Ed West

Forget fake news. The bigger problem is misleading news

Forget fake news. The bigger problem is misleading news
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The way that 'fake news' became an overnight crisis is telling; just as progressive ideas were being rejected by voters across the western world, the media suddenly discovered a glitch which explained why. Fake news is the new false consciousness.

All democracies face the problem of uninformed voters. But in a reasonably educated society, this should not be critical, especially as the ignorant are far less likely to vote anyway. This has traditionally been a conservative and indeed ultra-conservative worry, but since the Anglo-Saxon Spring (or should that be Fall?), liberals have started to show more concern about it. The left-right axis is morphing into a globalist-nationalist one, and the majority of less educated voters fall into the latter camp.

Such is the worry that a think-tank has even recommended that schools teach pupils about fake news. Considering the politics of most teachers, I'm sure this won't at all be done in a biased or politicised way. There is also a bill in California to make it a crime 'for a person to knowingly and willingly make, publish or circulate on an Internet Web site, or cause to be made, published, or circulated in any writing posted on an Internet Web site, a false or deceptive statement designed to influence the vote'. 

When I was a kid the Sunday Sport started off as a sort of fake newspaper, producing famous headlines such as 'World War Two Bomber Found on Moon'. Some fake news sites today are done in a similar tradition, of nonsense for the sake of it, although many others have an overt political aim, often spreading bizarre rumours about Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton. But despite 'fake news' becoming a thing in November, one study has suggested that the sites had almost no impact on Trump's election. 

A bigger influence on voters is the growth of non-mainstream news sites such as InfoWars, or non-western ones like RT, which have lower editorial standards than even British newspapers, let alone the BBC. The most popular of all alternative news sites is Breitbart, which has exploded in recent years, and has even been credited with helping Donald Trump win the presidency.

Although partly the inevitable result of media diversification, Breitbart's success, in my view, is due to a much bigger problem than fake news, which is obscure news; that is, reporting that is deliberately designed to confuse, mislead and not actually reveal useful information. Steve Sailer calls it 'lame news' and I haven't heard any other name for it.

Lame news becomes the norm whenever a subject is taboo, for as Jonathan Haidt said, 'The fundamental rule of political analysis from the point of psychology is, follow the sacredness, and around it is a ring of motivated ignorance.' The most obvious examples of lame news are those involving race, and especially race and crime. In the UK this is partly dictated by law. The Editor's Code, for instance, prohibits newspapers giving a person's ethnic background if it is not relevant.

There are obviously good reasons for this, as papers tend to pander to public prejudice to improve sales; in particular the term 'Muslim' is often applied to wrongdoers where it is as irrelevant as identifying the individual as a plumber or an Aquarius.

But mostly it's a matter of custom rather than law. Race and crime is the G-spot of modern taboos, and in big cities where there are clear and obvious patterns in crime, mainstream news reporting in both the US and Europe is characterised by motivated ignorance. To take a prominent example, Breitbart did well by breaking the Cologne New Year's Eve sex assaults, an issue German media were reluctant to report, and which did not appear in mainstream media until January 4 or 5.

A good example of lame news came over the weekend where news sites reported a 'race hate' attack on an asylum seeker in Croydon, the police calling for witnesses but helpfully not giving a description. The initial reports, by withholding details of the suspects and calling it a hate crime, clearly gave the impression that the attackers were Leave-voting, Ukip-sympathising white racists. The images released by the police suggest this probably isn't the case. 

There is a similar, related taboo about the subject of Islamic terrorism, epitomised by that cringeworthy BBCism, 'the so-called Islamic State', the verbal equivalent of Swedish feminists donning headscarves in Iran. This has led to real cynicism and distrust in the general public, many of whom see the BBC as trying to push a particular agenda, which of course they are. It could be worse, of course; we could be Sweden, where the media are so crippled by taboo-anxiety they even helpfully blur out police ID photos.

To take another area, there have been a few stories over the past couple of years involving transgender people using women's changing rooms, leading to complaints from women. Most telling is that in almost all the media reports about these incidents, few have mentioned the most salient fact: whether any of them has a penis.

There is a big difference between someone who has had a sex change using a woman's changing room and someone who is anatomically male in every way but who 'identifies' as female using one; this is the most crucial piece of information many people would want to know; if you were telling this story to a friend it is the first thing you would mention. Yet even the Daily Mail finds this too delicate a point to report on, so we're left the none the wiser. That is lame news, deliberately designed not to inform. 

In all these cases there are obviously good intentions involved, and a desire to be sensitive. To take another example, newspapers have always had rules about reporting suicide, and rightly so, because there is clear research showing suicide to be contagious (it spikes after big celebrity deaths). But while the media has always withheld the details in the case of suicide, it is now the custom to not actually report that someone has taken their own life. They just suddenly died in their 20s. Of course I can understand why they do this, but as a neurotic I find it disconcerting to read that someone my age has just dropped dead without anyone explaining why. Reports need to be sensitive, but they also need to report.

Fake news is an overblown phenomenon of little importance; far more serious is declining trust in the media, because people feel it is too constrained by taboo to actually report the news. 

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

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