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‘Comment is free, but facts are sacred,’ remarked C P Scott, one of Britain’s greatest newspapermen and editor of the Guardian, more than a century ago. His expression – which ultimately became one of his newspaper’s mottoes – summarised the fundamental tenet of all good journalism: that while everyone is entitled to an opinion, the factual basis of a story is beyond dispute and cannot be tampered with. No longer, however; for there is a growing trend in the international media to publish utterly fake stories, reporting ‘events’ which never happened. The motives for this phenomenon vary, but the outcome is the same: an erosion of the credibility of established news outlets; frequently, an unnecessary strain on diplomatic relations between countries; and, occasionally, bloodshed.
The phenomenon is, of course, not new. The propaganda sponsored by most countries – occasionally in peacetime but invariably during wars – has included a large element of embellishment. And most news outlets (not to speak of governments) do have their preferences for a ‘selective’ choice of events or facts, which can skew accurate coverage in journalistic reporting. But the relatively new phenomenon is much more extreme: the outcome is no longer a partial truth or a partial lie; instead, it involves nothing less than the complete fabrication of an event which never happened, like the reporting of the death of a leader when he/she remains very much alive, or news about a summit between governments which has never taken place.
The Internet, As Always, in the Lead
Initially, the Internet was the main source for fake news, for obvious reasons. The resources required for an online presence are negligible: a computer, some basic software and a rudimentary knowledge of how to cover one’s electronic tracks. And, while in the old days of the printed world just the feel of a publication, its graphic layout and its distribution network all gave potential readers clues which helped distinguish between reputable and crackpot titles, such distinctions are meaningless online. So a website reporting a sighting of Princess Diana having lunch with Elvis Presley may look just as authoritative as the front page of a long-established newspaper. The Internet is a great democratiser, but also a merciless leveller of news sources: a boon for mischief-makers.
Social networking sites such as Twitter only compound the problem because the entry-level requirements are even less stringent and creating fake accounts purporting to belong to governments or influential people is a doddle. In July – to use but one example – someone claiming to be Vladimir Kolokoltsev, the Russian interior minister, tweeted that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had been killed. Oil prices immediately jumped, as the fake story moved from Twitter to emails: ‘I heard it not so much in the Twitterverse as in the big-mouth-verse,’ admitted Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst of the Oil Price Information Service. Needless to say, it was all a hoax.
The circulation of ‘news’ about the death of senior leaders – usually accompanied by some fictitious explanation as to why the information is being ‘withheld’ by the relevant government – is now almost routine. In early August, Singapore was flooded with rumours that Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, had died but that the government was keeping the news under wraps. Interestingly, the Singapore government decided not to comment on such stories, presumably because it calculated that, once it did so, it would have to respond to any other nonsense published on the Internet. Still, the country remained on tenterhooks until Lee appeared – frail but perfectly healthy – at Singapore’s national day parade. Recently, however, there has been a further refinement to the practice of spreading fake news online: an attempt to plant spurious information on a very credible website. The blogging platform of the Reuters news agency was repeatedly hacked, and on each occasion fake stories alleging the defeat of rebel forces in Syria or the death of senior princes in Saudi Arabia were published.
Master Inventors: State-Owned TV Networks
Traditionally, these episodes were regarded simply as individual pranks. But the habit of deliberately inventing stories is now spreading from the Internet to established news agencies and television stations, particularly in the politically fraught Middle East.
Fars, an Iranian news agency affiliated to the country’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, published in June an interview in which the newly elected Egyptian President Morsi said that he was looking forward to a strategic alliance with Iran. Since relations between Iran and Egypt were notoriously bad, the interview was a political sensation. Only that it never happened; one can understand why Fars News is jokingly referred to inside Iran as ‘False News’, although ‘Farce News’ may be a more appropriate moniker.
Press TV, Iran’s state-controlled satellite channel, is also habitually running fake news. On the day the Olympic Games opened in London, it broadcast a story claiming that a mass terrorist attack on sport facilities was imminent, apparently ordered by a property owner who wanted to collect the insurance compensation money. The alleged owner was, needless to say, Jewish, and the report was accompanied by still pictures of simulated flames pouring out of London’s Olympic Stadium.
