Telling Lies #11: Fake News

Fake News

Once upon a time journalists were seen as heroes of the people.  They fought against “the man”.  They exposed the elaborate cover-up by dint of hard work, hours of laborious investigations in dark libraries (the libraries were always dark), cultivating whistleblowers by having meetings in car parks at night.  They were threatened by the powers that be with jail time but they would not give up their sources.  You could trust a journalist.  A journalist was solid, brave, loyal, resourceful, basically a boyscout.

Good journalists were given Pulitzer prizes for their investigations.  They were given international awards for exposing corruption, white collar crime, tax avoidance, all that stuff the top 2% hate you to hear about.

So then “The Man” took over the news organs.  The “independent press” became a mouthpiece for the interests of the Global 2%, the Davos set, the Bilderberg crowd.  You could not trust the headlines, or the stories.  Investigative journalism was fine if it exposed low-lifes, organised crime or benefit cheats.  But God Forbid it should look into the tax affairs of Billionaires.  In 1983, 90% of US media was controlled by 50 companies; in 2012, 90% was controlled by just 6 companies.  This pattern is reapeated worldwide.

Then along came the internet and the 5th Estate.  On Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, Quora etc we get the truth, straight from the horses mouth.  You can talk to the person at the source.

The Media Moguls who now owned the 4th Estate needed to disrupt the 5th Estate.  The tool they use is called “Fake News”.  If you flood the media with sensational fake news you can create so many side conversations that it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, the truth from the lies.

The age of the investigative journalist was over.  Success in journalism today resides in the ability to write good clickbait.  The headlines that go viral are the Pulitzer prizes of today.  Nobody cares about the actual article.  So these days as a Journalist you may write an excellent and insightful article which is published widely, only to find that it is topped with a clickbait headline you did not write.  The headline may not even bear any resemblance to the article itself.

In a world where every politically charged news item is presented with wildly contradictory “facts” the average Joe just retreats from the war for airtime.

Karl Marx famously commented on how the oppressed retreated into Religion as an anodyne to the realities of a hard life, something to distract the attention of the worker from his or her own exploitation, a promise of something better in the next world.  In the modern social-media world religion has been replaced by “Reality TV”.  Keeping up with the Kardashians, Love Island, America’s Got Talent, Who wants to be a Millionaire, Big Brother, Survivor, The Bachelor, America’s Top Model, Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, Storage Wars and so on.  All of these shows are examples of Hyperreal simulacra.  They represent an idealised life that does not exist – Disneyland for adults who find themselves out of touch with the cold hard realities of the modern world.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” Karl Marx


Shoot the messenger.


I have always considered Al Jazeera to be one of the enlightened and forward looking institutions emerging from the Arab World.  A news programme that is firmly rooted in sound, accurate, factual reporting.  OK I know that everyone does not see Arabic News in the same way as I do.  I was exposed to reporting bias by that paragon of impartiality, the BBC, during the Northern Ireland troubles.  I know that even when rooted in the factual reporting can be highly biased.  The point is, Al Jazeera seemed to be an antidote to all the other Arabic news, and it is a news channel consumed by Arabs.

So it was with some surprise that I learned differently yesterday.  I was having my golden tresses restyled and trimmed in Thurles by my barber who is a French national of Arabic extraction.  He has Al Jazeera on the TV all the time.  We were chatting about Algeria, Pieds-Noirs, and the recent tragedy of 92 Malian refugees who died in the desert when their trucks broke down.

As we chatted he nodded at the TV and commented in an offhand manner that Arabs no longer trust Al Jazeera.  I asked him why, and he said it was because Al Jazeera always tells bad news.  This raises all sorts of issues about the future security of Al Jazeera.

If you are raised on a diet of happy-clappy propaganda, telling you that you live in the greatest country in the world, and that you are rich and well-off, and then you hear real news and opinion from an independent source, who do you believe?  If Al Jazeera gives “bad news” we can understand the appeal of the channel to the intelligentsia, but we may also understand a rejection by the commons.  If you are condemned to a life of poverty is it better to find your life acceptable, or is it better that you are made to feel dissatisfied with your life every time you turn around.

For that matter, how happy are we “wealthy” western people with our lot?  Every time I turn on the TV I am barraged with all the reasons why I am not “happy”.  My car is not big enough, my clothes are not stylish enough, my teeth are not straight, I don’t have enough holidays, I don’t eat out enough, I don’t bring my boys to enough football matches.  In short, regardless of what I earn, I don’t spend enough money.

Also, I don’t plan sufficiently for the future.  I don’t have enough insurance, my pension is not big enough, and if either myself or my wife die our children will not be able to retire on the payout.

Western style news programmes sometimes throw in the odd fluffy heartwarming story.  Donald Trump gave $10k to a good Samaritan today.  But news is generally pretty negative stuff.  We revel in disasters, riots, wars and scandals.  Good news is ho-hum.

So which is better, to be an Arab viewer who rejects Al Jazeera and settles for a modest but happy life, or to be a dissatisfied well-informed Western consumer?

“How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix” 

Robert Browning (1812–89)

I SPRANG to the stirrup, and Joris, and he;
I gallop’d, Dirck gallop’d, we gallop’d all three;
“Good speed !” cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
“Speed!” echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we gallop’d abreast.

