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Hyperreality, fake news and the lost power of linking

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Painting of Trump - fake news

Ever since the election of Donald Trump, fake news has been in the ‘real’ news.

Detractors claim Facebook negligently allowed baseless attacks, masquerading as real news, to damage Hillary Clinton’s reputation and seal victory for her rival. A senior writer at the Washington Post even argues that Facebook should employ an editor to stop the fake news virus spreading any further.

A journalist calling for more journalism appears self-serving; it also ignores the practical and ethical questions that flow from employing editors at Facebook. How, for example, would a journalist act as the moral arbiter for hundreds of millions of users exchanging billions of separate pieces of information mostly for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with current affairs?

Facebook users have different political and religious persuasions, languages and cultures. Even ostensibly similar users have competing world views that are hard to define or even understand. So how would employing editors to judge their output not end up threatening free speech? And how do you determine what is fake and what is not, anyway?

Trumping fake news

A list of fake news sites produced to help students stay aware of distorting ‘news’ is illuminating, but not as you might expect. Reportedly the work of a media lecturer, the list included the well-established, much-respected British news magazine, Private Eye because it’s satirical. Satire often manufactures ridiculous stories to highlight stupidity or hypocrisy. That doesn’t mean it should be lumped in with fake news sites. It does, though, demonstrate how blurred the boundaries are. Indeed, one self-confessed fake news author claimed in an interview that his sole reason for cranking out hundreds of fictitious memes was to highlight ‘alt-right’ supremacists’ use of false information.

Fake news is not one-sided, either. Following Trump’s election victory in early November, one piece of fakery appeared in my own news feed repeatedly. It reported Trump telling People Magazine in 1998 that if he ever sought the presidential nomination it would be with the Republicans, because their supporters were gullible and easy to manipulate.

Picture and text reporting Trump: If I were to run, Id run as a Republican. They're the dumbest group of voters

Thousands of people exchanged the meme without questioning its authenticity, no doubt because it matched their impression of Trump. In fact, it’s a delicious (or perhaps unpalatable) irony that it was precisely because people thought Trump was preying on the gullible that they believed a fake news story about him.

Confirming bias

In this sense, fake news stories are confirmation-bias memes. They work because they tell us something we already believe in – and we are all, therefore, vulnerable to them. That leads to an uncomfortable – if obvious – conclusion about fake news: it’s not that different from real news – and not just because it looks like real news. Firstly, fake news and real news can help to support or propagate a particular world view: The Daily Mail, Fox News, The Guardian, even The New York Times, have determined editorial perspectives that are there to support their readers’ view of the world. Yep, there’s a difference: these news providers mostly report on ‘facts’, i.e. things that verifiably happened, rather than stuff that’s just made up. But the lens they apply to these facts is one designed to a serve a world-view, nonetheless.

Secondly, both real and fake news expect us to trust that what they are saying is real. In a news meme, whether the news is real or not, it’s often disconnected from the sources that establish its veracity in the first place. Indeed, news inherently has this problem anyway, even when it’s presented on news sites or newspapers or on news TV channels, let alone when it’s on social media. It is, after all the point of news. You read or hear that something has happened to be informed; you don’t then expect to have to go and make sure that it did actually happen.

Jean Baudrillard: Simulacra and fake news

Jean Baudrillard was a French philosopher and cultural theorist. In Simulacra and Simulation,  published in 1981, Baudrillard explores a phenomenon he calls hyperreality. This is the idea that in a world where everything is experienced through media, our impression of ‘reality’ is in fact completely removed from the actual real. Instead what represents truth isn’t truth at all, because it is so disconnected from any empirical thing in the first place. At first that idea seems ridiculous – not least because it’s so disturbing: One of the most popular references to Baudrillard’s idea is the film The Matrix (where a copy of Simulacra and Simulation is used as a prop). In the film, the world that appears real soon turns out to be a simulation. A character quotes the book, calling it ‘the desert of the real’.

Despite its disturbing qualities – and whether you accept Baudrillard’s claim that the real isn’t real at all – it’s easy to accept his observation. In a mediated world, in which everything is represented or reproduced rather than actually experienced, it won’t take long for notions of veracity to become questionable. Indeed, questioning reality is now an actual ‘thing’ in itself.

Baudrillard developed his theories for Simulacra and Simulation in the 1970s and 1980s, before the Internet dominated news reporting and the media. Nonetheless, it makes his argument that much easier to support. Now, with a bit of tweaking, we can use an off-the-shelf WordPress theme to make a website look, ostensibly, as authentically newsy as the New York Times.

Beyond this, Twitter and Facebook offer ready-made templates for news production and dissemination that make it laughably easy to pretend to be real news producers. In the case of Facebook the platform is reported to be engineered to favour self-referencing: Uploading a video to the platform appears to elicit more engagement than linking to it on YouTube, owned by Facebook’s rival, Google.

Fighting fake news

If news was on shaky ground already, the internet then is helping to reduce that ground to sand. What the hell can we do?

Firstly, journalists need to work harder. Journalism, after all, purports to report significant, real events to audiences who aren’t there to witness them. Given that there is always going to be a gap between real experiences and an audience’s experience, it’s vital that journalists work to address that gap. Otherwise, the dislocation of reports from the facts on which they are based can be exploited to create fakery. Worse still – and more alarmingly – it also makes it much easier for people to pretend that real news is a lie when it’s not – particularly if it doesn’t suit how they feel or think. That, I think, is a bigger potential problem than the fake news itself.

