The Age of Agnotology: The Importance of Reading Newspapers in an Era of Fake News

Of all the possible places to try to sell a dogmatically Leninist newspaper in 2016, the gates of a small, private, right-wing Catholic university is probably not the best location. Leaving work earlier this week I was surprised to encounter an actual 21st Century Bolshevik selling Lotta Comunista (Communist Struggle). Che testardo! The front page featured an actual hammer and sickle and an exhortation to the workers of the world to put down their bloody phones for a minute and UNITE!. Inside there was a closely-written article on US energy policy that featured nary a mention of the changing climate, while page 6 featured a total of 448 individual statistics relating to socio-economic class and voting habits in the USA. At least its position on Sunday’s absurd and suicidal referendum was more sensible than that of the rest of the ‘left’: they recommend that their readers stay at home memorising ‘What is to be done’ rather than bothering to vote. If you’re so inclined you can read your way through the rest of it here.

A thought experiment: imagine a country in which such a publication was the only newspaper. Actually come to think of it I don’t have to try that hard because I’ve been there quite recently – in May, in Cuba, where the only two daily newspapers are the black-and-white 12-page Government propaganda sheet Granma (named after the tiny vessel that brought Fidel (RIP) and friends back to Cuba in 1956), and an 8-page supplement for03-cuba-fidel-granma young people called Juventude Rebelde (Rebel Youth), which is similar in look, style and content to the kind of publications the Worker’s Revolutionary Party used to try (and fail) to hand out for free. Both newspapers are hard to track down and (after a couple of days of cheap laughs, and once you’ve set aside a few copies as very cheap presents) genuinely not worth the effort. When in the 1990s the US not-an-embassy put up LED screens to broadcast subversive information to the city it must have had quite an impact. In Mozambique – also nominally a Communist country – the national newspapers are remarkably similar in style and content to the cheaper Portuguese tabloids. I once read a very depressing article (it wasn’t supposed to be depressing) about how popular A Bola (The Ball) is in Angola. In some countries, the main journals of record are ones which just report the achievements of government (rather like a lot of local newspapers nowadays in the UK in relation to local councils). In others, the only opposition newspapers are those owned by politically ambitious oligarchs . There are other channels of communication but the absence of a free press makes a country much culturally and socially poorer and less free.

I’ve been privileged in that I have spent time in a number of countries (the UK, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Mexico and Italy) where the published press was diverse and largely free of government control. I grew up with The Guardian, and although I by no means always agree with its commentators I do broadly trust its news coverage. That doesn’t mean I put blind faith in everything that it says.  I take a critical stance on what I read and am able to spot evasions, omissions and occasional inaccuracies. I am also aware that the stories a newspaper chooses to cover and give prominence to represent powerful people’s decisions as to what readers want to read and what advertisers want them to read. Being minimally media-literate means being aware of issues such as ownership and the role of commercial imperatives in determining coverage, content and presentation. The intensification of such pressures has led to the development of churnalism, the cutting-and-pasting-of-press-releases approach to reporting which has in turn discredited journalists and journalism as a profession. Ironically, the investigations that produced the churnalism thesis and subsequently exposed the phone-hacking scandal were only possible because, like in the case of the film Spotlight, reporters were employed full-time on a project which would only bear fruit some years down the line. Some long-running investigations never even get published. Contrast that with content mills where reporters produce 20 stories a day, creating the now-widespread impression that ‘journalists’ just sit around making things up.

