The creators of fake news are winning

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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.

 

 

David JamesDavid James is the managing editor of businessadvantagepng.com. He has a PhD in English literature and is author of the musical comedy The Bard Bites Back, which is about Shakespeare's ghost.

Main image credit: clu via Getty

Topic tags: David James, fake news, CIA, Pentagon, Iraq war, Russia

 

 

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Existing comments

Indeed, it is scandalous that 90% of US media ran for over 2 years with the fake Russia/Trump collusion story, and that Pulitzer Prizes were awarded for this fake reporting. It seemed that every month the “beginning of the end” was nigh for the Trump Presidency. Moreover, when one considers that the phoney Russian/Steele dossier (which the New York Times now suggests was Russian disinformation) was paid for by Hillary Clinton and the DNC, that fact alone would have made your average citizen highly sceptical. But not, apparently, mainstream journalists. The mentality of mainstream journalists was demonstrated on CNN last Sunday when journalist David Zurawik, a media critic for the Baltimore Sun, said without blushing, that reporters could get people to vote against Trump if they ditched their fear of being labelled biased. Talk about a total lack of self-awareness!
Ross Howard | 30 July 2019


Thank you David for describing what is happening in most news outlets. Our culture is increasingly riddled with lies and half-truths. That's why we need the ABC; its one of the few places left where we can find out what is actually happening and get a range of opinions.
Paul Collins | 31 July 2019


Thank you David. I hadn't realised it is that bad. So we all should stick with the ABC, Eureka Street and The Conversation.
Brian Finlayson | 31 July 2019


Is true. Though pr firms are powerful,they keep their own names well out of the papers, and that's dishonest.. Credit that story not to the energy company but Hill & Knowlton. Legislate the ad from the supermarket, names its writers Burson Martseller. And that vitamins website, says written by Spinks on behalf of .... needs legislating
mike brisco | 31 July 2019


On the feast of St Ignatius it is good to be reminded how important discernment is if a citizen wants to decide between the fake & the real. The craft of the spin doctor is to conceal the lie under a veneer of plausibility.
Uncle Pat | 31 July 2019


Thanks David for telling us what many have suspected for a very long time. I remember the so called "5 o'clock follies" in Saigon during the period I was in Nam'. Talk about distortions of the truth, they were legendry . The top brass (usually American Colonels) went gangbusters about the 'successful operations ' and 'body counts'. No doubt they do the same today in Iraq and Afghanistan, although they now have better ways to communicate- false news. . Many reporters in my daystook the propaganda with a pinch of salt Paul, sir, you are absolutely spot on about the ABC !
Gavin A. O'Brien | 31 July 2019


Thank you David James for this article on exposing the big problem with fake news. Of course, this is not a recent phenomenon., It has been used by the CIA, the Pentagon and many governments (including Australian governments) to manufacture consent - as Noam Chomsky describes it - or block information about happenings for dubious policies that have often caused death, suffering and destruction on a large scale. We only need to consider the arguments that have been used by politicians to involve us in many wars since WW2 or to con us into accepting The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 , states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Further the Maputo Declaration that was formulated at the UNESCO conference on “Freedom of Expression, Access to Information and Empowerment of People,” meeting in Maputo, Mozambique, on World Press Freedom Day, 3 May 2008, seeks to foster freedom of expression access to information, and empowerment of people. These principles are all very important, but they rely on the underlying assumption that the news we receive is truthful and reliable. One way around the fake news problem is to read alternative information and compare those perspectives with those in the main stream media before adopting a point of view.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 31 July 2019


R.H., spot on, as usual. Thinking it through, it's hilarious how on the one hand everyone deplores "fake news" but on the other, the corpus viscerally divides along old party lines as to what constitutes "fake news" on any given issue. So much so that even sites that are posing as entities objectively identifying “fake news” are disputed by equally posing arms-length rival sites. Who guards the guardians? Maybe the government should step in? (Joke.) So: without doubt, confected news certainly exists, but the clarion accusation of "fake news" is not a helpful meme, any more than "But doesn't God love everyone?", or "Think of the children!", or "What would Jesus do?" or the accusation of being "racist", or of being a witch was in late 17th century Salem. The currency is being debased with exponential rapidity. The course of the French Revolution beginning with the Estates General in 1789 (Plenary Council/Amazon Synod) is increasingly my go-to guide as to the nature and timescale of events about to unfold, though I suspect we’re beyond that date in many respects: Danton has already lost his head.
HH | 31 July 2019


Yes, Uncle Pat, Ignatian discernment presupposes the existence and influence of the "Evil Spirit" who opposes the Spirit if Christ - and not for nothing is one of his titles "the Father of Lies." His own most potent brand of "fake news" is, as C.S.Lewis noted, to convince people of his non-existence.
John RD | 01 August 2019


HH, I find your reference to the French Revolution timescale of events pertinent. Because when I observe today’s Democratic Party, I am reminded of Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge. It sees that as each new and more radical policy is put out—open borders, free health care for illegal immigrants, economic-destroying Green New Deal and full-on socialism—there is virtually no dissent. Each new policy is enthusiastically applauded by all Democratic Presidential contenders, seemingly afraid of being caught out and left behind, while Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi get branded racists by the young radicals. In the Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn described Stalin’s entering the room at the 1937 conference of the Communist Party, whereon everyone burst into furious and sustained applause. Finally, after eleven minutes of non-stop clapping, the director of a paper factory stopped clapping and sat down. That same night he was arrested and sent to prison for ten years having been told: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!”
Ross Howard | 01 August 2019


Your 27,000 figure is wrong. The Pentagon employs 27,000 people for 'recruitment, advertising and public relations', not the latter alone. In a story on fake news, I'd have thought it fairly important to check your facts.
John Macgregor | 08 August 2019


Eye awakening indeed. I like the author's style of writing. Got me hooked up until the end.
Jerome | 21 August 2019


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