Not a word to each other; we kept the great pace
Neck by neck, stride by stride, never changing our place;
I turn’d in my saddle and made its girths tight,
Then shorten’d each stirrup, and set the pique right,
Rebuckled the cheek-strap, chain’d slacker the bit,
Nor gallop’d less steadily Roland a whit.

’T was moonset at starting; but while we drew near
Lokeren, the cocks crew and twilight dawn’d clear;
At Boom, a great yellow star came out to see;
At Düffeld, ’t was morning as plain as could be;
And from Mechelm church-steeple we heard the half chime,
So, Joris broke silence with, “Yet there is time!”

At Aershot, up leap’d of a sudden the sun,
And against him the cattle stood black every one,
To state thro’ the mist at us galloping past,
And I saw my stout galloper Roland at last,
With resolute shoulders, each butting away
The haze, as some bluff river headland its spray:

And his low head and crest, just one sharp ear bent back
For my voice, and the other prick’d out on his track;
And one eye’s black intelligence,—ever that glance
O’er its white edge at me, his own master, askance!
And the thick heavy spume-flakes which aye and anon
His fierce lips shook upwards in galloping on.

By Hasselt, Dirck groan’d; and cried Joris “Stay spur!
Your Roos gallop’d bravely, the fault’s not in her,
We ’ll remember at Aix”—for one heard the quick wheeze
Of her chest, saw the stretch’d neck and staggering knees,
And sunk tail, and horrible heave of the flank,
As down on her haunches she shudder’d and sank.

So, we were left galloping, Joris and I,
Past Looz and past Tongres, no cloud in the sky;
The broad sun above laugh’d a pitiless laugh,
’Neath our feet broke the brittle bright stubble like chaff;
Till over by Dalhem a dome-spire sprang white,
And “Gallop,” gasped Joris, “for Aix is in sight!

“How they ’ll greet us!”—and all in a moment his roan
Roll’d neck and croup over, lay dead as a stone;
And there was my Roland to bear the whole weight
Of the news which alone could save Aix from her fate,
With his nostrils like pits full of blood to the brim,
And with circles of red for his eye-sockets’ rim.

Then I cast loose my buffcoat, each holster let fall,
Shook off both my jack-boots, let go belt and all,
Stood up in the stirrup, lean’d, patted his ear,
Call’d my Roland his pet name, my horse without peer;
Clapp’d my hands, laugh’d and sang, any noise, bad or good,
Till at length into Aix Roland gallop’d and stood.

And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ’twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I pour’d down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgesses voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.

Psychic Distance

Assorted 017

My brother Rory lives in Calgary, Alberta.  Last night he emailed photos of his flooded home and the surrounding streets.  It is nothing short of a disaster.  His home is ruined.  His belongings are destroyed, musical instruments, books, photographs, all personal and highly sentimental.

This morning I switched on Sky News to see the footage.  They are reporting that 75 thousand homes have been evacuated.  Four people may have died.  The news report dedicated about 5 minutes to the story.  That is no small allocation of time for a story in a foreign country.

But then Canadians speak English.  They are part of the British Commonwealth.  They are a predominantly anglo-saxon protestant society, and this is especially true of Western Canada and Alberta.  So the British and Irish audience of Sky News can readily empathise with the flooded Albertans.  We have little aesthetic or psychic distance from these people.  They are like us.

Also on the news report this morning is a one line spoken report of 550 deaths in Northern India due to the early arrival of the Monsoons.  Stop press!  they have updated it to two lines and added a shot of a mule being pulled to safety across a raging river.

Well, there is a lot of psychic distance between us and those folk in India.  They don’t speak our language.  They don’t look like us.  Let’s face it, we really don’t want to look at dead poor people.  Which is why the newsroom selected the mule footage.  We can empathise with a poor frightened innocent animal better than we can empathise with the 550 dead and their bereaved families.

Now it would be very easy to blame the person in the newsroom over in Sky and rant about how they devalue the lives of those Indian people.  But that would be missing the point.  Sky news broadcasts for ratings.  They know we want to see Calgary and that we do not want to see India.  They understand a lot about psychic distance.

The question is, what does it say about us as people?  We have concern for those we identify as “us” or “of us”.  When we identify people as “other” or “them” a different set of dynamics comes into play.  They are not us.  They do not behave, look, sound or smell like us.  In many cases this engenders suspicion and even fear.  We want to set up barriers between ourselves and those people who are not us.  We do not want to empathise with their deaths, because at a certain level the world will be a more secure place if there are not so many of those “other” people  in it.

By contrast, to those facing an exogamous impulse there is an attraction to the “other”.  In simple terms exogamy stimulates tribe members from mating within the tribe and broadens the gene pool of a race.  This is why gap year students are motivated to travel long distances from home and engage in courtship with strange people.  But even then gap year students tend to have their fling with other gap year students, or with other people from developed western nations.  Even when we are most open to those from “other” cultures we have limits on how far we will comfortably stray in terms of psychic distance.

I feel sorry for my brother and the loss of his personal effects.  But I am glad I am not an Indian living in London who has heard that my brother is dead and his home has washed down a river valley.  I am glad that my brother is alive and safe and that his greatest worry is that the insurance company won’t pay.  And Rory, if you read this, stop wading around in that water, you will contract giardiasis.  That water is full of Beaver crap!


The Listeners; by Walter de la Mare

“Is there anybody there?” said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grass
Of the forest’s ferny floor;
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
“Is there anybody there?” he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
‘Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:–
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.