by Chauncey Tinker – 28 Nov 2018
Senate House (formerly the Ministry of Information where George Orwell's wife worked in the Department of Censorship)
Jeremy Hunt is currently the UK Foreign Secretary. He recently wrote an article in the Evening Standard entitled:
Jeremy Hunt: Britain champions free speech, so we’re leading the war on fake news
The first problem with this article is found in the title of course. Deciding what is true or false is not nearly as easy as it sounds, and the distinction between fact and opinion is also often far from clear. A fact is supposed to be a statement that can be proven true or false whereas an opinion cannot be proven. Consider this assertion which has been made frequently in reference to the current wave of migrants trying to get into Europe:
“Most of the migrants are young men”
Is this a statement of fact or opinion? Technically it cannot be proven absolutely in any case because illegal immigrants are often crossing for example in the night or otherwise are entering Europe unnoticed, and even when they are seen it can be very difficult to count the numbers exactly. However I have seen abundant evidence in the form of data provided by the UN and other sources, as well as a great many images of the migrants in boats (and video footage), that together make me believe it is a true statement. See for example this article from Pew Research Global:
Asylum seeker demography: Young and male
The self-styled “fact-checking” website Snopes disagrees, they say it is “mostly” false (although they are (sort of) asking a slightly different question):
Are Refugees Overwhelmingly Young and Male?
Rumors and misinformation have been an integral part of anti-refugee campaigns across the world, among them the claim that migrants and refugees are suspiciously young, able-bodied, and male - in other words, like “soldiers,” “terrorists,” or (as this particular meme says outright) “invaders.”
Just a quick point about this particular Snopes article, they are using UN figures on refugees specifically from Syria and including refugees who stayed in the Middle East, whereas most people making the above claim are in fact referring to the migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean from various countries, only a fraction of which are actually coming from Syria. I can see a lot of problems with the Snopes article and yet worryingly Facebook have apparently used Snopes to help them filter out fake news. I will come back to look at this particular Snopes article in more detail in a subsequent post, my intention here was merely to illustrate the difficulties involved in separating fact from fake news, and in separating fact from opinion.
Returning to Jeremy Hunt’s article, the phrase “the war on fake news” is obviously problematic because if the government is intending to “make war” on media sources that it disagrees with then clearly it intends to interfere with the freedom of the press. Despite this, the text of Jeremy Hunt’s article starts with what sounds like a strong defence of press freedom:
A media willing and able to investigate wrongdoing, expose failures and criticise the mighty, provides one of the strongest defences against corruption and arbitrary state power.
However he then goes on to announce his ministry’s intention to interfere with the free press both abroad and in the UK:
We also support media freedom projects through our Fund for Human Rights and Democracy, named after Magna Carta. We are helping to train journalists in Ethiopia, where a new prime minister has promised a more enlightened approach, and in Venezuela, where an authoritarian government has suppressed its critics. We will seek to expand the number of journalists receiving training, including in newsrooms here in the UK.
A major problem for journalism in the internet era is the problem of funding; it has become extremely difficult to make money from journalism since so many competing websites are publishing news and opinion articles for free. If the government promotes certain media outlets and journalists then it gives those media outlets and journalists an unfair advantage over media outlets and journalists that are not benefitting from state support. The vague phrase “seek to expand” used in the above quote could mean a lot of things, but I assume that it implies government funding of some sort. By funding the training of journalists “including in newsrooms here in the UK” his department will therefore be interfering with press freedom. Also, can we entirely rely on the government not to indoctrinate in any way those it is involved in training?
The next paragraph is even more troubling:
In the era of fake news and concerted propaganda by hostile states, supporting a free media also means countering the incoming tides of disinformation. While it has never been easier to publish and receive information, it has also never been easier to spread lies and conspiracy theories. Social media offers a malign opportunity to whip up hatred and incite violence against vulnerable minorities.
This paragraph has surely come straight out of the “post truth/fake news” narrative which is designed to undermine the growing number of alternative news and opinion websites which are threatening the supremacy of the current mainstream media. We know well enough by now that the existing Western mainstream media is more guilty of pushing “tides of disinformation” on the unsuspecting general public than is any foreign power. Certainly the government has yet to produce any significant evidence that recent elections were influenced by “hostile states” but the claim has been made frequently.
What does the phrase “whip up hatred” mean exactly? Can we criticize the behaviour of particular groups without being potentially accused of whipping up hatred? What will happen to us if we are found guilty of such a thing? Could for example a perfectly well-intentioned investigation into child sexual abuse in the Catholic church have the effect of “whipping up hatred” against Catholic priests? The answer is of course it could, but we need to know about such wrongdoing.
He then goes on to announce that the government is spending £8.5 million in “the struggle against propaganda” in Eastern Europe and Central Asia:
So Britain is helping to lead the struggle against propaganda and the misuse of the internet. This year, the Government is providing £8.5 million for this essential work in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Could this not be seen by the nations affected as “concerted propaganda by hostile states”? Is there a little bit of hypocrisy going on here?
Unfortunately Theresa May’s government has from the beginning had a stated intention to interfere with press freedom, and so if Jeremy Hunt is serious about encouraging press freedom then he should start rather closer to home by criticizing his own government. Consider this government response (dated 9 October 2018) to a report from “The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee”:
The Government is already undertaking work to address a range of online harms, including disinformation. Disinformation is not a new phenomenon, but the online environment has enabled it to increase dramatically in terms of quantity, reach and speed of transmission. Through the Digital Charter we want to make sure the Internet works for everyone - for citizens, businesses and society as a whole. Tackling disinformation is a key pillar of the Charter. We want to reduce the impact of disinformation on UK society and our national interests, in line with our democratic values
So, perhaps what is needed then is a “Ministry of Truth” as described in George Orwell’s book “1984”?
