By Brendan Callaghan
Fake News, along with the equally ambiguous Post-Truth, is one of this year’s most prominent lexical curiosities. Revelations concerning the propagation of fake news stories about Hilary Clinton are thought to have contributed to the Trump victory in the recent U.S election. The influence of these wildly defamatory and fabricated stories came to a head a few weeks ago when a lone gunman entered a pizzeria in LA in order to break up the supposed child-sex ring that Mrs. Clinton was operating in said establishment. Needless to say this story was a complete lie. This crazy incident serves as a potent and scary example of how fake news is distorting the opinions and behaviour of people everywhere.
But fake news is not a new or recent phenomenon. Ever since the first Neanderthal man knuckle-shuffled over to his neighbouring cave to spread a spurious rumour about his best friend Ugg – fake news (also known as gossip, hearsay, balderdash and bull-excrement) has been a common feature of human communication.
Equally, scepticism towards such fishy stories has always been an important prerequisite in navigating this evermore disorientating world of signs and symbols. The old adage “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspaper” is one of the more under-appreciated clichés of our time.
Scepticism over news stories is an essential tool in exposing the lack of impartiality that the media is often guilty of. For example, anyone who watched Fox News during the years of the Bush administration would have had to be aware of that networks bias in favour of the then American President and his Republican cohorts.
“But wait a minute!” I hear you say. “Isn’t there a difference between fake news and news that is biased?” Well yes, of course there is. But the line that divides these two categories is often grey and blurred.
Sticking with Fox News for the time being – let’s consider its coverage of the American war in Iraq. The story that the Bush administration circulated at the time concerned Iraq’s possession of what they vaguely referred to as Weapons of Mass Destruction. Despite numerous searches by UN officials that suggested the opposite, the assertions of the US government did not relent. These claims were constantly echoed by anchors and commentators on the Fox News Network and ultimately it was this excuse that the Bush administration used in order to start that bloody and bungled war.
But was the story of the WMDs fake news or just the bias of that particular network? Obviously it was both – the American government knowingly lied to its people and segments of the mass media who we depend on to be a little more discerning in their presentation of the news were only too happy to propagate that lie.
So why is it only now that the phenomenon of Fake News seems to be such a cause of concern for our politicians and public figures?
Well unfortunately it seems that the potential of our collective gullibility is only increasing. This is no doubt a symptom of our new methods of media consumption. Nowadays a lot of us seem to get our news from unknown and therefore unreliable news sources.
We are now more likely to read a story with an attention grabbing headline that happens to pop up on our Facebook news feed (possibly one that reinforces our own bias and opinions) as opposed to the less bombastic stories of more established news sources.
And although part of the blame must lie with the organisations that allow such apocryphal stories to gain traction – it is also necessary for us the consumers to rediscover that healthy and necessary scepticism, without which we will inevitably remain in the dark.