Can you trust the mainstream media?

Andrew Harrison writes: If any piece of video can stand for the spirit of the times, then this fevered, resentful summer of 2017 could well be summed up in a clip of west London activist Ishmahil Blagrove, a film-maker and member of Justice4Grenfell, dispensing a furious dressing-down to a Sky reporter sent to cover the aftermath of London’s most catastrophic fire in generations.

Blagrove seethes with righteous anger. “Fuck the media, fuck the mainstream,” he tells the TV journalist to cheers from passers-by, all the rage and frustration of the Grenfell disaster directed for a moment not at the borough council that enabled it but at those who covered it. Then he makes a connection familiar to old footsoldiers of the left and increasingly popular with its new recruits. Everything is connected. “For two years, you’ve hounded and demonised Jeremy Corbyn,” Blagrove shouts. “You said he was unelectable. You created that narrative and people believed your bullshit for a while. But what this election has done is shown that people are immune. They’re wearing bulletproof vests to you and the other billionaires of the media owners and Rupert Murdoch and all the motherfuckers.”

In years gone by, this might have been ignored as a standard everything-is-wrong jeremiad against the iniquities of the system. Blagrove is, after all, a veteran of Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. But the clip went viral and clearly spoke to a wider audience. This summer, what was once a fringe analysis – that the media are not a complex collection of independent agencies holding the system to account but an elite-directed component of that system – finally moved into the popular consciousness.

After the bitter referendums over Scottish independence and Britain’s EU membership, after newspapers and TV failed to predict the successes of Donald Trump, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, and finally with the nightmarish failure of policy and oversight that led to Grenfell, confidence in the media has taken a battering. And alternative voices are keen to undermine it further. From new, conspiracy-minded outlets such as the Canary and Evolve Politics to the “alt-right”, libertarian and hard Brexit conversations that cluster on Twitter, the loudest and most strident voices push a relentless line: you can’t trust the mainstream media.

It is not just the politically motivated who hold these beliefs. Judged on hard metrics, confidence in UK media has fallen noticeably in recent years. According to communications agency Edelman’s 2017 Trust Barometer survey of 1,500 Britons, the number of people who said they trusted British news outlets at all fell from an already low 36% in 2015 to a mere 24% by the beginning of 2017. The 2017 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute, published in June, found that just 41% of British people agreed that the news media did a good job in helping them distinguish fact from fiction. The figure for social media was even lower: 18%.

“It’s a serious problem for the profession,” says Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielsen of the Reuters Institute. “The political legitimacy of institutions like the BBC and also the business models of newspapers depend on the idea that they offer something trustworthy. Healthy distrust can be a good thing but hardened cynicism is paralysing.”

He is worried that people are tending to judge the entire industry by its worst practitioners. “The danger is that the influential and the upper classes see journalism as too tabloid and populist, while working-class people think it pays little attention to people like themselves and their lives – and no one is happy.”

“It is beginning to feel like a culture war,” says Ian Katz, editor of BBC2’s Newsnight and formerly deputy editor of the Guardian. The “attritional decline” in trust that he has witnessed during his 25 years in journalism has accelerated sharply over the past few years, he says. Now, when Newsnight sends reporters and producers to cover the Grenfell protests or June’s van attack near Finsbury Park mosque, they are met with “extraordinary levels of hostility and suspicion”.

“At Grenfell, a lot of the reaction crystallised around the idea of an establishment plot to minimise the extent of the catastrophe,” Katz explains. “There was an elision of a whole series of things into the Grenfell disaster, including the perception that the media had failed to give Corbyn a fair crack. That hostility has become a proxy for wider, inchoate anger with the establishment in general and the press in particular.”

He’s talking about a new article of faith on the political left: that, in its attitudes to Corbyn, the media inadvertently revealed the truth about themselves. Instead of supporting Labour’s new leader, goes the narrative, liberal newspapers such as the Guardian and Observer, along with “state broadcaster” the BBC, set out to destroy him. When Corbyn did better than expected in the 2017 general election, this proved that the media were unequivocally wrong and the Corbynites were right. Questions of a journalistic duty to examine, or the separation of news and comment, or even basing your coverage reasonably on the past performance of platforms similar to Corbyn’s, were by the by. So was the point that Corbyn did not actually win the election. No matter – the liberal press had betrayed its readers and the MSM (mainstream media) had got it wrong. [Continue reading…]

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Syria, Seymour Hersh and the Sarin denialists

Brian Whitaker writes: Do news organisations have a duty to publish stories from anonymous sources when there is reason to believe they are untrue? Apparently some people think so.

Yesterday, following scientific tests, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons confirmed that inhabitants of Khan Sheikoun, in the Syrian province of Idlib, had been “exposed to Sarin, a chemical weapon”, during an attack last April. Reports at the time said at least 74 died and hundreds were injured.

The news that Sarin had definitely been involved caused a buzz on Twitter from people refusing to believe it. Many pointed instead to an article in a German newspaper last weekend which quoted an unnamed “senior adviser to the American intelligence community” as saying no chemical attack had taken place.

The article, by veteran American journalist Seymour Hersh, suggested that Syrian forces using a conventional explosive bomb had accidentally hit a store of “fertilisers, disinfectants and other goods” causing “effects similar to those of sarin”.