Reporters often have to work to tight deadlines, which means they often have limited time to get to grips with dense and complex social, political and historical contexts. Their inevitable fallibility and the fact that there are also legions of hacks out there who are lazy, venal, dishonest or incompetent or who work for greedy or corrupt news organisations should in no way detract from the work of serious, skilled and dedicated journalists. In this video

John Harris mounts an excellent defence of his profession in the context of widespread confusion as to what lay behind the Brexit vote. The Guardian is a good place to learn about such events because it employs some consistently excellent journalists: although Harris’s colleague George Monbiot is no longer a reporter and now writes opinion pieces, he nevertheless goes out of is way to play fully-referenced versions of all his articles on his personal website, while in Mexico we were lucky to spend time with Nina Lakhani and to bear witness to her extremely impressive dedication to her cultivation of contacts, her expertise, sociability, bravery and extreme hard work. I trust these people. I trust their approach. I also know that they often struggle with the institutions which employ them over which events they get to cover and how their stories get presented. Nevertheless I subscribe to their values and think that their right to practise them in the world is of immense importance.

I do not in what follows want to argue that the Guardian is a perfect or the only good example of a reliable newspaper, or that everything in it should be believed unquestioningly. Like any liberal institution it has its limits and failings. In any case it is unlikely that printed newspapers will survive much longer. Even in the UK tracking down a physical copy of a newspaper can be increasingly difficult. Very few of my students can be persuaded to buy a newspaper, despite my incessant preaching backed up with lessons teaching them to read just the initial paragraphs of articles to get the gist and the main details and to avoid getting lost in the language. I have often found this antipathy to printed news maddening, as in my own case it is with the help of Jornal de Notícias (Newspaper of News), Público (Public), El País (The Country), Liberation (er, Liberation) and La Repubblica (The Banana) that I was quickly able to develop a good range of vocabulary in a short amount of time. Students can, however, be persuaded to pick up free newspapers; in my current workplace there are usually a few copies of the right-wing publication Avvenire (Future) floating around, a newspaper which alternates its front page between whavvenire-prima-pagina-family-day-759261at-the-Pope-has-just-said and where-abortion-will-hopefully-be-banned-next. The free newspaper phenomenon has spread like a virus across the world. Clearly Metro and the like have a use for low-level English language students but they are severely lacking in depth and reliability. At least with what used to be called a ‘journal of record’, you pay your money in return for a certain level of professionalism in terms of how they gather and present information, and you pay to read the considered opinions of experienced people whose opinions actually count for something. With the free ones, it’s pot luck whether or not you get as much as you pay for, so to speak. People also seem to suspend their critical faculties when it comes to free newspapers, something which the Daily Mail-owned Metro often exploits with glee. They appear to employ the same standards as online news – Metro normally dedicates Page 3 to the latest viral web videos. Reading such publications is an insubstantial experience, conditioned by the sensation that their content has only a vague relation to reality. More importantly, though, giving up on buying a newspaper and just reading a free one involves a loss of relationship, that tribal loyalty. I miss the days in the UK when looking around a train or bus you could identify people’s ideological affiliation: Sun-reading morons; Mail-reading scum; decent, thoughtful, well-meaning fellow human beings reading The Guardian; someone who for some bizarre reason won’t buy the Guardian with a copy of The Independent…. Part of my modus operandi for settling into a new country is to adopt whatever the local equivalent to the Guardian is. Doing so is partly a means of claiming citizenship of that country, and also a way of trying to belong to a particular tribe.

Some media is, of course, simply dishonest, despicable and corrupt. Lies are told and embellished both for ideological reasons and to serve certain interests, or simply to titillate or enrage readers. It goes without saying that such behaviour discredits the whole profession. It can, however, be exposed and challenged. That’s one of the benefits of having a free press and it is one of the good things about the internet. A lot of media exists specifically to express the views and promote the interests of the powerful. The results of the last UK election and the Brexit referendum were partly decided by Rupert Murdoch. It is essential to have an alternative to challenge them – a very good recent example of this comes, oddly enough, from the Guardian.

