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raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo

The truth is out there. But no one’s buying it

'Fake news' has always existed, but what makes it more of a problem today is our collective willingness to be deceived

raphael_vassallo
Raphael Vassallo
5 January 2017, 7:20am
Malta’s political parties consistently use their own media (and sometimes other media, too) to spread ‘fake news’ about their opponents and the world in general... and the tactic has enjoyed a hideous record of success
Malta’s political parties consistently use their own media (and sometimes other media, too) to spread ‘fake news’ about their opponents and the world in general... and the tactic has enjoyed a hideous record of success
There is something vaguely amusing about how the ‘mainstream’ media have suddenly developed a preoccupation with ‘fake news’. Take the USA, for instance. A whole hullaballoo has erupted there because of the presumed impact of ‘fake news’ – mostly emanating from Russia, it would seem – on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential election. 

According to this hypothesis, the Democrats didn’t lose because they rigged their own nomination system to pick the wrong candidate to run against Trump. Nor was it because Americans are clearly sick and tired of the traditional dynastic model of US government, that limits political power to the same old institutions/corporations (and occasionally families, too). Oh, and ignore all the scandals, mismanagement, campaign blunders... and above all, the internecine Clinton/Sanders civil war that practically eviscerated the entire party, disillusioning millions of voters in the process.

No, all that was irrelevant. The Democrats lost the election because the Russians told a few porkies about Hillary Clinton... and these porkies were believed. And hey presto! Suddenly, ‘fake news’ is a problem: nay, a scourge that threatens to annihilate the very fabric of civilisation as we know it. 

Which raises a small question: why was it never a problem before? After all, ‘fake news’ is not exactly a recent invention. It predates the internet and its social media by... ooh, probably centuries. In other times it may have been called ‘propaganda’; and instead of Twitter accounts and social media sites, it would have been heralds and town-criers spreading their bullshit in squares and marketplaces. But that doesn’t change the substance of what they were peddling. ‘Fake news’ is still ‘fake’, however you choose to disseminate it.

Here in Malta, we have a long history of elections impacted and distorted by entirely fabricated concoctions. I imagine there were probably earlier examples, but it was the ‘Terinu’ affair of the 1930s that generally set the template: when the Nationalist media circulated the bald lie that Lord Strickland (leader of the defunct Constitutional Party) was a Freemason... a calumny from which Strickland’s political fortunes never really recovered.

The same pattern has unfolded ever since. Malta’s political parties consistently use their own media (and sometimes other media, too) to spread ‘fake news’ about their opponents and the world in general... and the tactic has enjoyed a hideous record of success.

In the 1980s it was customary to plant ‘fake’ media stories to distort perceptions of what really was going on. While the hijacked Egypt Air plane was still smouldering on the Luqa runway, the ‘news’ on Xandir Malta was that all hostages had been released unharmed. We learned from the Italian media that over 60 had been killed. And when a lifeless body was retrieved from under a bridge in Qormi, State and Labour media dutifully reported the ‘official’ version that its owner had escaped from police custody. In reality, he had died under interrogation. 

" In the early 2000s ‘fake news’ was likewise used to annihilate AD’s Harry Vassallo, whom the PN claimed was ‘pro-abortion’ by mere association with the European Greens"
Those were perhaps drastic examples from dire times, but the same general practice has persisted ever since. In the early 2000s ‘fake news’ was likewise used to annihilate AD’s Harry Vassallo, whom the PN claimed was ‘pro-abortion’ by mere association with the European Greens. It was a wilful, gleeful and malicious lie... yet even moderate Nationalists defended it at the time, citing as justification the ‘danger’ of Alfred Sant winning the 2004 election. 

In a nutshell, then, it is perfectly OK to lie and spread fake news... so long as it means victory for your party, and defeat for everyone else. It is only when identical tactics are used for the opposite purpose that it suddenly becomes nasty, vicious and unacceptable. Only then must it be stamped out like vermin.

