If the Trump presidency ends ignominiously next week there is no way ‘fake news’ will disappear along with the fake tan and ginger hair that could have been combed from my cat Rufus.
Disinformation is a pandemic. Donald Trump is one of its super-spreaders but, even if his Twitter account is placed in quarantine, his removal from the White House would no more end ‘fake news’ than Regeneron cured him of Covid-19.
It is unlikely that a Biden Administration could top more than 20,000 false and misleading claims logged during the Trump presidency (66 in three days last week was some sort of record) but we should not expect four years of blameless devotion to unvarnished truth. That’s not how politics works.
David Greenberg, the author of Republic of Spin, a history of information manipulation in the American presidency, ended his book by noting that the greatest moments of American presidential leadership have often been consciously forged not by men of impeccable virtue and purity of heart but by the careful and caring labours of speechwriters, pollsters, image crafters, and other professional spinners. He added, however, that “it isn’t really spin itself we fear but rather its use by the wrong leaders, at the wrong moment, for the wrong ends”.
So we would still see spin in a new presidency but it would most likely revert to the sort of information manipulation that has traditionally characterised the White House: The presentation of advantageous facts and the omission of the embarrassing, with outright lying generally reserved for attempts to extricate oneself from extremely tight corners.
That assumption is based on a belief that Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris are basically honourable people but deeply inculcated with a political culture that knows how to spin a story.
Trump is an outlier, not part of the political establishment and a man who has demonstrated an infinite capacity to create his own ‘reality’. However, while he is a political outlier, he is perfectly at home among those in the wider community who believe the world is conspiring against them and whose ability to construct an alternative reality has been amplified to an unprecedented degree by social media.
They are ready to believe anything that confirms their worldview.
Hence, they know that alcohol, pepper in their soup, garlic, and exposing themselves to the sun above 25C protects them against Covid-19 (which also cannot survive in cold weather). They also know that, apart from causing autism and weakening the immune system, vaccines contain trackable microchips.
They believed Trump when he said Covid-19 was less fatal than influenza, in spite of verified statistics that showed the U.S. death rate from flu is about 18 per 100,000 compared to close to 60 per 100,000 for Covid-19.
They believed him when he said it was illegal for the intelligence community to disclose damaging information that would normally be in the public domain.
They believed him when he said mail-in ballots were “substantially fraudulent” and the Governor of California was sending voting forms to “anyone living in the state” (when the ballots only went to registered voters).
It is this readiness to believe that will ensure ‘fake news’ continues to circulate if Donald Trump permanently decamps from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to Mar-a-Lago.
The believers are both a source and a target for disinformation. And they have a truly remarkable capacity to accept what they are told…if it resonates.
It’s nothing new. “Fake news” is propaganda by another name and today’s purveyors of disinformation are doing nothing different to propagandists of the past. Whether it was Pope Gregory’s Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide (Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith) in the early 17th century or Joseph Goebbels in the 20th century, the aim was the same: to shape perceptions and promote actions that serve the ends of the propagandists. Nothing has changed.
It works by playing with the emotions. Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf said aiming propaganda at intellectuals was a waste of time because they applied too much critical analysis. Far better to aim it at people who “think with the blood”.
A crucial aiming point is confirmation bias – providing information that supports and reinforces existing beliefs and preconceptions. They preach to the choir. It is at its most potent when the believers are in a heightened emotional state – like a pandemic or a highly-divisive political situation – and the messages are couched as ‘the view of people like us’.
It also relies on the rather disturbing fact that many of us don’t recognize falsehood when we see it. A study in the United States that presented a selection of purported news stories to a group of subjects with varying educational levels found that fewer than 30 per cent of high school level subjects identified false or misleading stories. Equally worrying was the fact that fewer than 40 per cent of subjects with university degrees – including PhDs – called out the fakes.
Other studies show that fact-checking stories that debunk fake news stand a high chance of not being believed by those who accepted the falsehood at face value. Indeed, the very act of debunking may reinforce belief in the original ‘facts’ by drawing more attention to them.
Findings like that virtually guarantee there would be fake news even without Trump in the Oval Office.
His presidency has focused attention on the United States as a source of fake news but its production is not only worldwide but endemic in western democracies.
This country has been relatively free of politically-generated fake news. Initiatives such as Stuff’s The Whole Truth fact-checking during the election held politicians to account and a study of political parties’ social media, led by Victoria University researchers Dr Mona Krewel and Professor Jack Vowles, found little fake news but some ‘half truths’.
An example of the latter was Alfred Ngaro’s post that a vote for his rival Phil Twyford was a vote for “decriminalising all drugs” and “full term abortion”.
Ngaro’s statement relies on morsels of fact. Three years ago, Twyford said Labour supported the Law Commission’s 2012 proposal which recommended the existing Misuse of Drugs Act be repealed and replaced by a new Act administered by the Ministry of Health. The Act has not been repealed. Twyford voted in favour of the Abortion Legislation Bill that took abortion out of the Crimes Act. However, it put even greater oversight into abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation (which represents an extremely small percentage of terminations, almost always emergencies).
So, should we be worried about fake news in New Zealand? We should, for two reasons.
The first is that, although our politicians generally refrain from it, fake news is plying social media accounts here as elsewhere. Disinformation on Covid-19 and immunization is rife even if it seldom finds its way into mainstream media.
Secondly, proliferation of fake news overseas – and Trump’s attempts to discredit legitimate news media by labelling them ‘fake news’ and ‘the enemy of the people’ – has, I believe, contributed to a perception that our news media is riddled with the stuff. The most recent Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer found that 53 per cent of New Zealanders believe the media they use is “contaminated with untrustworthy information” and 71 per cent were worried about false information or fake news being used as a weapon.
Those statistics may be, in reality, an indictment of social media, but media use today means that many do not distinguish between personal posts and professional journalism –it’s all just information. Trust in journalism is eroded.
Therefore, to dismiss fake news as someone else’s problem, would be a mistake.
Three hundred years ago, the Anglo-Irish satirist and essayist Jonathan Swift wrote “Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late”. Two years ago, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, in 21 lessons for the 21st century wrote “Homo sapiens is the post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions”. Different flavours, but it’s the same dish still being served.
It is obvious that fake news has been with us for a lot longer that Donald Trump – in spite of his false claim to have coined the term (it appeared in an 1897 edition of Puck magazine illustrated above) – and it will be with us long after he has gone from office. The trick is to know it when you see it.