The creators of fake news are winning

Aug 1, 2019 by

The phrase ‘fake news’ is now part of the political lexicon, so commonly used as to have become almost meaningless. There is nothing new, of course, about fake news, it is as old as propaganda itself. But the business of creating fake news is now on a scale that is very new. The media is now completely outgunned by a massive industry of fakery whose role is to create lies that shape public perception.

Letters cut out to spell 'fake news' and pasted onto the keys of a colourful keyboard. (Credit: clu via Getty)Consider some relativities. There are about 30,000 newspaper journalists in America and about half that number in Britain, where numbers have declined by over a quarter in ten years. By comparison, the Pentagon reportedly employs more than 27,000 PR specialists, with a budget of nearly $US5 billion a year, whose job is to manipulate the media and circulate ‘targeted manipulations’. This provides a glimpse of just how large fake news production is.

The Pentagon’s army of spin doctors greatly exceeds the staff of the three global news agencies: American Associated Press, Agence-France Presse and Thomson Reuters. They employ only about 11,000 journalists, yet are the main sources of international information and images for newspapers and television news programs. They have virtually no investigative operations, and are deeply influenced by and dependent on what is fed to them by those in the business of creating fake news.

The CIA is also a big player. Nick Davies, in his book Flat Earth News, says that the CIA is so influential it has become like a fourth news agency. With the assistance of Cardiff university researchers he found that, in the newsrooms he studied, only 12 per cent of the stories were wholly composed of material researched by reporters. Four fifths of the stories were wholly, mainly or partially constructed from second-hand material provided by news agencies and by the public relations industry.

Those ratios may be questioned to some extent, but what is not in dispute is that most of what people see and read in newspapers and television is brought to them by the fake news industry. News organisations rarely can afford foreign bureaus, so intelligence and military organisations are easily able to shape international news to their ends, turning it into little more than propaganda. We’ve seen this at play in the recent evidence-free anti-Russia nonsense, or, previously, the false claims that led to the war in Iraq and the subsequent anti-Islam frenzy.

The far greater fake news push however comes from business. Every large corporation has a media relations department, and every industry has a peak body that does PR.

Any journalist working in a news room is subjected to dozens of press releases a day, almost all of which will be some kind of dissimulation: outright lies, partial truths, selective use of facts, false context, slippery logic, bias, exaggeration, thinly concealed sales pitches. It is the very essence of a press release; to present a slanted view that favours someone’s interest. The intensity of the manipulation is difficult to understand for those who have not experienced it.

“If a principle of investigative journalism is to ‘follow the money’ then the trail with fake news leads to the spin doctors.”

Meanwhile, the number of journalists is shrinking, making any attempt to resist all but impossible. This writer observed the younger journalists at one Australian newspaper being compelled to produce three stories a day. The only way to do that is to regurgitate press releases, what Davies calls ‘churnalism’.

The time pressure and shrinking of resources — in the US, print newspaper advertising has fallen from a high of $67 billion in 2000 to well below $20 billion, and similar shrinkage has occurred in Australia — means it is often impossible to do any decent investigation, or even to get out of the office and undertake the face-to-face interviewing that produces quality stories.

It is, of course, true that journalists often distort the truth in their eagerness to tell a compelling story, get attention. Some journalists are prepared to run lies in return for gaining access to useful people. It is equally true that many journalists are doing sound investigative work. In the end there are only two types: those who pursue the truth and those who do not. Fortunately, many still fall into the former camp.

But the creators of fake news are winning. They vastly outnumber journalists, their industry is far bigger than the shrinking media organisations, and the concentration of media ownership — only six organisations own most of the mainstream media in the US, and in Australia there are only two owners of most of the newspapers — means that they can do deals with proprietors. When they do, the pressure from above on journalists to conform is intense because those who do not comply are easily dismissed.

If a principle of investigative journalism is to ‘follow the money’ then the trail with fake news leads to the spin doctors. Understanding that can be a useful way to detect what is, and is not, propaganda.

Source: The creators of fake news are winning

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