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Moment that mattered: ‘Fake news’ is named word of the year by Collins Dictionary

Activists rally in front of the New York Times building in Manhattan on Sunday 26th February 2017 in response to the White House banning the newspaper from attending a press briefing and branding it a ‘fake news’ organisation

Activists rally in front of the New York Times building in Manhattan on Sunday 26th February 2017 in response to the White House banning the newspaper from attending a press briefing and branding it a ‘fake news’ organisation

On 1st November the lexicographers at Collins Dictionary named ‘fake news’ the word of the year, citing a 365 percent increase in the usage of the term since 2016. The phrase was defined as describing “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news reporting.”

While the term may have only taken off recently, the practice is ancient, says investigative journalist Heather Brooke. “Fake news is just information warfare, it’s propaganda,” she says. “A big part of propaganda is faking the craft of professional journalism to alter people’s understanding of reality. So instead of being objective, reality becomes something that suits you.”

Brooke believes that the opportunity that everyone now has to publish to the world online and spread their stories through social media has made fake news a particularly virulent problem. “It used to be that our information came to us mediated through gatekeepers,” she says. “And the biggest one of those gatekeepers was the mainstream media. Being a professional journalist wasn’t just about what you published, but also about what you didn’t publish. You had to stand a story up before you were allowed to put it in the paper, you wouldn’t just pump out salacious gossip that couldn’t be verified. It takes time to verify claims with evidence.”

“The list of those accused of being fake news media by Trump since October has
included ABC, the BBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post”

When news is unmediated – or is mediated by people who don’t see verification as part of their job description – fake news can flourish.  “Yes, you can look at some random site on the internet that
you’ve never heard of, but why would you put any trust in it?” says Brooke. “There’s a reason why a publication like the New York Times has the reputation it does – because over a sustained period of time you can see that what it reports matches up with what is actually going on. Time is the essential ingredient for trust and the value of a reputation for trustworthiness is that it can’t be cobbled together quickly, it has to be built up slowly, both by institutions and by individual journalists.”

Brooke teaches up-and-coming journalists on the Investigative Journalism MA at City University in London. “A lot of what I teach is the craft of writing,” she says. “But a big part of it is also about spotting bullshit. That is the key skill a good journalist has to have. You get all these people telling you stuff all the time, so how do you nail down what is actually true, and what is just crap?”

Bullshit-spotting skills can be learned, says Brooke, but they’re not being taught to the public. “And now we’re in this situation in which the power of traditional media has been eroded, and publishing has become a free-for-all,” she says. “Which leaves the public sitting there with this sewer pipe of questionable information coming at them.”

Brooke also believes that people’s appetite for seeking out the truth may be fraying. “Public service journalism is predicated on some pretty fundamental Enlightenment values, including the acceptance of a common ground in objective reality. And the thing that most worries me about the times we live in is that a lot of people no longer have those beliefs. They think the truth is not something objective, it’s almost like a lifestyle choice: ‘I get to choose reality, and if it doesn’t suit me I’m going to have a different one.’ Or ‘I didn’t like my inauguration crowd numbers, so I’m just going to make up some new ones!’

One of the most influential proponents of the term ‘fake news’ has been US president Donald Trump. During his time in office, he has regularly claimed that members of the mainstream press are spreading fake news – since 1st October 2017 alone, the list of those accused has included ABC, the BBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NBC, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. “This seems to me to come straight out of the Soviet playbook of propaganda,” says Brooke. “You accuse your enemy of the thing that you’re doing. Trump is constantly pumping out fake news, and so what does he do? He accuses anyone who stands against him of doing the thing that he’s doing himself.”

Brooke made her name as an investigative journalist as the driving force behind the exposure of British MPs’ parliamentary expenses, a 2009 story which led to a series of high profile resignations and new oversight of the system. Landing the story took years of painstaking work. In the current age of fake news and information overload, not to mention shrinking editorial budgets in the mainstream media, is it tougher to get such stories noticed? “It’s harder to get long-term, meaningful impact on a story, just because there’s too much happening and the news agenda has shrunk to almost microseconds,” says Brooke. “And the way people consume news is so fragmented that it’s hard to build up a head of steam behind any particular story or campaign.”

For Brooke, well-trained, sceptical journalists and the mainstream media remain the greatest bulwark against the distorting influence of fake news. “There are plenty of failings of big media organisations,” she says. “And they certainly have their own agendas. But the solution isn’t to dismiss them or equate what they say with every opinion spouted by anyone.” The trend of using the term ‘fake news’ to dismiss any opinion or organisation with which you disagree is a worrying one. “Politicians and powerful people everywhere have a common cause in finding a challenging press a real nuisance to their will to power,” says Brooke. “Being able to dismiss it like this is a gift for them.”

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