Fabrication, fakery and falsehood have been part of journalism through the ages. It used to be called propaganda and misinformation. What is particular about our era, however, is that the term "fake news" has become a tool to denounce journalistic content with which one disagrees politically (not factually) on the one hand, and to attack free and independent media, on the other.
Fake news is not journalism you dislike or disagree with, for whatever reason. Fake news is not stuff that other people say that you don’t like or agree with. Fake news is not the unintentional misleading of audiences by journalists and news organisations, if they are sincerely applying the conventions of objectivity but producing erroneous content because of human error or organisational dysfunction. Fake news is not the unintentional misleading by media of their audiences, when it is rooted in intentional deception and misleading by dishonest sources. All of the above are part of journalism’s history, and we must be vigilant in calling out errors and sloppiness in the news production process. But they are not fake news as the term is currently being used.
Fake news, in the contemporary context, is simply this: intentional disinformation (invention or falsification of known facts) for political and/or professional purposes. Fake news is when media organisations report these stories as credible, knowing them to be fairytales. Because of its use by Donald Trump and his supporters, the concept has become a core political issue, now impacting on the freedom of the media in the US and elsewhere. Questions around the veracity and authenticity of journalism have become central to concerns about the health of journalism and the Fourth Estate more broadly.
These debates are not merely academic, but essential to the evolution (and perhaps survival) of liberal-democratic societies in the 21st century. The capacity of the digitised, globalised, networked media space to disseminate news and information of all kinds, including unsubstantiated rumour, malicious gossip and content which is fake or in some other way problematic, has coincided with a particular political moment where journalistic objectivity and professionalism are under challenge from state and non-state political actors as never before.
Some call it a “crisis” of objective journalism. Remember that the critique of objectivity goes back to Einstein, and was then reinforced by postmodernism and cultural relativism. The left, exemplified by the likes of Noam Chomsky, never believed in objectivity anyway, while the right didn’t care about the truth of anything as long as it made money. Fox News is a Murdoch company, and Murdoch claims to believe in objective journalism. What is new, though, is the politicization of this struggle over truth. Flood the global public sphere with lies and conspiracy theories for long enough and some sucker, somewhere, will buy it.
Types of fake news are: total falsehoods; falsehoods with nuggets of truth; or the kind spread by partisan communities that take images or pieces of information wildly out of context.
Since the election of US President Donald Trump in November 2017, fake news has become a powerful, ubiquitous meme, replicating and evolving with every iteration of the news cycle until one can’t open a newspaper without being greeted by the words “fake” and “news” in some combination or other.
Fake news is not in itself news. It may be "present moment news"; but that it isn’t new. Even the term isn’t original. Jon Stewart’s Daily Show was often referred to as part of the fake news genre which emerged in the 1990s – in his and Stephen Colbert’s case it meant savagely sarcastic commentaries on, and satirical parodies and pastiches of, “real” news as produced by the US networks. They, and more recent comedians such as John Oliver, had and have great fun with the absurdities and pretensions of Fox News in particular, although they are deeply serious in their underlying purpose: to blow the whistle on bullshit of the type that Fox pours out daily. They and publications such as the UK’s Private Eye, The Onion and Daily Currant have succeeded by providing a form of “fake” news that is obviously untrue and functions as commentary on the mainstream news media, but is just close enough to the real thing in style and form to be genuinely funny as satire. These “fakers” are not journalists, as Oliver stressed in an interview with the Sunday Times this week, although they can be at least as influential as the most po-faced of pundits.
Award-winning journalists such as Janet Cooke have been exposed as cheats. Her Pulitzer Prize was snatched back La La Land-style when it turned out that her heart-rending story of an eight-year-old heroin addict, little “Jimmy” from the ‘hood, was entirely invented.
In the late 1990s Stephen Glass of the New Republic was found to have fabricated dozens of major feature articles for one of the US’ most-prestigious journalistic publications – also known, at least until Trump took over, as in-flight reading for Air Force One.
In 2002 Jayson Blair of the New York Times became a major news story for plagiarising other journalists’ content, and then making up some more lies all on his own.
In 1997, a Channel 4 documentary production team were caught out faking a story about male prostitutes in Glasgow, and the company was fined. Around the same time Channel 4 also broadcast a fake documentary about Colombian cocaine smugglers. A few years later the venerable UK Guardian printed a front-page story about Chinese police brutality that turned out to be entirely made up.
Globally, Vladimir Putin has since 2010 or so deliberately cultivated disinformation, propaganda and myth as part of his hybrid warfare campaign against liberal democracy and unmanly things like gay rights and Pussy Riot. His people didn’t shoot down MH17; no, that was the Ukrainian neo-fascists, or the CIA, or the EU. He didn’t order the killing of Boris Nemtsov, or Alexander Litvinenko, or Anna Politovskaya; that was the Islamists.