes lost in translation. But, I’m afraid, gullibility is what lies at the source of this problem (if, indeed, it really is a problem, which I doubt). I’m guessing that the very same people who allegedly believe these ‘fake’ news stories are also taken in by those emails from Nigerian generals and the like, who just need you to give them all your bank account details in order to make you rich.
But to return to the point, online satire isn’t targeted at such an audience. It’s aim isn’t to bamboozle the gullible. Indeed, the only people I’ve ever seemed to have ‘fooled’ with any of my stories are researchers working on TV programmes and journalists – people who really should know better. Although, to be fair to them, I think that they are lazy rather than gullible, trying to find an easy story sourced from the web, without actually bothering to check out the origin of the information they’ve found in a Google search. I am aware, though, that there are sites out there whose sole purpose seems to be to promulgate fake news stories, usually in order to generate ‘click bait’ via search engines and social media, which, they hope, will generate ad revenue from unwary visitors to their own sites. More recently, we’ve seen the appearance of a number of right wing sites, some actually masquerading as satire sites, whose mission is to promote their pathetic, but still poisonous racist, homophobic and misogynistic propaganda, trying to get it onto mainstream outlets via social media. Of late, they’ve specialised in churning out outrageous nonsense about Hilary Clinton as part of their support for Donald Trump. Ultimately, though, I can’t help but feel that even if anyone does actually believe any of their fake stories, it will be a case of them preaching to the converted.
Of course, there’s another, far more dangerous and prolific source of fake news: the mainstream media itself. The very organisations which are apparently now committed to ‘defeating’ fake news on the web are, themselves, filling their pages with palpably false news stories, usually designed to push their own, highly dubious, agendas. Just peruse the pages of any UK tabloid, from the Daily Mail to The Sun and you’ll find all manner of screaming headlines about Muslims, benefits claimants, single mothers and immigrants, heading stories which, upon even the most cursory examination, prove to have no foundation in fact whatsoever. Even worse are their ‘science’ articles, promising all sorts of medical breakthroughs and holding out hope for the seriously ill and disabled, none of which are actually based upon any kind of reputable scientific research. Is it any wonder that people no longer trust them to report the facts and are instead turning to even more dubious web sources which appear to have no establishment links or agendas? If the news media are serious about defeating fake news, then they need to start by cleaning up their own act. Because, ironically, by promulgating lies themselves, they have helped create the very situation they now rail against: the peddling of lies by politicians and online ‘fake news’.