In the wake of Donald Trump’s victory, a hot new issue – raised by President Obama in an international setting on Thursday and touted on The New York Times’ front page on Friday – is the problem of “fake news” being disseminated on the Internet.
Major Internet companies, such as Google and Facebook, are being urged to censor such articles and to punish alleged violators. Also, teams of supposedly “responsible” news providers and technology giants are being assembled to police this alleged problem and decide what is true and what is not.
But therein lies the more serious problem: who gets to decide what is real and what is not real? And – in an age when all sides propagate propaganda – when does conformity in support of a mainstream “truth” become censorship of reasonable skepticism?
As a journalist for more than four decades, I take seriously the profession’s responsibility to verify information as much as possible before publishing it – and as editor of Consortiumnews.com, I insist that our writers (and to the extent possible, outside commenters) back up what they say.
I personally hate “conspiracy theories” in which people speculate about a topic without real evidence and often in defiance of actual evidence. I believe in traditional journalistic standards of cross-checking data and applying common sense.
So, I am surely no fan of Internet hoaxes and baseless accusations. Yet, I also recognize that mainstream U.S. news outlets have made horrendous and wholesale factual errors, too, such as reporting in 2002-03 that Iraq had reconstituted its nuclear weapons program (The New York Times) and was hiding stockpiles of WMD (many TV and print outlets, including The Washington Post).
And, mainstream outlets getting such life-and-death stories wrong was not just a one-off affair around the Iraq invasion. At least since the 1980s, The New York Times has misreported or glossed over many international issues that put the United States and its allies in a negative light.
For instance, the Times not only missed the Nicaraguan Contra cocaine scandal, but actively covered up the Reagan administration’s role in the wrongdoing through the 1980s and much of the 1990s.
The Times lagged badly, too, on investigating the secret operations that became known as the Iran-Contra Affair. The Times’ gullibility in the face of official denials was an obstacle for those of us digging into that constitutional crisis and other abuses by the Reagan administration. [For more on this topic, see Consortiumnews.com’s “New York Times: Apologist for Power.”]
In that same era, The Washington Post performed no better. Leonard Downie, its executive editor at the time of the Contra-cocaine scandal, has continued to reject the reality of Ronald Reagan’s beloved Contras trafficking in cocaine despite the 1998 findings of CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz that, in fact, many Contras were neck-deep in the cocaine trade and the Reagan administration covered up their criminality for geopolitical reasons.
More recently, during the mad dash to invade Iraq in 2002-03, the Post’s editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt wrote repeatedly as flat fact that Iraq was hiding WMD and mocked the few dissenting voices that challenged the “group think.”
Yet, Hiatt suffered no accountability for his falsehoods and is still the Post’s editorial-page editor, still peddling dubious examples of Washington’s conventional wisdom.
Ministry of Truth
So, who are the “responsible” journalists who should be anointed to regulate what the world’s public gets to see and hear? For that Orwellian task, a kind of Ministry of Truth has been set up by Google, called the First Draft Coalition, which touts itself as a collection of 30 major news and technology companies, including the Times and Post, tackling “fake news” and creating a platform to decide which stories are questionable and which ones aren’t.
Formed in June 2015 and funded by Google News Lab, the First Draft Coalition’s founding members included Bellingcat, an online “citizen journalism” site that has gotten many of its highest profile stories wrong and is now associated with NATO’s favorite think tank, the Atlantic Council.
Despite Bellingcat’s checkered record and its conflicts of interest through the Atlantic Council, major Western news outlets, including the Times and Post, have embraced Bellingcat, apparently because its articles always seem to mesh neatly with U.S. and European propaganda on Syria and Ukraine.
Two of Bellingcat’s (or its founder Eliot Higgins’s) biggest errors were misplacing the firing location of the suspected Syrian rocket carrying sarin gas on Aug. 21, 2013, and directing an Australian news crew to the wrong site for the so-called getaway BUK [missile] video after the July 17, 2014 shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
(…) Power and Reality
While it’s undeniable that some false or dubious stories get pushed during the heat of a political campaign and in wartime – and journalists have a role in fact-checking as best they can – there is potentially a greater danger when media insiders arrogate to themselves the power to dismiss contrary evidence as unacceptable, especially given their own history of publishing stories that turned out to be dubious if not entirely false.
It’s even more dangerous when these self-appointed arbiters of truth combine forces with powerful Internet search engines and social media companies to essentially silence dissenting opinions and contrary facts by making them very difficult for the public to locate.
(…) On Thursday, an impassioned President Obama voiced his annoyance with “fake news” twice in his joint news conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — “because in an age where there’s so much active misinformation and it’s packaged very well and it looks the same when you see it on a Facebook page or you turn on your television. … If everything seems to be the same and no distinctions are made, then we won’t know what to protect.”
Let that phrase sink in for a moment: “We won’t know what to protect”? Is President Obama suggesting that it is the U.S. government’s role to “protect” certain information and, by implication, leave contrary information “unprotected,” i.e. open to censorship?…
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