The most obvious tool at an online journalist’s disposal to deal with this is the link: linking to reports, linking to source material, linking to the people in the report. But that shouldn’t be the end of it, either. Journalists need to find other ways to take people directly to where they found out the facts. I’d venture that also means adopting exacting standards of transparency in how reporting is carried out. And backing it up constantly. Indeed, linking is part of the approach used by Wikipedia to help establish ‘truth’ – and now suggested by some for Facebook.

Secondly, the Internet we’re creating increasingly looks like a trap for anyone who isn’t equipped to determine what’s ‘real’ and what’s not. If we allow companies and individuals to develop self-referring ‘realities’ that don’t rely on any objective truth, then all sorts of scary worlds can and will develop. The internet was designed with linking in mind – in fact the world-wide web was proposed as a linking system for scientists. But somehow that hasn’t prevented the web turning into a place where referencing is viewed as a self-serving process rather than one of common interest. That matters because it’s where we are ‘living’ our lives: it’s where our views are shaped and experiences defined. In other words, getting this new world sorted is a big, serious problem. And that isn’t for journalists to solve, love them as I do – or even for Facebook. It’s a dirty-great, society-wide humdinger of a thing. A problem that belongs to us all.

Online Journalism

If anyone else talks about paywalls I’m going to punch them

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No industry can be as self important as the newspaper business. OK, maybe TV. And, I suppose, if politics is a business (which it all to frequently appears to be) then that deserves a mention, too. But journalism – a trade designed to make a mountain out of a molehill – has a habit of getting itself in the headlines, often to its detriment. Evidence for this claim is hardly difficult to find. From the well-paid columnists who tell us about their not-very-interesting lives, to the current debate about the New York Times’s decision to charge customers for using its website from January 2011.
This news has been greeted in some quarters as common sense, and in others with nothing short of derision. In particular, online gurus have lined up to have a pop at the venerable ‘Gray Lady’ of American news. In fact, it has been a little like watching the judges of American Idol, with the New York Times cast as the feckless wannabe and Jeff Jarvis as Simon Cowell.
Now, if the words of one New York Times exec is to be believed (thanks to Jay Rosen), it seems the paywall is a paywall only if you are actually going to sit down and read the online product properly (who does that?). Those who arrive through the millions of links that in turn benefit the Times’s standing on the web will arrive free – no doubt thanked for their valued Google juice. Since subscribers, who might by one estimation account for 70 per cent of the small number who will stay long enough to pay, would be handed access gratis, it suddenly seems like less of a paywall. This might be the greatest double bluff in online newspaper history (or is that the only double bluff in online newspaper history): the NY Times had been paid-for, then it was free and now it is going to be paid-for, but also free. Anyone who could get their head round this would no doubt be given a subscription forthwith and asked to join the board.
There is, of course, a little more method to the NY Times’s madness than might immediately meet the eye. Firstly, the vast majority of clicks on the site will be from people who won’t under any circumstances pay. They will visit – through Google or through links from other sites – but their time perusing the NYT’s content will be brief at best. These are the folk who Murdoch hates, because they pore sweaty-browed over his finely rendered, beautifully polished and expensive prose, but provide nothing (either by directly paying or as customers to whom he can advertise). Because they won’t stick around, particularly if they’re asked to cough up (imagine Rupert as red-faced shopkeeper chasing them out of the store after they’ve thumbed through his comics), there’s no point trying to make ’em. Frankly, this is the hardest lesson for newspapers: lots of people just won’t pay. All they offer is the promise of links, something Jarvis has pointed out offers a different form of value. But some, you see, will. It will be a tiny number, probably, and mostly made up of people who have an affection for the product, who stick with it and believe in it. But, for the NY Times, that number doesn’t have to be that big. And, what’s more, you can advertise to them. Maybe you can even advertise much more directly to them (if you know their tastes, their habits, their interests). So, with these, er, win-win benefits, it’s presumably considered to be worth a shot. Whether it works is another matter and, frankly, I don’t care.
That’s because all this talk of paywalls is something of a red herring. Newspapers feel they need to charge for online content because it appears to cost them so much. After all, the readers are deserting the paper product for their free online offering, just as the advertisers are. But what are a newspaper’s costs? Principally, as it happens, the production and distribution of newspapers. And is anyone talking about this at the moment? While we all blow hot and cold on paywalls, newspapers seem to have a far bigger problem to deal with: the newspaper itself. When I say the newspaper I don’t just mean the paper, the print and its distribution – although this is an expensive business in itself. I mean the advertising sales teams, the support staff, the big offices, the related human resources costs, the insurance, and everything else that has been sucked into the business of making and distributing news. What will happen to all this when, as will I think inevitably happen, it simply is too costly to bear?
It’s a much more important argument and goes to the heart of news production, its merits and its values. Paywalls don’t – and that’s why I’m so fed up with all this pointless hot air. Some will work and some won’t, it’ll depend on whether you’ve got something people can’t get elsewhere – i.e. it’s common sense – and that’s really all there is to it.