Time's up for fake news from both traditional and social media

Without fear or favour, Richard J. Hillgrove VI tips the tables up on world leaders, brands and countries who all often think they can hide behind the smoke and mirrors via their communications professionals. Bang On takes a full throttle, punk approach to dissecting and analysing modern PR and marketing. It's not for the faint hearted....

Mainstream media is under siege, says Richard J. Hillgrove

Let’s face facts – the truth behind fake news is that it’s very much old hat.

What’s new is that the public is waking up to it, and turning their backs on news in general as a trusted source of information.

People are losing faith in the media, period. And that could see PR retreating even further into the shadows as the industry’s reputation slips ever lower.

It’s highly likely that false stories delivered through social media via ‘pizza delivery boy’ Cambridge Analytica were the special sauce that cooked up victory for Trump and Brexit, but they might turn out to be pyrrhic victories if the latest figures are to be believed.

According to the latest Edelman Trust Barometer, only 24% of Britons now trust Facebook, Twitter or Instagram for news and information. The survey also discovered that 64% of 1,050 UK respondents were worried that social media companies are not regulated enough.

Mainstream media is under siege, too, with 66% saying the media is more concerned with attracting a big audience than reporting and, advertisers beware, a third said they’re cutting back on their news consumption. About 20% said they now avoid the news entirely.

Has our faith in the media ever been so low?

The public knows something isn’t right but just can’t see to what extent, despite trying.

'Fake news' throws up five million search results on Google, and, already in 2018, the phrase has been used around two million times on Twitter.

With 2 billion of us linked in on Facebook alone, we are all vulnerable to whatever nutrients – or poison – the faceless 'they' feed into our heads, Matrix-style.

The social media visionary Oliver Luckett, co-author with Michael J Casey of The Social Organism, argues that audiences live in echo chambers. That means content – news or fake news – is tailored to whatever specifically ticks an individual's boxes.

No-one knows how many variations of the truth are created to appeal to each narrowly defined target segment, but each appropriately distorted set of “facts” will be presented to the target segment and nowhere else.

The term ‘fake news’ became popular with the public in mid-2016, just before the US presidential election, when Buzzfeed's media editor, Craig Silverman, noticed a stream of completely made-up stories coming from the small town of Veles in Macedonia.

They found that 140 fake US political websites had been set up in the Eastern European town. One completely baseless story generated more than 140,000 shares, reactions and comments on Facebook.

It’s ironic now that President Trump, the election’s surprise winner, has sought to deflect criticism away from what put him in the White House with his own Fake News Awards for mainstream media.

The main fact that remains true in all of this is that in our post-truth age, we must question absolutely everything.

Is what we see in the mainstream news any more real or true than the Macedonian-sourced fake news story citing unnamed FBI sources and claiming Hillary Clinton was to be indicted for crimes related to the email scandal?

Footage of Kim Jong Un, or Little Rocket Man as Trump calls him, constantly testing and threatening nuclear Armageddon makes it seem like he’s on a suicide mission.

But where is this coming from? Kim Jong Un? Or is the West vastly exaggerating, even faking, the escalation of so-called tensions?

We’ve just discovered that North Korea is rich in natural resources. Is all this grandstanding a precursor to Iraq-style regime change, creating an opportunity to loot North Korea’s bounty?

The biggest problem here is an astounding lack of transparency.

Take Facebook. We’re still no closer to full disclosure despite the recent barrage of abuse from former employees warning that the social media channel is single-handedly destroying humanity.

No-one is forcing Facebook to lay its cards on the table. But then, what politician can possibly out-geek Mark Zuckerberg?

Facebook’s spinners countered recent allegations by announcing that they’d decided to do the ‘right thing’ and change their algorithm for the sake of humanity.

It’s an interesting choice of words that suggests Facebook have built their incredible power and dominance by doing the wrong thing to date.

They promised users would see less public content from businesses or publishers and more posts from their friends. But they’ve said that before.

What they mean is this: They’re going to try their very best not to allow vested interests to pay big money to manipulate millions of people with fake news tailored to trigger the socio-psychological responses they want to see within their target demographic.

For now.

Of course, fake news is not the sole preserve of social media that traditional media would have us think as they up the ante to survive in a digital world. Governments have been aiming to control our hearts and minds in much the same way for years.

The difference today is that social media has decentralised the creation and proliferation of fake content. Up until the birth of social media, only government and big business would have had the resources to manage its control and output.

Despite its reputation, social media isn’t all bad, either. Take the case of West Papua, a country with huge gold deposits.

West Papua was in line for self-determination after the Dutch de-colonised in the ‘60s. Instead, it was handed over, along with its very rich resources, to Indonesia after America, working in collaboration with the United Nations, created a fake self-determination survey during the height of the Cold War.

A total media blackout ensued as Indonesia started to pillage the land. Today, Indonesia continues to ban the media from West Papua, according to the freedom of information organisation Reporters Without Borders.

Media black-outs were once the default stance of regimes wanting to conceal human rights violations, but that strategy is no longer watertight. These days, social media can prise open lines of communication with the outside world.

We can now see the horrific images of atrocities in West Papua that Indonesia’s government would rather keep hidden. A land once forgotten is forgotten no more, and we have social media to thank for it.

Bang On to Richard on email richard.hillgrove@6hillgrove.com and Twitter @6hillgrove

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