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Fake news and weaponised media

Posted By on July 2, 2018 @ 06:00

‘Fake news’ approaches the 100th anniversary of its creation moment.

The 11th of November marks the centenary of the end of World War I, the exhausted crescendo of the catastrophe that produced the modern craft of misinformation—propaganda.

Fake news is today’s propaganda: new technology begets a new title for an old set of issues.

Take heart that governments and peoples struggled with this scourge as a dark element of the electronic century, just as it challenges the media age.

Propaganda had notable effects in its day. Now, fake news is scoring scary wins. One of the benefits of big data is that researchers can put a figure to their estimates of how much fake news and digital deception shift history:
Twitter bots may have altered the outcome of two of the world's most consequential elections in recent years, according to an economic study. Automated tweeting played a small but potentially decisive role in the 2016 Brexit vote and Donald Trump's presidential victory …

The research by the US National Bureau of Economic Research calculated that bots added 1.76% to Britain’s leave vote in the referendum on exiting the European Union, and could explain 3.23% of the vote for Donald Trump in the US presidential race.

That’s propaganda with punch.

In WWI, propaganda was driven by government, pumped out one-way, from powers-that-be to the people. Propaganda was one to the many.

Today, fake news can be the many to the many—propaganda has been decentralised and networked. The technology is transformative, yet much of the discussion of fake news (hyping and reinforcing existing opinion, seeking echo chamber effects) treks across old propaganda terrain.

Experiences from a century ago offer useful thoughts on today’s dilemmas. Come see the propaganda experience via one of the great US newspaper columnists, Walter Lippmann, who coined the phrases ‘Atlantic community’ and ‘Cold War’ (although on the Cold War, Lippmann said he merely repurposed a phrase used in Europe during the 1930s to characterise Hitler’s war of nerves against France).

During WWI, Lippmann helped draw up Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points peace proposal, before sailing to Europe to work on the US propaganda effort against Germany.

Lippmann took the same approach to propaganda that he did to journalism: render the complex subject simply; be lucid, brief and go for the jugular.

During September and October 1918, as German forces wavered, Lippman’s small unit in Paris produced five million copies of 18 different leaflets to be dropped on the German lines.

Lippmann’s propaganda masterpiece—a million copies printed—was the one found most frequently on captured soldiers, stressing the good treatment of prisoners, using the ‘voice’ of a captured German: ‘Do not worry about me. I am out of the war. I am well fed. The American army gives its prisoners the same ration it gives its own soldiers: beef, white bread, potatoes, prunes, coffee, milk, butter ...’

From propaganda to bots, give the audience what they yearn to hear, and make it vivid.

Drawing on the war experience of manipulation and press distortion, Lippmann wrote a series of books on how opinion can be influenced, what he called the manufacture of consent. If sovereignty had passed from parliament to public opinion, he wrote, then giving the public accurate, reliable information had become ‘the basic problem of democracy’.

Lippmann’s 1922 book, Public opinion, is a classic. He didn’t foresee the bots, but he described much that we confront in the media age. The image people have of the world, he wrote, is reflected through the prism of their emotions, habits and prejudices: ‘The pictures inside people’s heads do not automatically correspond with the world outside.’

People see what they are looking for, what they want to see: ‘We do not first see, and then define; we define first and then see.’

Long before the Trump White House gave us ‘alternative facts’, Lippmann wrote that ‘facts’ are often a matter of belief and judgement: ‘While men are willing to admit that there are two sides to a “question”, they do not believe that there are two sides to what they regard as a “fact”.’

In a distinction journalists always wrestle with, Lippman argued that truth and news are not the same thing: ‘The function of news is to signalise an event, the function of truth is to bring to light hidden facts, and to set them in relation with other facts, and to make a picture of reality on which men can act.’

The press, Lippmann wrote, is ‘like the beam of a searchlight that moves restlessly about, bringing one episode and then another out of the darkness into vision’.

In his masterful biography of Lippmann, Ronald Steel judges Public opinion the work of a writer ‘disillusioned with mass democracy and wary of propaganda and an unreliable press’. Sound familiar?

Whatever that pessimism about propaganda, parliament and the press in 1922, Lippmann devoted the next 45 years to journalistic punditry, ruefully acknowledging during WWII ‘how wide has been the gap between my own insight and my own hindsight’.

As Lippmann wrote in his 1920 book on Liberty and the news, the modern state has a critical interest in keeping pure the ‘streams of fact which feed the rivers of opinion’.

Ultimately, the pundit believed precision could beat propaganda, offering a recipe for diplomats and politicians as much as journalists. In a column in 1956, Lippmann ruminated that a good foreign minister ‘uses words precisely which mean genuinely what they say’, while a diplomat who peddled propaganda was ‘like a doctor who sells patent medicine’.

Media shams and shonky shamans are nothing new; going digital merely speeds the effect and widens the reach. Lippmann still offers answers, not least keeping pure the stream of facts, however hard it is to pin down a fact that all will accept. And the need for ceaseless effort to line up the facts to achieve a reality we can act on.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

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[1] shift history: https://www.smh.com.au/world/north-america/twitter-bots-helped-trump-and-brexit-win-economic-study-says-20180523-p4zgy5.html

[2] US National Bureau of Economic Research: http://www.nber.org/papers/w24631

[3] Walter Lippmann: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Lippmann

[4] 14 Points: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourteen_Points

[5] Public opinion: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=aUh_HfZzEYsC&printsec=frontcover&dq=walter+lippmann&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi5v-2ZkPbbAhXG7WEKHQBVAuwQ6AEIKTAA

[6] ‘alternative facts’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_facts

[7] Ronald Steel: https://books.google.com.au/books?id=y8k3DwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=walter+lippmann&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwj07seonPbbAhVFTbwKHRt9DqMQ6AEINTAC