Monday, June 19, 2017
Jane Martinson - A question for a dystopian age: what counts as fake news?
In 1984, the truth was whatever Big Brother wanted it to be. In 2017, the truth is whatever Trump and other politicians want it to be, with screams of “fake news” when it isn’t... It may not be the most useful question amid such death and despair, but if the media is to do its job and if we are to avoid losing a vital part of democracy, we should at least ask what counts as fake news.
There are many reasons why dystopian novels appear to be having a moment in 2017. Amid catas-trophe and political chaos, Brave New World, 1984 and Atwood’s own The Handmaid’s Tale have all reached the top of the Amazon charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the past year. A TV adaptation of Atwood’s story of a totalitarian, misogynistic state is being keenly watched for echoes of our own world by more than 2 million people a week in the UK on Channel 4 and on the streaming service Hulu in the US. “When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up,” said the narrator of The Handmaid’s Tale in the episode just before Theresa May offered to take her frustration over the Manchester and London Bridge attacks out on human rights legislation.
Farewell to reality
The appalling tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire last week illuminated many of the worst divides in 21st-century Britain and highlighted the extent of social and economic inequality in its capital city. It also highlighted a lack of trust in a media too often felt to be on the side of the wealthy and the powerful against the poor and powerless. “Why did they not come here before?” shouted one man at Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who found himself surrounded by residents who had had to watch people burn before getting the chance to air their grievances on national television. Anger over the lack of official help and fear that improvements would be delayed by an inquiry turned to suspicion that the media was under-reporting the number of dead. Lily Allen accused the media of being complicit. Skwawkbox, a blog that says it aims to “present information and analysis that will rarely make it into the mainstream media”, first ran and then rescinded a story claiming that an official DA notice had been issued to prevent the media from reporting the facts.
On its front page on Saturday, the Telegraph accused leftwing blogs of ramping up tension, under the headline “Corbyn supporters spread ‘fake news’ about Grenfell Tower death toll”. The report suggested the allegations should be the subject of an ongoing parliamentary inquiry into “fake news”.
Really? Forget the allegations that Sun reporters are up to very old tricks by lying to get into hospital wards or even the complaints against the Mail that it seemed to blame one man’s failure to buy a new fridge for dangerous housing, this cannot be the way for mainstream media to show it cares for people too long ignored and voiceless. It may not be the most useful question amid such death and despair, but if the media is to do its job and if we are to avoid losing a vital part of democracy, we should at least ask what counts as fake news. Given the failure of algorithmic curation to differentiate between truth and lies, it is surely anything that acts as a deliberate, viral spreading of misinformation for commercial or political ends. The story about Hillary Clinton and thousands of bogus votes, made up by a 23-year-old who earned $5,000 for doing so, was as fake and fictional as anything Huxley wrote. In 1984, the truth was whatever Big Brother wanted it to be. In 2017, the truth is whatever Trump and other politicians want it to be, with screams of “fake news” when it isn’t. read more: