Thursday, 15 December 2016

Fake news and awkward questions

Which entity is more powerful, the CIA or the New York Times? It’s a bit of a trick question because the CIA is a government agency, whereas the NYT sincerely believes it is serving as a nonpartisan watchdog in the public interest. I ask because I worry what happens when media reports and intelligence gets muddled up by “fake news.”

US President-elect Donald Trump says he doesn’t believe the CIA’s story that Russia hacked the Democratic National Convention and helped him win the office. The CIA is adamant, and won’t relent. But the NSA isn’t so sure either and suggest a disgruntled intelligence insider was the source.

Here again, we see the shadow battle between State and Defence – take note of these moments. The State Department smelled blood in the NSA after Edward Snowden’s leaks and tried to use the controversy to shave the signals intelligence agency away from the Pentagon, just as it did with the CIA decades ago. The debate about Russia shows NSA very much inside Defence.

Staying objective in the US spy agencies must be hard these days. Politicisation of intelligence has been a feature of President Barack Obama. He leant on analysts to doctor Islamic State battle-damage assessments. He also leant on analysts to avoid concluding the Syrian regime used chemical weapons. So what difference does it make if Russian hacking claims are unverifiable?

Well, the problem is with verification itself, and more importantly, who has the specific power to speak the truth to change events. By now, everyone has heard about the “fake news” hysteria. But the CIA consumes the same media as everyone else. It has its own human sources, but intelligence analysts read newspapers too.

The rule of thumb is if you find yourself agreeing with people you wanted to murder during the last election, then it pays to look closer at the message. Fake news forces us to accept the form of the question (that some news is more real than others) while only allowing us to debate the conclusions (fake news must be stopped).

And if you're playing that game, the next step is to request for lines to be drawn. The trick won’t be the lines, the trick will be that a person will be given power to draw those lines. And you're not going to be happy about who gets to do that.

If fake news is a problem, how can people know if the news they’re reading is real? We’re supposed to trust journalists and intelligence agencies. So when even they can’t agree, it doesn’t leave the rest of us with much confidence.

“Fake news” is being discussed because the traditional media never figured out how to monetise internet journalism. In the process it lost the initiative and is now trying to claw back legitimacy. How successful it will be is anyone’s guess, but media now competes against individual citizens with no overheads and the potential to reach tens of millions of eyes with a well-timed viral blog post. Those aren’t good odds.

The reason people believe journalists had access to real news was because, well, journalists told them so. A masthead helps as well. Traditional media is failing because it lacked the creativity to think about all the possibilities for publishing online. It could have evolved in astounding ways. Instead, every outlet simply reproduced the newspaper in digital form. That’s laziness and now they’re panicking.

So calling some news “fake” achieves two things: it maintains the concept of superiority of traditional media while it pulls traffic away from other sites. The internet is an attention economy, after all. A minute spent on one site is a minute which cannot be spent on any other site. So you can get angry at fake news, but it has to be in the comments section of the New York Times.

I can’t help but feel all this yelling is uncovering some awkward questions. My friend says he doesn't worry about fake news because he balances his news intake with multiple websites to get the full story.

He knows journalists lie by omission, not necessarily because they're purposefully leaving things out, but because they can't know everything about a story. They probably have their political biases as well, so some purposeful omission is probable. But his discipline is presuming there’s no such thing as an objective journalism.

This is a very smart insight. But it is still wrong, and wrong in a very specific way, the only way that matters: pro-status quo. It is wrong, to ensure that things do not change. My friend has it backwards. The issue isn’t the “fake news,” it is all of the correctly produced news.

If that seems abstractly unrealistic, consider that propaganda doesn't teach us what to think, it teaches us how to act. The message of the controversy is that some news is more real than others, and the NYT has the truth. But if our fail-safe is to "balance" our media intake, how much propaganda are you willing to ingest? And second: would you know propaganda if you saw it? Are you sure?

How you answer these questions will also be the answer to the question at the top of this article. The danger of the CIA and the NYT decrying “fake news” is that people might start asking why it is they ever believed the CIA and NYT. It’s supposed to be axiomatic that journalists have access to the truth. But what if they don’t? How would we know what’s true?

1 comment:

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