From misunderstood jokes to Russian bots, we can’t stop talking about ‘fake news’

On eve of first ‘Fakies’ in US, misinformation comes under a political spotlight in France

President Emmanuel Macron, who is pushing for a change to France’s “legal arsenal” that would introduce emergency legal action allowing authorities to remove “fake news” content or block particular websites. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

President Emmanuel Macron, who is pushing for a change to France’s “legal arsenal” that would introduce emergency legal action allowing authorities to remove “fake news” content or block particular websites. Photograph: Ints Kalnins/Reuters

 

There are those who knowingingly, intentionally spread “fake news” and then there’s the gullible kind – among them those overtired and/or terribly literal souls who would have trouble spotting a joke if it walked up to them wearing a T-shirt marked “caution: humour”.

Hence, we had last weekend’s stomp through the news cycle of the “gorilla channel” – a channel that doesn’t exist, wasn’t compiled in makeshift fashion by White House staff to appease Donald Trump and isn’t watched by him for 17 hours straight.

Pity poor @pixelatedboat, aka cartoonist Ben Ward, who was motivated to temporarily switch his Twitter user name to “the gorilla channel thing is a joke” and muse that he had “become part of the problem” after a number of highly serious individuals took his very funny parody of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury at face value.

Ward’s “extract”, in case you missed it, concluded with the “insider” reportage that Trump likes to say encouraging things to fighting gorillas because “he thinks the gorillas can hear him”, which should have been a bit of a giveaway that this was not reality. Trump, however, has by now so comprehensively established himself as the “moron” of Wolff’s book, that occupants of the rabbit hole can no longer tell the true morons from the fictional ones.

Sadly, it’s not for nothing that tip number nine in Facebook’s “tips to spot false news” advises users to question whether a headline was a joke. “Check whether the source is known for parody, and whether the story’s details and tone suggest it may be just for fun,” Facebook suggested, though if more of its users and the population at large were competent at distinguishing tone, there would be much less confusion in the first place.

In 2018, it seems the topic of fake news will be on the agenda as much as it was in 2017, and not just in Washington. In recent days, French president Emmanuel Macron has managed to annoy and worry some people by promising to “ban” fake news during elections.

Macron push

Macron, irritated by various fake news stories about alleged offshore accounts that were circulated by his political enemies, is pushing for a change to France’s “legal arsenal” that would introduce emergency legal action allowing authorities to remove “fake news” content or block particular websites.

“As you know, propagating fake news on social media only requires a few tens of thousands of euro and can be done with total anonymity,” said Macron, with the weariness of a man who has been stung before and expects to be stung again.

Hunger for social media regulation has been fuelled by the presence of the ultimate fake-news president in the White House and the strange ongoing phenomenon of Russian bots expressing alt-right sentiments. It also seems increasingly odd and unfair that some media companies are subject to detailed and often onerous regulations (licensed broadcasters) and some co-operate with established means of redress (newspapers), while platforms such as as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter go about their business unregulated.

But there is still a queasiness about Macron’s remarks because it raises this global question: who gets to decide what is fake news and what isn’t? Not politicians, right? That way lies dictatorships, not healthy democracies.

Pisstakes taken for real are hardly the problem, of course. In the taxonomy of fake news, they are overshadowed by scruple-free propaganda and news so distorted by errors or biases or absences that the partial picture it presents lacks accuracy. “Fake news” like this has always been with us. But the newer variety is a pure commercial game: clickbait that can and will be tailored any which way the creators feel is the best to make money.

When Facebook vice-president Adam Mosseri said last April that the company believed most fake news on Facebook was “financially motivated not ideologically motivated”, it was simultaneously reassuring and scary. The ideologues become predictable, eventually, but creators of random content have the ability to adapt like mutating viruses. Perhaps regulators should step in, but there is surely still much that social media companies can do for themselves to stop their advertising networks being gamed.

Culture of mistrust

In the meantime, the “gorilla channel” episode gives us unnecessary proof of the oft-repeated claim that world affairs are now so surreal and chaotic that they are “beyond” parody or satire. In this culture of mistrust, Trump – or whoever is tweeting from his account these days – finds ample scope to expand his regular rails against “the Fake News Media” to Wolff’s “Fake Book”, even as Wolff convincingly counters that Trump is “a man who has less credibility than, perhaps, anyone who has ever walked on earth”.

The US president has insisted that he will spare some time tomorrow to present his inaugural “Fake News Awards”, dedicated to “the most corrupt and biased of the mainstream media”. The “Fakies” are already being hailed by US media as a badge of honour. To be in this man’s good books is certainly a badge of dishonour.