The “is it News?” Challenge

‘If corporates can do it, why can’t you?’, they ask.

that given moment, Edward Bernays gave his cue whereupon a group of rich debutantes in a parade walking down New York’s fifth avenue pulled out cigarettes from their stockings and lit up.

They’re smoking torches of freedom, the PR guru would tell awaiting press and photographers. Freedom? Why yes, the fight for women’s liberation.

Edward Bernays, often cited as the father of PR, had successfully pulled of his first domestic fake news story, in the process polluting the suffragettes movement by aligning it with a corporate sponsors urge to shift more cigarettes. It made headlines around the world. Welcome to PR, a name Bernays coined because it sounded good.

‘I decided that if you could use propaganda for war, you could certainly use it for peace and propaganda got to be a bad word because of the Germans using it…so we found a word, council on public relations. (see here: 8.01")

Bernays would successfully deploy other false news events, masqueraded as real news. When the Pork industry wanted to off load more of its product, but curated meat had limited outlets, Bernays paid doctors to tell the American public a bacon breakfast (with eggs) was good for you. They lapped it up and that diet which has stuck with us today has made its own indefatigable contribution to the cholesterol/fatty diet debate.

Today, a sizeable chunk of news will feature government officials, PR companies of one hue or another peddling their clients’ pov falsehoods to hike their profits — from chocolate is good for you, smoking causes you no harm, and nuclear fusion in a test tube will bring unlimited energy.

Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons, in 1989 yielded one of the most torrent backlashes in the science community. Notwithstanding the duos impeccable credentials, even when other boffins doubted, the newspapers knew they had the equivalent of Freddie Star ate my Hamster. Incredulous, if not dubious, but it grabbed column inches.

‘If corporates can do it, why can’t you?’, perpetrators ask. In a world of limited news outlets, news producers were either culpable, or duplicitous, but that was fine because there was a sense it was manageable. The joke was on others. The deliberate attempt to smear football fans and family at the tragic loss of life in Hillsborough showed a malevolent deeply darker side. In 1992 at BBC Greater London Radio, a network television reporter describing the LA riots extolled how blacks were looting stores. ‘Hang on!’ said a producer, whom with me, was watching footage of black and white people looting. We promptly rang the network’s news desk to complain there were blacks and whites.

And now with a galaxy of sites purporting to be news producers, this thing, now given a brand name, ‘fake’ has ‘gotten out of control’. The BBC’s first director general Sir John Reith said almost 100 years ago, when confronted with the idea that news could be synchronous like CB radio, you couldn’t trust the public to know what to do with this power. Whether knowingly misleading, or lacking the evidence in the first place, neither contributes to the good health of knowledge and beliefs we will use to make judgements.

Recently, Facebook weighed in with what it sees as a helpful address to fake news. Check the url, it says and a slew of other things , while staying in the wall garden of FB. Mike Caulfield in a riposte was having none of it. FB’s measure were cosmetic enough for anyone to code a bit here and there to shore up the “about us” page, or become more sussed spelling correctly.

The problem isn’t a set of listicles as a fact check, but a deeper critical cognitive awareness of stories examined via different methodologies. At the heart it’s detective work, which requires substantive cross referencing, and not necessarily trusting what your eyes and ears are telling you.

The problem with the screen generation, a journalist friend tells me, is few people want to go back to the source to find the origins of the story. Storyful, a digital agency launched by a former news correspondent, Mark Little, showed a blue print for how social media companies could verify news and its source.

In his book News, philosopher Alain de Botton makes an obvious point. We teach young people about Shakespeare and the classics, but not much in the way of media literacy to decode newspapers and television, he says. The Internet and social opens a new dimension where competition, the pace of story turnover, and the clicks monetised as capital (Bernays in the 21st century) is a toxic allure that isn’t going away any time.

Part of the behavioural problem is the atomisation of the news ecosystem. When once a team of people were responsible in a work flow to spot fakers or there was a corrective body, however toothless, today stretched news orgs rely on the solitary judgement of a journalist. PR and fakers with deep insights into story structure and agenda know where and when to set of a literary time ordinance. If you write it to look like news: grabby lead, W5H, quote in second para — job half done.

Furthermore, all it takes is for any social network to take a bite exposing themselves to the blue dye for the whole network to become tainted. You’ll hardly manage any blow back too when your upbringing has fed you with stereotypes and sensationalism . Yes! Father Christmas is real.

The panacea, or quick fixes are as illusionary as the items. The wisdom of crowds suggests if you talk to enough people for corroboration, the truth will out. But that depends on the crowd/network. Thankfully, pro agency websites e.g. Reuters can still be relied upon. But vigilance and a new raft of technological features may in the end kick this thing sideways, for a moment.

Fake or hoax news is never going to go away. Wasn’t it just over a 100 years ago that two of the US’ biggest newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal went to yellow journalism war? Same colour today just different actors.

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Dr David Dunkley Gyimah

Dr David Dunkley Gyimah @viewmagazine leads a revolutionary course at the University of Westminster that examines the intricacies of evolving media, The Digital and Interactive Storytelling LAB. This is the promo I shot and edited to illustrate the course.

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.