Over the past two years, Press TV has also run four separate stories about the purported outbreak of revolutions in Saudi Arabia, and thrice about alleged military coups in Qatar. It has also ‘buried’ most of the Saudi royal family, twice over. And, if this was not enough, Press TV has announced that the US has been struck by a secessionist movement; in case you were unaware, the states of Texas and Vermont apparently want independence. Ironically, when Press TV was launched in 2007, Iranian President Ahmadinejad urged its journalists to stand ‘beside the oppressed nations of the world but not make up news in their favour’.
Yet these shenanigans are nothing compared to what goes on in the Arabic-language channels of the Middle East, where inventing news is the norm rather than the exception. Again, Al-Alam and Al-Manar, two Arabic-language television channels owned by Iran and its regional allies, frequently lead with stories which have never happened.
And although Al-Jazeera, the Qatari-financed satellite channel, has revolutionised the media in the Arab world with its vivid and frequently accurate reporting, the station also recently succumbed to the temptation of running stories which are clearly manufactured by opponents of the Syrian regime. Coverage of the previous revolution in Egypt ‘made Al-Jazeera,’ says Sultan Al-Qassemi, a noted political commentator based in the Gulf. But ‘Syria’s destroying it’, he warns.
And then there is the downright farcical example of NBC, the American television giant, which would never dream of inventing or falsifying news, but has recently gone to great lengths to make some real events appear as though they took place at a different time.
NBC is the Olympic movement’s single biggest financial supporter, but had a problem with the latest Games since, due to different time zones, most of the London fixtures were held before peak evening viewing times in the US, when NBC makes most of its money from adverts. So the network simply taped and broadcast the events later, but still pretended that they were taking place live. The US swimmers ‘must have a great chance tonight’ chirped an excited NBC commentator one evening. Actually, the result was already known and, on that occasion, America’s swimmers did not do well.
What Can Be Done?
Does all this matter? After all, the Iranian television channels are already discredited, while spoof stories and fake websites are as old as the Internet. Nevertheless, if left unchallenged, the fashion for inventing news can be corrosive and may actually cost lives.
The growing habit of faking news ultimately degrades the quality of all journalism. One example of this is the story of Amina Abdallah, a Syrian blogger who captured the attention of the Guardian newspaper in London because she seemed custom-made for the daily: she was a vulnerable female, gay and a fighter in the current revolution in her country. The only snag was that ‘Amina’ turned out to have been a middle-aged man from Scotland. Lapses of judgment happen, and the Guardian duly admitted that it was hoodwinked. But in an age when the ‘news cycle’ is getting increasingly shorter and media networks have to make a quick judgment whether to ignore or respond to a ‘breaking story’, the avalanche of fake news will clearly multiply the possibilities for error.
But even if established and professional media networks avoid the cesspit of false information, the wave of fake news, almost by itself, encourages a culture of cynicism, as the public gets used to the concept that almost everything is part of some conspiracy. That, essentially, is the current problem with the media in Pakistan, for example. And once the disease sets in, it is almost incurable.
Fake news can also generate political tensions: the invented interview with the Egyptian president resulted in a Middle Eastern diplomatic storm, as countries such as Saudi Arabia immediately demanded explanations. This is why invented news is often part of broader psychological warfare campaigns: the torrent of Iranian-generated false information about demonstrators allegedly being killed in neighbouring Bahrain has precluded any possible political compromise inside that kingdom. The same happens with the periodic news items – seldom with any foundation – about the alleged desecration of Islamic holy books by Western soldiers; stories such as these literally can kill.
The scourge cannot be eliminated, but its effects can be mitigated. Governments have to employ much quicker rebuttal procedures in order to quash false stories. In some cases – such as the recent one in Singapore – ignoring spoof news (and particularly distasteful stories related to the alleged death of leaders and other noted personalities) may be the best approach. But in other cases, a quick and effective response is required; it was certainly needed to prevent citizens from northeast India from joining a stampede to avoid an alleged racial massacre which was simply invented. Furthermore, media networks which persistently invent stories or otherwise break the minimum requirements of decency should be made to suffer the consequences: Britain’s recent decision to ban Press TV from its soil is a case in point.
But ultimately, it is up to the old established and trusted media networks which still uphold journalistic standards to fight back and do their best, while the fantasists continue to do their worst. For the alternative is too awful to contemplate: a media in which the truth becomes a relative, elastic concept, and where only those who shout loudest are heard.
Dr Jonathan Eyal
Director of International Security Studies, RUSI, and Editor of the RUSI Newsbrief