A few years ago many articles speculated that we were entering the age of the citizen journalist. There are obviously some inspiring and laudable examples. Is it, however, a replacement for local journalism? This is a typical IELTS question, which means I’ve asked it several hundred times to random people from all over the world. The common sense answer appears to be ‘yes’. This often glib and ill-considered response may be based on a failure to consider the distinction between, on the one hand, investigating and reporting facts and, on the other, merely pontificating about reality on the basis of a single point of view. It has never been easier to pretend that you are a ‘journalist’, but those lacking in skills, resources, audience, principles, status, and credibility do not deserve such renown. It is very telling that Trump believes Twitter to be his ‘newspaper’, given that it is characterised by a total lack of the depth, detail, transparency and accountability that are the founding stones of proper journalism. Tweets give a round kick in the head to the edict which proper journalists observe to ‘cause no harm’. What results is at best merely unreliable; as we now understand better, false and inaccurate news is extremely dangerous.

cwnpl6ivqaahiynMining facts is an extremely expensive and often dangerous activity. Examples of just how dangerous it is are on the increase. 787 journalists have been killed in connection with their work since 2005. It is not remotely far-fetched to suppose that they will now be in greater danger in the US. One excellent detailed investigation resulted in the online news outlet in question being forced to shut down at the behest of one of Trump’s allies. Although the t-shirt pictured above is apparently no longer on sale online the sentiment that inspired it is not just restricted to the internet.

As is happens, Trump’s intense hatred for the notion of a free press is not ideologically motivated. Like his Mexican counterpart Pena Nieto he has almost certainly never read a book, is not familiar with the Constitution of his country and would never read a newspaper unless it prominently featured his own name. However, as the Republicans knew very well when they chose him, now this deeply petulant and thin-skinned individual has unexpectedly found himself in the most powerful position in the world his irascibility will translate directly into authoritarian government.  

Good quality investigative journalism makes a case for itself far more powerfully and eloquently than any theoretical justification. An excellent example is this week’s report by Tobias Jones into mafia involvement at the highest level of Italian football. This fits into a pattern of Mafia resurgence. A trial is currently taking place in Rome of figures caught up in a recent scandal by the name of Mafia Capitale, the details of which were exposed partly by brave and persistent journalists. Italy also has the inspiring figure of Roberto Saviano, who runs such risks for this reporting that he has not slept in the same bed for two nights running for years*. By contrast, the blog of right-wing rabble rouser Beppe Grillo attracts more views than the sites of many reputable newspapers, despite, or rather because of, the fact that it actively promotes hoax news stories. If, as Manu Chao argues below (starting at 33m 53s), the world that we are moving into is one in which mafia-type organisations dominate our lives, people like Grillo are doing them a massive service**. 

Figures like Grillo are praised by their supporters for bravely telling the truth that the mainstream media won’t share. In fact, one of the main reasons that media outlets give little credence to the kinds of stories Grillo etc share is that they often have no basis in fact and are just designed to spread disinformation and mistrust. By contrast, the documentary You’ve Been Trumped shows footage of the filmmaker Anthony Baxter being physically assaulted and arrested by Scottish police for investigating the business activities of  none other than Donald Trump. Such abuse is exactly what human rights organisations investigate and campaign over in countries such as Mexico. We don’t have to stretch our powers of speculation to imagine what a world run by and for Trump would look like. Basta ver what has happened over the last few years in the State of Veracruz: massive corruption and abuse of power backed up by the murder of anyone who investigates or speaks out.

I would argue that the violence used against journalists reflects a generalised level of hostility to the mass media. Many people nowadays prefer internet fairy tales: Isis is managed by the CIA, it was Hillary Clinton who decided to have a war in Syria, vaccines kill children…. It may well be that the key quote for understanding what conditions Trump’s worldview is this one.