I will, however, concede one small point about the current fixation with ‘fake news’. The tactic in itself may be older than the hills... but today’s mass communications landscape does indeed lend it more weight. Lies and fabrications can now spread like an unstoppable Australian bushfire: and while global media attention spans have dwindled, it is now possible to influence much larger numbers than ever before (even if for a shorter time).

But there are two reasons for this development. The first is the speed and range of today’s telecommunications media, which is quite frankly unprecedented in human history. It is however the second reason which assumes greater importance in this debate. 

‘Fake news’ has always existed; that much is undeniable. What makes it more of a problem today – and I agree that it is – is our collective willingness to be deceived: to believe only what we WANT to believe, regardless of whether it is actually true or not. This, incidentally, is the actual meaning of the expression ‘post-truth’: ours is a ‘post-truth’ age, not so much because of the proliferation of untruth... but because we simply no longer care about the truth at all. We only care about seeing our own pre-conceived notions and illusions radiated all over the worldwide web.

In this respect, Malta is a veritable microcosm of this global problem. There were several examples this year alone, but one stands out head and shoulders above the rest: the Great Staged Hijack Conspiracy, coming soon to a theatre near you.

This is the perfect model to explain the ‘post-truth’ phenomenon in action. A hijacked plane lands in Kirkop... and because no one got killed or injured, because the hijackers gave up without a fight (or any weapons to fight with), because negotiations went smoothly and the entire incident was defused in a few hours – and all under Labour, too, who have a history of screwing this sort of thing up – it must have been ‘staged’.

So far, so good. People are entitled to their own stupidity, I’d be the last person to try and rob them of it. But when the ‘mainstream’ media also buy wholesale into this nonsense, you know you have a problem on your hands.

As long as it was limited to blogs we associate with fake news anyway, there was nothing much to write home about. But no: the Malta Independent picked it up as ‘news’, and even ran an editorial entitled the ‘Xalata Hijack’: on the basis of on-board footage that showed the hostages singing and cheering. Needless to add, the footage in question turned out to be fake (and very easy it was to debunk, too). But then, if a newspaper’s motivation is merely to spread fabrications and deepen uncertainty and mistrust... I suppose it wouldn’t bother with even the most basic form of fact-checking, would it?

Even if I hadn’t worked for that newspaper for over 10 years, and know the people in question, it would still be plain to see that the intention was to undermine public faith in the current administration. There is a tell-tale sign: the complete and utter lack of evidence for this presumed conspiracy.

This makes it unique among conspiracy theories worldwide. Other examples – the JFK assassination theories, the moon landing hoax controversy, the 9/11 ‘inside job’ hypothesis – were at least prompted by genuine questions. In this case, the ‘unanswered questions’ are all laughably answerable at a glance. My favourite is ‘why did we give the plane back?’ Ah, yes... because according to Rule #456 of the International Aviation Federation, if a passenger plane is forced into an emergency landing at your airport because of a hijack... you get to just keep it, right? The foreign airline can just kiss its precious airbus goodbye forever...

Honestly. To think that such nonsense is what passes today for ‘mainstream media news analysis’... small wonder this country’s in such a mess. But of course, there are two sides to any equation. If the ‘staged hijack’ conspiracy fits in with the distorted perceptions a newspaper would like us all to share... it also fits in with the sort of expectations its readers are likely to have anyway. As with all things, it is a question of demand and supply: both sides have to be complicit in untruth for the strategy to work.

The reality is that newspapers fabricate stories for the benefit of readers who now prefer ‘fake news’ to ‘real news’.  People want to read and believe only those stories that chime in with their own private prejudices and obsessions. And in Malta, we all know what those prejudices and obsessions are. They haven’t changed an iota since the days of Terinu.

How, then, can we expect 2017 to be anything less than a ‘post-truth’ new year? (Speaking of which: have a happy one, will you? And if you don’t... not to worry: just lie about it on Facebook, like everyone else.)

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