Books: We must all take the fake news rap

Written By: Martin Griffin
Published: November 30, 2017 Last modified: December 4, 2017

Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered The World
by James Ball
Biteback £9.99

James Ball’s thorough and detailed account of the frustrating and sometimes disturbing media world in which we find ourselves in 2017 is a demanding book, not just because it could have used an extra round of editing to smooth out the hurried feeling of the writing, but because of the complexity and tenacity of the problems Post-Truth sets out to describe. As the author notes, it is easy to fall into a mood of bleak resignation when confronted with the full-service menu of the age of bullshit.

One difficulty arises because Ball refuses to make the comfortable position available to the majority of his readers that pins the blame for the bullshit era on the rightwing media alone. He is uncompromising in pointing out that while liberal and leftwing audiences are generally less inclined to embrace invented or distorted stories, they (we?) are often complicit in the way we share items across social media and embrace clearly debunked stories from sources ideologically close to home.

Perhaps Alex Jones’s Infowars conspiracy site, which led to the famous ‘pizzagate’ episode where an armed and somewhat unbalanced man travelled to the suburbs of Washington, trying to find the child sex slaves he was convinced where being held in the basement of a restaurant where Democratic Party staff had often ordered food for the office, is in a very different league from the British left website The Canary; but the latter, as Ball writes, follows a similar tactical playbook, including spreading obviously groundless conspiracy-type stories (for example, a screenshot of an AP test data broadcast to TV networks as proof that the American presidential election was rigged) and “attack[ing] anyone offering a different narrative as insincere or controlled by vested interests”. Ball claims that the election story remained active for several weeks, despite repeated efforts to contact the editors to take it down.

But the point in Post-Truth is not to place some moral ‘equals’ sign between Infowars and The Canary, but to underline that The Canary’s own editorial policy, even if well-intentioned, is still gently pushing the needle in the direction of the bullshit media ecology. Like ‘pizzagate,’ the story wasn’t true, no rational person believed it to be true, but it fitted a certain political psychodrama and – not to be forgotten – led to more clicks for The Canary, many of whose writers are paid by traffic volume.

The further difficulty is the recent rise of fact checking as almost a separate job from that of being a journalist. A big problem lies, in Ball’s analysis, in the way fact checking, although invested with a lot of trust these days, is “asymmetric warfare.” The effort it takes to expose a fake news story is massively greater than what goes into putting a story out into the world. A fact check may be detailed and unsexy, while the invented tale is dramatic and fulfilling. And this is not so new: the Sun has never admitted its responsibility for the fake news of the Hillsborough tragedy twenty-five years ago, for example.

Lastly, money. Fake news, hoaxes, photoshopped memes, and unreliable speculation can be very profitable, and companies invisible to the average media consumer are working to convince advertisers that thousands or even millions of people see their name or product on the screen. Even serious news organizations who otherwise combat fraudulent information find themselves complicit in this new media ecosystem that works without inherited standards. If Post-Truth is mostly right about its chosen theme, we have a long road to travel before we are out of the woods, and smug certainties are not going to light the way.