Opponents of the ‘MSM’ mobilise a crude caricature of Chomsky’s work on media ownership, managing consensus and controlling dissent. Conspiracy theories are immensely more comforting than the front page of any serious newspaper, with their pacifying insistence that all is under control and resistance is useless. To allow oneself to be duped in such a manner is an abdication of one’s duties as a citizen. Nowadays, a la Burger King, you get to choose the ingredients of your own reality. Explicitly ideological content with blatant distortions presenting itself as reportage suits the needs of corporation greedy for views to sell to advertisers. Not only are the most abominable sections of the world media guilty of this (RT, Breitbart, Fox…). In the UK The Canary is also guilty of promoting outright ideological content and politically-motivated hearsay as news. Outlets such as Press TV and Russia Today have blurred the lines between free media and state propaganda to the extent that China Daily is now on sale in the UK as though it was anything other than the English-language mouthpiece of the authoritarian Chinese Government.

Wikileaks, in its pre-Putin phase, gave a space to huge amounts of unprocessed information. Like the early internet disciples with their faith in information as a tool for liberation, its acolytes profess a belief that ‘the truth’ will set humanity free. However, in order for ‘truth’ to have meaning it has to be interpreted; otherwise, it is just an undifferentiated deluge. It is hard to think of a single or simple response to what we learn, to make sense of the facts put at our disposal in relation to our lives and worldviews. Information, text, on its own is worthless – it has to be interpreted and given meaning by a reader who has their own particular agenda. We are not lacking in information but rather drowning in it. The media never just gives information, but rather interprets it in a way which is designed to produce a certain response. When teaching classes on media in the past I have heard many students say that the role of the media – both news organisations and advertisers – is to ‘give information’, as a neutral arbiter. The notion that if we know for certain that all our rulers are corrupt we will overthrow them is similarly naive. I once received an email from a David Icke-worshipping work colleague in which he directed me in hushed tones to where I could download an 8GB file featuring all the ‘hidden truths’ of the universe since it began- there probably were probably some facts mixed in there will the 9/11 nonsense and the holocaust denial, but I didn’t take the time to find out. Umberto Eco was very prescient in both ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ and ‘The Name of the Rose’ in his insistence on the persistence of medieval thinking in supposedly rational times. The conclusive reprobation of internet conspiracy theorists is that they all show no interest whatsoever in the most damaging and pernicious and damaging plot every hatched by the powerful against the people of the planet, which is the corporate conspiracy to hide the causes and thus the implications of climate change. Indeed, some of the most prominent conspiracy theorists have deep ideological and economic interests in masking the truth.

The Wikileaks archive is, as we now know, also very open to manipulation via the infiltration of false rumours, as happened in the case of Clinton. After all, despite the organisation’s professed dedication to total transparency, information per se has no moral agenda. The almost-infinite amount of leaked documents they released in 2010 had first to be interpreted and edited by professional journalists from reputable liberal news organisations following an agreed set of ethical standards and working on the assumption that the powerful should be held accountable for their actions. Wikileaks thus only had an impact because of the free press. However, the information resources it provides represent in effect a Rorschach blot. Nowadays, with a global far-right movement using extremely sophisticated means of deception in order to protect and promote the interests of the powerful it has become clear that the presentation of such facts depends on the balance of forces in society, and a megalomaniac like Assange knows he can have more impact on the development of history if he puts himself at the service of powerful dark forces.

Although the recent intervention of Wikileaks and the phenomenon of fake news shows the internet at its most destructive and damaging, there are also some very good online news sites which provide an outlet for principled and journalists to publish their work, for example Slate and Salon. Despite much of what I’ve said here, the growing fashion for ‘long reads’ might give one hope for the future of detailed, principled and well-resourced independent journalism. Initiatives such as The Intercept are obviously laudable. Now that Vice magazine has grown up it consistently produces excellent and important work by young reporters, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge that the story of Grillo’s promotion of hoax news stories originated on Buzzfeed. Like the best part of printed media such publications do an excellent of job of trying to hold power accountable. A lot of my current students profess a liking for the Huffington Post, which personally I find a little bit sketchy and, like the remnants of the Independent, geared towards clickbait. However, I’m far happier for them to get their news through the HP than from their Facebook or Twitter feeds.

