Fake news is often presented to us as being a new development. but in fact the phenomenon has been around for a long time (so false information about fake news!). It is only the source and speed of media dissemination which has altered. So why is it a problem and why should we worry about it now?
A Very old Threat Wearing New Clothes
Looking back in history we can see many of the features of fake news familiar to us today. During the 17th Century printing technology had evolved to the point where news-sheets were published to bring information to an increasingly curious public. During the English Civil Wars (ECW) of the 1640s fake news was a standard tool of highly partisan pamphlets with both Parliamentarian and Royalist armies employing officials to engage in what we would call today ‘spin doctoring’. Beyond the official sources any number of presses dodged legal restrictions to present the views of a myriad different groups. For example, The Moderate presented news and views from a Leveller perspective and frequently employed writers and editors from their ranks. Beyond mere interpretation, some facts were simply made up and it was a regular occurrence for Charles Stuart to be pronounced dead by Parliament-biassed sheets. That is, of course, until January 30th 1649 when fake news became factual news! Some of the fake news was the result of poor communications and was published in good faith so should more properly be categorised as misinformation. Some, however, was deliberately fabricated as described in this this excellent article by Andrew Hopper of the University of Leicester. As Hopper points out, this also included nationalist overtones with one 1643 pamphlet painting Prince Rupert of the Rhine, commander of the Royalist army, as a cruel German barbarian having committed any number of unspeakable atrocities.
The ECW was in reality no different from more recent wars where, as the saying goes, the first casualty is truth. The fact that official Government sources disseminate fake news, not only during wartime, is generally accepted and it is the reason why a free press is regarded as a central requirement of an open society. But in 2017 fake news can arise out of any number of sources and, as this New York Times article illustrates, can have a complex history from generation to dissemination.
The Damage to Our Liberty
So how exactly does fake news affect our liberty? Essentially, when engaged in as a deliberate attempt to deceive, it influences us to make choices which we may not normally consider and may not be in our best interest. Such influence can be as bad as someone overtly blocking or preventing us making a free choice. As political theorist Philip Pettit points out in his book Just Freedom:
I may misrepresent [an] option, whether by deceiving you about the available alternatives or manipulating your perception of those alternatives.
Pettit goes on to point out that such forms of influence vary greatly in how far they make a choice impossible, difficult or costly for us. As the effectiveness of the influence varies, so does the extent to which the power or exercise of the interference impose limits on our will and so reduce our freedom. Viewed at a higher level this makes us collectively weaker and damages our society. We are weaker because forming a view based on false information leads to an increased possibility of bad or even harmful decisions. The danger is clear when we see that senior government officials are not immune from acting on fake news. As The Independent newspaper reported last month. the Defence Minister of Pakistan, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, issued a ‘reminder’ to Israel of his country’s nuclear weapons capability. The tweet was an apparent response to a fake story (no longer available) published on the website AWD News which falsely suggested that Pakistan planned to send ground troops to Syria and even included a fake quote from the Israeli Defence Ministry. So poor decisions means poor or unstable Government, the unpleasant consequences of which affect us all, whether in financial terms, through restrictions on liberties, social support systems and even war!
Although the Pakistan\Israel exchange probably resulted from the action of a private individual or organisation the fact that Governments around the world actually indulge in fake news shows a level of hypocrisy and contempt for international agreements. For example, take this clause from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference [my emphasis], and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers.
As we have seen the deliberate use of fake news is most clearly a form of interference. There is another factor which is important in today’s febrile political environment. Increasingly, authoritarian far right groups are cloaking themselves in Libertarian clothes. But the fact that deliberate fake news implies unwarranted influence over us means that the genuine Libertarian should have nothing to do with it and join in its condemnation.
In this post I have focussed mainly on the deliberate creation of fake news or the promotion of news known to be fake by individuals and groups for political purposes. So what can we do to protect ourselves? Firstly we must confront a reality. Fake news is often characterised as being a creation of either individuals fabricating stories from their bedroom or news sites such as AWDNews. But when Governments and mainstream news outlets are circulating it (recall The Sun photoshopping a picture of Jeremy Corbyn to make it appear that he was ‘dancing’ to the Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph) we need to exercise great care. Journalist Elle Hunt has described a number of ways to spot fake news stories, the main one being to seek confirming evidence from a number of sources. She also makes the point that it is important not to spread fake news and even to flag it up on social media yourself. This last point is important since, ultimately, it is your own liberty you are damaging.