Following Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump’s election in the US, the term ‘fake news’ has entered into everyday vocabulary. We are now, supposedly, living in a post-truth society where facts can be countered with alternative facts and there is no right answer to anything. While there are genuine concerns about the accuracy of much of the so-called ‘news’ that many people share on the internet, the reaction has, nevertheless, been one of textbook moral panic. In turn, by reacting and framing the issue in this manner, much of the media has missed the point completely, avoiding any critical self-reflection and letting itself off the hook.
What is a moral panic?
The term ‘moral panic’ was coined by Stanley Cohen to refer to the media portrayal of rival youth culture groups the ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’ in 1960s Britain. Cohen defined a moral panic as ‘a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.’ Key to a moral panic therefore is the media conception and framing of the condition, group, or episode. This framing is centred on a ‘folk devil’ the group of people or thing labelled and ‘othered’ as abnormal; as a new threat to the established order of society.
Moral panics don’t just end with op-eds in national newspapers imploring people to ‘please think of the children’. They can effect genuine legal, political and societal change. Textbook examples range from the British Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 enacted following a number of high profile dog attacks on children, to section 6 of the Irish Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 which outlined the specific offence of syringe attacks despite the fact that such attacks were covered by the general offence of assault contained in sections 2-4 of the same Act. Again, a series of high-profile attacks involving syringes containing allegedly contaminated blood was the primary motivation behind the section with the government bowing to media pressure and the all-important ‘we must be seen to be doing something’.
Moral panics can have even more wide-ranging impacts than these examples. The killing of Jamie Bulger and the subsequent media uproar led to an express change in penal policy from the then Conservative Government, egged on by a Labour Party pledging to be ‘tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime’. This resulted in the most rapid increase in the British prison population in history at a time when the crime rate was falling. Similarly, many counter-terrorist initiatives can be considered to be enacted in contexts that are symptomatic of a moral panic. Moral panics therefore can have a profound effect on government policy and the law.
Fake News as a Moral Panic
Following both Brexit the election of Trump, the media began to discuss this ‘new’ phenomenon of fake news. Fake news, we are told, threatens our democracy to such an extent that it resulted in a Parliamentary Inquiry by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee into ‘fake news’ in the UK. The fake news moral panic centred on non-traditional media sources such as emerging news websites and the sharing of these stories on social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. In the context of Trump, focus was on websites such as Breitbart, The Drudge Report and InfoWars. That was until Trump appropriated the term for himself with his ire directed firmly against CNN.
The fake news moral panic was, in essence, a media panic about itself— a meta-moral panic; an existential crisis. However, as most moral panics pan out, the folk devil identified was ‘othered’ significantly. In the context of Trump, some fingers of blame were even pointed at Macedonia which, apparently, became a hotbed of different networks churning out fake story after fake story. What was completely absent from all of this was any critical self-reflection of these traditional media forms on their own content.
This is not to say that ‘fake news websites’ are not a problem. Of course they are; however, more traditional media sources also need to engage in some critical self-reflection. Many ‘mainstream’ media outlets during the Brexit campaign carried stories that were verifiably false.
Stories may also be run that are not ostensibly ‘fake’ in the sense that they deal with deliberately fictitious stories with no basis in fact. Rather, a fact, or a particular interpretation of a fact is presented and the subjective framing of the story is stressed to such an extent that it becomes difficult to identify the objectivity of the story from the subjective opinion. Thus Brexit was not won by obscure clandestine news outlets that nobody had heard of. The agenda was instead set and dominated by the traditional right-wing press of Fleet Street. This was anything but a new phenomenon with research on the 2015 General Election indicating the exact same thing. That stated, we’ve all had quite enough of experts, thank you very much.
Relatedly, while some media outlets have a clear editorial bias, this can infect even those that claim to be impartial. A campaign has recently been launched arguing that the BBC should drop its ‘review of the papers’. Key to this campaign is the idea of how a story is framed and how this shapes and influences the news agenda for the day. In this regard, the BBC is not being expressly or intentionally biased; rather, the manner in which the right wing press is able to spread its subjective framing of the issues beyond its primary readership puts the left on the back foot across all platforms.
The quest for impartiality can even result in extremist voices being given a platform all in the name of balance. The Irish Times, for example, was widely condemned for running an op-ed on the terminology used by the alt-right which was written by a member of the alt-right. Those defending the article reverted to simplistic free speech arguments, while others resorted to calling those who were offended ‘snowflakes’. That snowflake, and ‘alt-right’, both term coined by far-right groups have now entered the popular lexicon shows how impactful a classic mainstream platform can be.
There is nothing new therefore about ‘fake news’. What is new, however, is the manner in which we consume these stories and the emergence of a ‘folk devil’ sufficiently ‘other’ to the mainstream establishment that can be blamed for the phenomenon.
Combating ‘Fake News’
At the outset of the 2017 British General Election campaign, Facebook launched a series of adverts highlighting ‘fake news’ and the importance of checking the veracity of the source in question. How will this team deal with stories that are open to interpretation, however, remains to be seen. The Guardian recently ran a story on the team; however, focus again was on a specific story from one of these ‘folk devils’—a so-called news website called YourBrexit.co.uk which was written by a 19-year old teenager in Southend.
It will be interesting to see whether such Fact-checking initiatives target more mainstream news outlets. For example, fabricated stories surrounding the operation of human rights law in the UK abound. Theresa May’s widely reported comments concerning the case of a man could not be deported because he owned a cat was nothing less than fake news. Inaccurate reporting can also occur through the manipulation of statistics. For example, much of the right wing press ran a story about how the European Court of Human Rights found against the UK in 75% of cases. This figure, however, was reached by excluding the vast majority of cases against the UK which the European Court of Human Rights found to be inadmissible. When these cases are rightly included, the UK wins 99% of the time. Will such stories be caught by these fact-checking initiatives? The result may that these stories continue to be shared and the root causes of misinformation go unchecked. Instead, the ‘fake news’ moral panic may targets the scapegoat, leaving the dominant voices unchallenged.
Finally, while this initiative may, on the face of it, seem like a good thing, in the context of a potential Zuckerberg 2020 campaign and our understanding of how Facebook data was used to target specific political advertisements at certain people to influence both the US Presidential election and the 2016 Brexit vote, the ‘fake news checking team’ becomes much more sinister. There is a clear potential conflict of interest between an independent fact-checking initiative telling Facebook users what news stories they can trust and the owner of Facebook’s own political ambitions.
Image Credit: http://bit.ly/2ralWeO Hrag Vartanian