Forgive Us Our Debts
The project examines personal, corporate, and public debt in the UK within a moral framework. (2019)
Nick Spencer asks how we should respond to the prevalence of fake news. 08/02/2019
World Record Egg has cracked it. Instagram’s most–liked post, laid last month with the express intention of knocking Kylie Jenner (18 million likes – pah!) off the nest, has won by a country mile: 52 million and counting. I know this because I have children. And I heard it on Radio 4.
And then it hatched, revealing a message.
“Phew! I feel so much better now. If you’re feeling the pressure, visit talkingegg.info to find out more. Let’s build this list together.”
talkingegg.info takes you to various useful mental health links. The whole thing, it appears, was a clever and rather successful mental health awareness campaign.
I am delighted by this turn of events. As I said, I learnt about World Record Egg because my kids talked to me about it. And then talked to their friends about it. As a way of tricking young people into talking about mental health problems and services, it is genius.
But I’m also struck by the subtle subterfuge going on here. What seems to have been as plain as an egg, wasn’t.
This isn’t the first time eggs have captured headlines for odd reasons. Just over thirty years ago, Edwina Curry infuriated farmers and stained her political career for ever by wrongly claiming that most of Britain’s egg production was infected with salmonella. Seventy years before that, an incipient boycott of eggs by American housewives, on account of their unprecedentedly high prices, was averted when newspapers ran headlines like “Eggs Drop Ten Cents” and “Cost of Living Smashed”, announcing the price of eggs had fallen. The boycott was avoided, despite the fact that eggs remained the same price. The newspapers, it was alleged, were cosying up to food retailers.
What is real, what is true, what is new, and what is news has never been straightforward. There are records of printers being prosecuted over three hundred years ago for stories that they knew were false. As Pope Francis said in message for the World Communications Day last year, “the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis…at the dawn of humanity, created the first fake news” Lies are as old as we are.
So is there anything different about fake news today? Why are we getting so excited? It can’t be that the fakery is reaching unprecedented political heights. The 20th century was, for a long time, the age of propaganda, when the powers that be peddled palpable porkies to their people. We’re amateurs by contrast today.
Nor can it be that the fakery has only ever been ‘over there’, lurking amid the moral wastelands of totalitarian dictatorships. Did you know that German soldiers committed atrocities during the First World War, crucifying soldiers and making soap from their corpses? Or that Ronald Reagan’s administration never traded weapons with Iran in order to secure the release of hostages? We can lie too over here in the Anglophone West.
No. The reason for our quite proper concern is not that it hasn’t happened here, but that it shouldn’t happen here. The West is liberal and as liberal patriarchs have oft told us, liberty cleanses lies like a detergent grease. As John Milton famously and rhetorically asked in Aeropagitica, “who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?” Or as John Mill in wrote in On Liberty, there is a “peculiar evil” in “silencing the expression of an opinion” even if the opinion is wrong, because we lose “the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.” Either way, Milton or Mill, truth wins.
It is precisely the West’s freedom of intellect, information, speech, and association that should allow us to identify and weed out the fake news that all flesh is heir to. As the Economist said when covering the whole story in 2016, “strong democracies can draw on inbuilt defences against post–truth. Authoritarian countries are more vulnerable.” Intelligent, free, educated, modern, information–rich, liberal, capitalist: it couldn’t happen here.
The painful fact, therefore, is not that it is happening here but that it is happening here because we are who we are instead of in spite of it. According to a study conducted by the Policy Studies Association on What Drives Fake News, the phenomenon is powered by “ordinary people” who made money from behaviourally–targeted adverts, the revenue calculated on the basis of the number of visits. Thus, for example, during the last US presidential election, journalists traced part of the upsurge in fake news stories “to enterprising computer science students in Veles, Macedonia”, who plagiarised, repackaged and successfully shared sensationalist and made–up pro–Trump stories that had originated on right–wing American websites. In other words, fake news was made possible by precisely the free, decentralised, market–driven communications network that Millton thought would eradicate it. It’s profoundly disturbing to learn that the disinfecting sunshine of liberty turns out not only to fallible – not even Millton thought cleaning up the lies would be easy – but actually to be spreading falsehoods itself.
There is no obvious solution to this. Those that think otherwise fail to grasp how deep rooted in the human soul the problem is. The censorship against which Milton railed is hardly realistic or appealing. Regulation will help, though has its own perils. Calls for self–restraint are essential but sound limp. The maintenance of public service broadcasters like the BBC, for all its faults, will keep a break on the worst excesses of fakery. Those old media outlets who find a sustainable funding model will act as a counterweight to the decentralised, unregulated news factory that is citizen journalism. Somehow, we will stumble on.
I doubt whether the whole news system will crack, like World Record Egg, no matter how much pressure fakery puts on it. But it could simply go irretrievably rotten on in the inside, and that may be worse.
Image by Monster Ztudio under a shutterstock licence.
Nick is Senior Fellow at Theos. He is the author of a number of books and reports, most recently The Political Samaritan: how power hijacked a parable (Bloomsbury, 2017), The Evolution of the West (SPCK, 2016) and Atheists: The Origin of the Species (Bloomsbury, 2014). Outside of Theos, Nick is Visiting Research Fellow at the Faiths and Civil Society Unit, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion
Posted 8 February 2019
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