What is the News?

Donald Trump’s rise to power in the United States and the lurch to the political right happening across Europe and North America have brought greater focus onto the phenomenon of “fake news.” Largely thanks to the proliferation of the internet and the now ubiquitous use of social media the news is no longer the preserve of governments and wealthy corporate owners. Everyone can have a blog. Anyone with a laptop or a smart phone can write the news and, with enough online connections, manufacture viral content.

We have all become more media savvy as a result. Whether or not we are conscious of it our use of various social media platforms has trained us to seek affirmation through “likes” and “shares.” Most of us now know intuitively what material is more or less likely to be picked up and passed on by our social media friends and connections. The idea of “click bait” is well understood.

On the one hand this has made spurious, spoof, and outright misleading “news” an unavoidable feature of the cyber environment. It is debatable whether the internet has made conspiracy theories more popular, but is has certainly made them more mobile. That something reported to us as having been “seen on the internet” is automatically treated with suspicion also teaches us that we are learning to discern between varying qualities of content. Yet this does not mean that we have become immune to false information masquerading as factual. We can all be taken in.

None of this is, however, what we have come to know as fake news. Sure, it is “news” and it is false, but fake news implies that it was deliberately created with the intention of misleading or misinforming people for a political purpose. Fake news has emerged from the marketing culture inside the internet, that element that has learned how to promote ideas, goods, and services by astroturfing and other socio-psychological tricks. Fake news, like the manufacture of spurious scientific data and “alternative facts” by pharmaceutical companies online, finds a way around inconvenient facts in order to sell itself and – more importantly – the agendas of the people behind it.

As we have become increasingly more aware of fake news and how it functions we have also come to recognise that more trustworthy news media sites – newspapers and news channels – have been, to quite some considerable degree, producing what amounts to fake news for a long time. Admittedly this is not fake news insofar as the content is not a simple fabrication, but the emphasis and the spin that many have been putting on the facts, often to political ends, certainly places them well within any acceptable definition of fake news.

What we come to see is that the news has never been a neutral propagation of useful or important information. The news is something different. As Noam Chomsky has already discussed, the news is about shaping the way people think about certain things and issues. It is about controlling the minds of as many people as possible. It is about manufacturing public consent for the political ambitions of government or those in power. News is a weapon.

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