The report encourages the use of the phrase “disinformation” rather than the phrase “fake news”. The government response in the document says:
In our work we have defined disinformation as the deliberate creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information that is intended to deceive and mislead audiences, either for the purposes of causing harm, or for political, personal or financial gain.
How can it be proven when the “creation and sharing of false and/or manipulated information” is deliberate exactly? Is the BBC not a huge offender in the area of manipulating information, does the government then intend to interfere with the BBC as a priority? Would “deliberate manipulation” in particular include the powerful technique of “lying by omission” or “propaganda by omission” where certain inconvenient facts are downplayed or ignored, such as for example the fact I mentioned above that most of the so-called “refugees” coming to Europe in the recent migrant crisis have been young men? How on earth can the government possibly legislate against such insidious techniques as the use of selective images of migrants that show always women and children despite the fact that most of the migrants are young men? Another example would be the scale of migrant crime being downplayed or ignored altogether.
Ironically, the best solution to the problem of disinformation is to allow TRUE freedom of the press. New alternatives to the mainstream media such as Breitbart have plugged the gaps in the mainstream media’s coverage, a focus that has led to accusations of bias; it is exactly of course sites like Breitbart that members of the government have in mind when they talk of “whipping up hatred” against “vulnerable minorities”. For example Damian Green, Theresa May’s former First Secretary of State, accused Breitbart of publishing “fake news” (without producing any evidence) last year. From the Telegraph:
Fake news websites could cause another MP to be murdered, warns Cabinet minister Damian Green
The public needs to be able to make a balanced judgement about whether current waves of immigration are good or bad for their country. By ignoring the wrongdoings of many migrants the mainstream media are in fact exposing the public to risks of harm. For example, most mainstream media sites including the BBC initially tried to ignore the mass sexual assaults (including rape) that took place in Cologne outside the train station in December 2015. The story only got through to the public thanks to social media (and thanks to sites like Breitbart), so Jeremy Hunt’s claim that “social media offers a malign opportunity to whip up hatred” is a very lop-sided view of the impact of social media.
In fact I have seen disinformation being quickly challenged on social media as well. Take for example this fake news story about imaginary hijab tuggers which was published by the Independent (note well that in this tweet it is stated as fact):
Immediately people were questioning the story in the replies and sure enough not long afterwards the Muslim woman was charged with filing a false report and convicted:
Police charge Muslim woman who falsely claimed she was called a ‘terrorist’ on the subway
Social media users are also helping to catch criminals:
The mainstream media are also failing to do the very thing that Jeremy Hunt claimed is so important in his article:
A media willing and able to investigate wrongdoing, expose failures and criticise the mighty, provides one of the strongest defences against corruption and arbitrary state power
The impact of failures such as the huge failure of the Conservative government to meet its target of “reducing net immigration to the 10s of 1000s” cannot be properly understood unless we take an honest look at rates of crime among migrants. Perhaps the government’s real motivation in proposing to “tackle disinformation” is precisely to try to cover up those failures, perhaps their intention is not so much to “tackle disinformation” at all as to suppress inconvenient truths?
The line between who is a journalist and who is not has surely become extremely blurred since the creation of the world wide web. Absolutely anybody can now publish their opinions and make both true and false statements on any subject and share those opinions and statements with the whole world in an instant. Consequently I would suggest that all citizens who publish for example in blogs etc. and even merely on social media are now in a sense journalists. Considering the sheer volume of “journalistic” output then, a government that seeks to “tackle disinformation” is surely a government that either intends to usher in an era of unparalleled state censorship or else it is a government that simply lacks all common sense.
Everybody makes mistakes and journalists are no exception. Where do we draw the line between “disinformation” and such honest mistakes exactly? What will happen to journalists who make mistakes whether accidentally or on purpose? How will they be “tackled”? If we allow our government to legislate against “disinformation” this will have a chilling effect on honest reporting. The best way of dealing with fake news is to allow poor quality news outlets to fail in the free market as they are found out (the impact of libel actions on their profits will hasten the process). It may in fact be the only truly effective way of doing so.
Incidentally Jeremy Hunt previously worked in the PR sector, apparently he co-founded a firm called Profile PR before he took to politics, the public relations sector is not exactly a sector renowned for its pursuit of truth, rather the opposite.
There is an inherent contradiction between a government trying to “tackle disinformation” and allowing a free press, the government is not some all-knowing divine authority that has a monopoly on the truth. A society in which the press was truly free would be a society in which the government did not interfere with the sharing of information and opinions at all (except in the case of protecting legitimate state secrets).
From the UK government:
Disinformation and ‘fake news’: Interim Report: Government Response to the Committee’s Fifth Report of Session 2017-19
Violent crime rises in Germany and is attributed to refugees
From Pew Global (note this data is only for those who have sought asylum, not all migrants):
Asylum seeker demography: Young and male
According to their own disclosure page, Snopes has received:
$100,000 from Facebook for participating in their fact-checking partnership effort
From the Daily Mail 2016 (I don’t know if any of it is true):
EXCLUSIVE: Facebook ‘fact checker’ who will arbitrate on ‘fake news’ is accused of defrauding website to pay for prostitutes – and its staff includes an escort-porn star and ‘Vice Vixen domme’
From Forbes (about the Daily Mail article above):
The Daily Mail Snopes Story And Fact Checking The Fact Checkers
… the Daily Mail appeared to be sourcing its claims from a series of emails and other documents from a court case, some of which it reproduced in its article and, perhaps most strangely, neither Snopes nor its principles had issued any kind of statement through its website or social media channels disclaiming the story.
What do you think? Please leave a comment below.