Do you wonder why you'd never heard about 'fake news' till late in the 2016 election campaign, when, suddenly, apparently overnight, the American big media pack took up the danger that 'fake news' poses for American democracy?
'Fake news' was, in short, a political campaign facilitated and funded by wealthy Hilary Clinton donors like Eric Schmidt of Google. It was intended, in effect, to discredit and neutralize pro-Trump social media, and, perhaps, to silence these hostile voices by filtering them off major internet platforms like Google and Facebook. And it was all going so well too! Until the scoundrel Donald Trump did a hostile takeover of the term 'fake news' and used it to thrash American big media itself. Sad! As a result, the term 'fake news' has had to be retired.
But 'First Draft', the non-profit funded by Google, is still hard at work. The new term of art is Information Disorder. Since the public cannot be trusted not to lose its head when faced with the raw information anarchy of the internet, here is a report with 35 recommendations to help 'technology companies, national governments, media organizations, civil society, education ministries and funding bodies' better manage information on behalf of the public.
Attkisson quotes 'a noted propagandist': "Nearly every scene or image that crosses our path in daily life was put there for a reason, often by somebody who paid a lot of money to place it there."
Is this too simple minded, too 'conspiracy theory' an explanation for the media's anti 'fake news' campaign? Perhaps not. Attkisson's investigation is consistent with underlying social and economic trends.
Second, while historically the public has used to internet to obtain an unprecedented diversity of opinion and information, this is not necessarily true for the future. The nature of the internet makes it highly vulnerable to what has in fact happened - control by monopolies. This is the result of the network effects associated with internet platforms like Google and Facebook. Because the usefulness of a social media network to you increases with the number of other users, you end up with just one Facebook and no competitors. Big Tech is able to use its its monopoly positions on the internet not only to pile up excess profits ('economic rents' in technical language), as Martin Sandbu explains in this Free Lunch column at the Financial Times (paywall!), but also to control the flow of opinion and information. There are numerous allegations of censorship by dominant internet players like YouTube (owned by Google) and Twitter. You could see the anti 'Fake News' campaign as an effort to mainstream the political censorship that Big Tech is already conducting in a partial, surreptitious manner.
Third, mainstream American media - newspapers, TV channels and the like - also have numerous reasons to support the anti 'Fake News' campaign. Mainstream media have suffered enormous financial loss at the hands of internet competition, which they would love to shut down on grounds of 'fake news'. Media personnel come predominantly from the same upper class social strata, go to the same elite selective colleges, and are imbued with same standard combination of conventional progressive attitudes and ruthless private ambition. These are people whose training and ideology officially rejects old fashioned ideals of journalistic neutrality and objectivity. They seek to 'make a difference'. And how better to make a difference than to shut down those who disagree with you as the purveyors of 'fake news'?
Anyway, here's a transcription of the main part of Sharyl Attkisson's TED Talk:
So if fake news by other names has always been around, why does it suddenly become the stuff of daily headlines during the 2016 campaign? I did a little digging and traced the effort to a non-profit called 'First Draft', which appears to be about the first to use the term 'fake news' in its modern context.
On September 13, 2016, First Draft announced a partnership to tackle 'malicious hoaxes and fake news reports.' The goal was supposedly to separate wheat from chaff, to prevent unproven conspiracy talk from figuring prominently in internet searches. to relegate today's version of the 'alien baby' story to a special internet oblivion.
Exactly one month later, President Obama chimed in. He insisted in a speech that he too thought that somebody needed to step in and "curate" information in this Wild, Wild West media environment.
Nobody in the public had been clamoring for any such thing. Yet suddenly the topic of 'fake news' dominates headlines on a daily basis. It's as if the media have been given its marching orders. Fake news they insisted was an imminent threat to American democracy.
But as somebody who has studied the industry that seeks to manipulate all of us on behalf of paid interests, I know that few themes arise in our environment organically. A noted propagandist told me, "It's like a movie," he said, and it gave me chills at the time. Nearly every scene or image that crosses our path in daily life, he said, was put there for a reason, often by somebody who paid a lot of money to place it there.
What if the entire anti 'fake news' campaign was an effort on somebody's part to prevent us from seeing or believing certain websites or stories, by controversializing them or labeling them as 'fake news'.
But who would want to do such a thing? In connecting the dots I find it often helps to follow the money. I wanted to know who was funding the non-profit 'First Draft' and its anti 'fake news' effort.
I found the answer. It was Google. Google's parent company was run by a man named Eric Schmidt. Eric Schmidt, as it happens, had devoted himself to Hilary Clinton's election campaign,offered himself up as a campaign adviser, and became a top multi-million dollar donor to it. His company funded 'First Draft' around the start of the election cycle. Not surprisingly, Hilary was soon to jump aboard the anti 'fake news' train and her surrogate David Brock of 'Media Matters' told donors he was the one who convinced Facebook to join the effort.
I'm not the only one who thinks the whole thing smacked of the roll out of a propaganda campaign. Glenn Greenwald of 'The Intercept' wrote: "The most important fact you need to realize is that those who most loudly denounce 'fake news' are typically the ones most aggressively disseminating it.
The something happened that nobody expected. The anti 'fake news' campaign back-fired. Each time advocates cried 'fake news', Donald Trump called them 'fake news' until he co-opted the term so completely that even those originally promoting the term started running from it, including the Washington Post which in January of 2017 wrote 'It's time to retire the tainted term 'fake news.'' In fact it is now commonly misreported that it was Donald Trump who thought up the phrase. Actually it was just a hostile takeover. Suffice it to say that each side now defines 'fake news' in terms that call the other guy into question.
So what's the lesson in all of this? I'm not here to litigate who's right. But I can tell you there's two ways to tell that powerful interests may be trying to manipulate your opinion. Number one, when the media seems to be trying to shape or censor facts and opinions rather than report them. Number two, when so many in the media are reporting the same story, promulgating the same narratives, relying on the same sources, even using the same phrases. I mean think of it. There are literally thousands of legitimate news stories that could be reported in a given day, and an infinite number of ways to report them. When everybody is on the same page, it might tne the result of an organized campaign.
I'll leave you with a final thought and a warning. There's a new catch phrase being bandied about: 'Media Literacy'. As in we'll tell you who to trust and who not to trust. 'Media Literacy' advocates are busy trying to get state laws passed to require that their versions of media literacy be taught in public schools. They're developing websites as resources for journalists and the public. They're partnering with universities. I think 'Media Literacy' is a new name promoted by some of the same people who want to tell you what to believe. People with their own agendas using terms designed to fool you into thinking they are neutral authorities. What you need to remember is that when interests are working this hard to shape your opinion, their true goal might be to just add another layer between you and the truth.