Hersh’s version contradicted evidence from a range of sources and, in the light of yesterday’s announcement from the OPCW, is clearly untrue. As far as some people were concerned, though, it said what they wanted to hear and, even after the OPCW reported its findings, they were still complaining that mainstream media had failed to take Hersh’s ridiculous story seriously. [Continue reading…]

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The long and brutal history of fake news

Jacob Soll writes: The fake news hit Trent, Italy, on Easter Sunday, 1475. A 2 ½-year-old child named Simonino had gone missing, and a Franciscan preacher, Bernardino da Feltre, gave a series of sermons claiming that the Jewish community had murdered the child, drained his blood and drunk it to celebrate Passover. The rumors spread fast. Before long da Feltre was claiming that the boy’s body had been found in the basement of a Jewish house. In response, the Prince-Bishop of Trent Johannes IV Hinderbach immediately ordered the city’s entire Jewish community arrested and tortured. Fifteen of them were found guilty and burned at the stake. The story inspired surrounding communities to commit similar atrocities.

Recognizing a false story, the papacy intervened and attempted to stop both the story and the murders. But Hinderbach refused to meet the papal legate, and feeling threatened, simply spread more fake news stories about Jews drinking the blood of Christian children. In the end, the popular fervor supporting these anti-semitic “blood libel” stories made it impossible for the papacy to interfere with Hinderbach, who had Simonino canonized — Saint Simon — and attributed to him a hundred miracles. Today, historians have catalogued the fake stories of child-murdering, blood-drinking Jews, which have existed since the 12th century as part of the foundation of anti-Semitism. And yet, one anti-Semitic website still claims the story is true and Simon is still a martyred saint. Some fake news never dies.

Over the past few months, “fake news” has been on the loose once again. From bogus stories about Hillary Clinton’s imminent indictment to myths about a postal worker in Ohio destroying absentee ballots cast for Donald Trump, colorful and damaging tales have begun to circulate rapidly and widely on Twitter and Facebook. In some cases they have had violent results: Earlier this month a man armed with an AR-15 fired a shot inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant, claiming to be investigating (fake) reports that Clinton aide John Podesta was heading up a child abuse ring there.

But amid all the media handwringing about fake news and how to deal with it, one fact seems to have gotten lost: Fake news is not a new phenomenon. It has been around since news became a concept 500 years ago with the invention of print — a lot longer, in fact, than verified, “objective” news, which emerged in force a little more than a century ago. From the start, fake news has tended to be sensationalist and extreme, designed to inflame passions and prejudices. And it has often provoked violence. The Nazi propaganda machine relied on the same sorts of fake stories about ritual Jewish drinking of childrens’ blood that inspired Prince-Bishop Hinderbach in the 15th century. Perhaps most dangerous is how terrifyingly persistent and powerful fake news has proved to be. As Pope Sixtus IV found out, wild fake stories with roots in popular prejudice often prove too much for responsible authorities to handle. With the decline of trusted news establishments around the country, who’s to stop them today? [Continue reading…]

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Most Americans are suckers for fake news

BuzzFeed reports: Fake news headlines fool American adults about 75% of the time, according to a large-scale new survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for BuzzFeed News.

The survey also found that people who cite Facebook as a major source of news are more likely to view fake news headlines as accurate than those who rely less on the platform for news.

This survey is the first large-scale public opinion research study into the fake news phenomenon that has had a sweeping effect on global politics, and that recently caused a gunman to threaten a DC pizza place. The results paint a picture of news consumers with little ability to evaluate the headlines that often fly toward them without context on social media platforms. They also — surprisingly — suggest that consumers are likely to believe even false stories that don’t fit their ideological bias. And the survey calls into question the notion — which Facebook has reportedly begun testing — that consumers themselves can do the work of distinguishing between real and fake news.

The new data comes from an online survey of 3,015 US adults conducted between Nov. 28 and Dec. 1. For more on the methodology, see the bottom of this article. A detailed summary of results to all questions can be found here. Additional calculations can be found here. [Continue reading…]

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Note to Breitbart: Earth is not cooling, climate change is real and please stop using our video to mislead Americans

 

Weather.com reports: Global warming is not expected to end anytime soon, despite what Breitbart.com wrote in an article published last week.

Though we would prefer to focus on our usual coverage of weather and climate science, in this case we felt it important to add our two cents — especially because a video clip from weather.com (La Niña in Pacific Affects Weather in New England) was prominently featured at the top of the Breitbart article. Breitbart had the legal right to use this clip as part of a content-sharing agreement with another company, but there should be no assumption that The Weather Company endorses the article associated with it.

The Breitbart article – a prime example of cherry picking, or pulling a single item out of context to build a misleading case – includes this statement: “The last three years may eventually come to be seen as the final death rattle of the global warming scare.”

In fact, thousands of researchers and scientific societies are in agreement that greenhouse gases produced by human activity are warming the planet’s climate and will keep doing so. [Continue reading…]

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Trump fires Michael Flynn’s son from transition for spreading fake news

The New York Times reports: President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday fired one of his transition team’s staff members, Michael G. Flynn, the son of Mr. Trump’s choice for national security adviser, for using Twitter to spread a fake news story about Hillary Clinton that led to an armed confrontation in a pizza restaurant in Washington.

The uproar over Mr. Flynn’s Twitter post cast a harsh spotlight on the views that he and his father, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, aired on social media throughout the presidential campaign. Both men have shared fake news stories alleging that Mrs. Clinton committed felonies, and have posted their own Twitter messages that at times have crossed into Islamophobia.

But their social media musings apparently attracted little attention from Mr. Trump or his transition team before a North Carolina man fired a rifle on Sunday inside Comet Ping Pong, which was the subject of false stories tying it and the Clinton campaign to a child sex trafficking ring.

Hours after the episode, the younger Mr. Flynn, 33, went on Twitter to say that until “Pizzagate” was proved false, it remained a story. [Continue reading…]

 

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