As many of the recent articles addressing  and columns exposing fake news have made clear, this post-truth, fact-flouting culture didn’t come out of nowhere. It is part of an ideological assault on modern liberal values and institutions, a decimation of the public sphere. There is now a name for the study of the deliberate spreading of confusion and doubt: agnotology. As mentioned above, nowhere is the phenomenon clearer than on the issue of the climate. And as Philip Mirowski details, general disagreement as to who or what is to blame for the global financial crisis of 2008 is also the result of a deliberate effort to muddy the waters – efforts in which elements of the mass media played a very active role. Adam Curtis, as is his wont, attributes the trend towards deliberately misleading news stories to one dodgy Russian bloke. A great deal of people get their news from series of videos recommended to them by Youtube. Although the internet allows us to choose our own reality there is increasing evidence to suggest that no-one ever clicks on a link by accident or entirely out of choice. Online we are subject to massive manipulation. This is exacerbated by filter bubbles: Google gives you an individualised newsfeed whether you know it or not. The internet is an ever-expanding site of novel and sophisticated forms of conscious and unconscious manipulation carried out by extremely powerful, secretive and unaccountable forces.

For me, it has always been essential to have a relationship with the media, to have trust in a sense unconditioned by either incredulity or cynicism. Like I’m sure any other Guardian reader I have a love-hate relationship with the paper. Certain things it publishes, and many more that it doesn’t, I find deeply infuriating. The Guardian is an institution whose corporate objective is to survive and spread and it is essential to be aware of that***. But anyone who does not have a core set of news outlets which they broadly trust is at very great risk of falling prey to manipulation in the form of fake information****. For this reason, it is essential to know who is writing a particular article, on behalf of whom, and why; what are they including and leaving out: why choose that headline, that quote, that photo, that image. Journalism is in crisis but that does not discredit journalists or the institution of the free press any more than the well-publicised failings of the NHS should convince us that the institution or those who work in it are unnecessary or unworthy.

Ultimately whether or not one chooses to maintain one’s relationship with journals of record comes down to a question of citizenship. We may prefer to ignore what is on the front page of the newspaper as it makes us feel uncomfortable. But the newspaper will (or at least should) remind us that we – especially those of us who enjoy certain democratic rights, such as the access to a free and independent media – bear a responsibility for what is happening in the world. We need sources of information we can trust, ones that are edited by people we can hold accountable according to a set of transparent values that we share. 

The restrictions of the rights of Cubans to produce or share printed information suggest that at heart it is not in any meaningful sense a democratic society. Its policy with regard to the internet, however, is…kind of refreshing. In the few places in Cuban cities where people can go online, hundreds of people gather in person, chat, show each other articles on their laptops and phones, and talk to their friends online abroad. It creates a nice atmosphere – the internet as a shared, public good – and it means that elsewhere in the country people look at each other and exist in their environment rather than mediating their contact with other human beings and the world via screens. One aspect of this system which is unambiguously democratic is that tourists have no more access to the internet than locals do. They can only go online at the same points as the locals, using the same codes which they have purchased from telephone offices.Curious, then, that in a Guardian article reporting the locals’ response to the death of Fidel the journalists write:

“Locals were depending on foreign tourists with connectivity to tell them their “historic leader” had died.”

It turns out that you shouldn’t believe everything that you read in the newspaper.

* To be fair, his good looks may also be a factor.

** Anyone interested in the possibility that Isis is involved in Mafia-type activity may like to become one of the very select group of people who have actually read this. Incidentally, when Manu Chao says ‘sons’, he means ‘children’, ‘Mafia’ = the Mafia, ‘dictature’ = dictatorship. He’d probably never get IELTS 7 for grammar but then again he is Manu Chao.

*** The same is obviously true of wordpress.com.

**** I find it reassuring that the Guardian’s current Editor appears to be acutely aware of issues such as these.

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